Welcome back listeners, STEMinists, and friends to the Season 4 premiere of Closing the Gap.
This first episode has us back on Zoom as we are talking with Research Scientist from UC Boulder and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), Margaret Landis (she/her). Join us as we learn about pursuing a career in scientific research and how the word ‘scientist’ is inherently feminine.
This episode of Closing the Gap will be available on September 6, 2023 – you can listen to the show on Spotify.
Q. Please describe your educational/training background
I graduated from high school in Bellingham, Washington, then earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. NAU had a lot of opportunities being close to Lowell Observatory, the US Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center, and having Mars and exoplanet research going on on campus. I did research as an undergraduate on Mars craters while at NAU, and participated in the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics the summer before my senior year. After undergraduate work, I completed a Masters and Ph.D. degree in planetary sciences at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, which was founded to map the Moon in advance of the Apollo missions and was the first public university to win the management of a NASA spacecraft mission (Mars’ Phoenix Lander). I completed a one-year post-doctoral position at Planetary Science Institute working on the Dawn mission gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer instrument team, and have been working at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics since. It’s a lot of education, but each step of the way I did more/different types of research which was hands-on experience for the job I’m doing now. Importantly, in science graduate programs generally, your tuition and a livable stipend are covered by being a teaching assistant or your supervisors’ research grant. Often, STEM graduate degrees can be paid for by doing research, teaching, or by the companies especially engineers work for.
Q. Please describe where you work & your occupation
My current position is as a research scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). This is a position where my primary responsibility is to work on NASA-funded research myself and with mentees at all levels. This means I have a lot of choice in what projects I work on, and am leading several. My research focuses on volatiles (materials that are liquid or gas at typical Earth temperatures and pressures, like water, methane, and carbon dioxide) and impact cratering processes in the inner solar system. I have projects that look at Mars, Ceres, icy asteroids, and the Moon currently. We care about how volatiles formed and evolved in the inner solar system because it may provide us insight into how Earth got its water, and how these processes generally could work in other solar systems as well.
Q. Career-wise, what have been your proudest moments/highlights/accomplishments so far?
My Ph.D. defense, winning my first research proposal as principle investigator (the lead of the entire project), and having my mentees present at a spacecraft instrument team meeting for the first time all come to mind. I was also really proud that the NASA PRISM mission (smaller, commercially delivered to the lunar surface science investigations) I was a co-investigator one that was selected. One of the reasons I love planetary geology is you get to send robots to space to look at brand-new landscapes, and that project was one where I was on the proposal from the beginning rather than coming in later as a guest investigator or graduate student. This past summer I had an asteroid named after me, which is a rite of passage for asteroid and comet scientists because it requires a nomination from someone else in the field and for your contributions to asteroid/comet science to be notable.
Q. What are some of your future goals or things you would like to accomplish?
My overarching career goal is to lead a NASA planetary science robotic spacecraft mission. There is so much more still to discover in our solar system, and being able to make major discoveries with a team of other scientists using remote sensing instruments would be the ultimate goal. I also want to accomplish having done my best to train the next generation of planetary scientists, so they can have tools to have successful careers and to be good science community members/future colleagues.
Q. What have been some of your biggest career challenges?
Academia is built such that getting physically to the “best” places for research usually involves moving across states (or internationally) multiple times in your 20s and early 30s. Having a career where your support network is either physically distant or has to be rebuilt every couple of years for a while is really tough. The flip side is that everyone else you work with is in the same boat, so there are strategies to help address this and most of your peers are having or had similar experiences.
Another is that public science funding levels are always low in the US, which means that there are always more people capable of being scientists than research grant proposals can allow. That doesn’t mean that all scientists are always doing grant-supported research all the time–many work as university faculty members or on projects that are long-term sources of funding. Scientists often have very transferable skills (coding, mapping software, communicating complex topics in digestible ways) so this isn’t something to necessarily discourage future scientists, but it’s something to be aware of when choosing what skills to learn and how to set goals for your career.
Q. Many young women might not be aware of the careers available in STEM fields. What do you think can be done to spread the word to women about career options in these fields?
A fundamental issue in how people in the US view STEM is that post-World War II, there was a concerted effort to push women out of what are now considered STEM professions (computer programming used to be considered “secretarial” work so many women were the original ENIAC and other large computing machine programmers). We’re still dealing with this issue, where current popular culture and media do not have fictional, or even realistic, role models of scientists who are not perceived to be some type of “genius” (for example, think of The Big Bang Theory characters) and a plethora of documented ways that women/gender minorities/queer people have more negative experiences while in STEM fields. However, engaging in mentorship and public outreach discussing frankly what the day-to-day life of a STEM professional can be, and actively telling the stories of careers that don’t fit the academic “genius” mold. It also means that professional storytellers, inside STEM or not, need to challenge common perceptions of what a STEM career can look like so the stories that don’t fit our post-war “genius” mold also get told.
Q. Do you have any advice for women who are looking to follow a similar career path?
Find mentors early and often. My career has been positively influenced by having especially other women and gender minority scientists a career stage or several ahead of me to be a sounding board but to also share the tricks of the trade (how to find grant and travel funding, how to build collaborations, when to know to hold your ground, when to speak up in a scientific discussion). There are practical advantages, but being able to share accomplishments with mentors has been a great joy of mine and another reason to keep pushing forward in my field.
Q. What do you like to do for fun in your spare time?
I’m the human to my two cats, play violin in the CU campus orchestra, write physical letters, collect books about women in science, and try to keep up with a comic book book club I joined in graduate school. While it relates to planetary geology, I really like hiking in geologically interesting areas (like Rocky Mountain National Park) in my off time. Science is a fundamentally imaginative activity, and I like going and seeing up close and in person features I see on other planets.