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Credit: Lynnae Quick
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Interview of Lynnae Quick by David Zierler on 2021 January 14,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45340-1
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Dr. Lynnae Quick, Ocean Worlds Planetary Geophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Quick discusses the past year and the challenges associated with increasing diversity in the field, and she recounts her childhood in North Carolina. She describes her early interests in science and her undergraduate experience at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the value of attending an HBCU. Quick discusses her initial graduate work at Catholic University and a formative internship she spent working with Aki Roberge at Goddard on exoplanets and how she became interested in planetary geology and ultimately cyrovolcanism. Quick explains her decision to transfer to Johns Hopkins where there were more opportunities to study planetary science and to work with Bruce Marsh and Louise Prockter as a co-advisor. She discusses her thesis research on Europa, and she explains when it is possible to extrapolate findings on one exoplanet to others. Quick describes her postdoctoral research with Lori Glaze on cryovolcanism on Venus at Goddard and explains the relevance of this field to astrobiology. She describes her first staff scientist position at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where she worked on the Europa Clipper mission and she describes the opportunity to join Goddard in a full time position, where she picked back up on the cryovolcanism research she had some as a postdoctoral researcher. Quick discusses her current work on extrasolar planets. At the end of the interview, Quick surveys the state of diversity and inclusivity in the field, and the work that remains to be done building on the efforts undertaken over the past year, and she conveys optimism that imaging geysers on Europa could yield evidence of life.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is January 14th, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Doctor Lynnae C. Quick. Lynnae, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.
Oh, thank you for this invitation. This is wonderful.
All right, so to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Sure. I'm an Ocean Worlds Planetary Geophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
That's a mouthful. Let's unpack that title a little bit.
It's a lot.
Let's start first with Ocean Worlds. What does that mean?
Ocean Worlds are bodies in the solar system such as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and Neptune that have these ice-covered surfaces, and beneath the surfaces of ice, we believe that they have global oceans.
I'd like to ask a very sort of present, in-the-moment question, and that is, we're all physically distant, we're all working remote right now. In the world of science, you know, sometime people think that this is a great opportunity for data analysis, and other people are really feeling that there's really a loss in terms of the lab work, in terms of the physical proximity of collaboration. What ways, for better and worse, has this year looked like for you in science?
Well, I'll tell you this. I'm an introvert, so kind of (laughs) working on my own is not a problem, and most of my work involves-- almost all of my work involves computer modeling, so as long as I'm in a space where I have my computer and I can model the processes that are occurring on these moons of the giant planets, I'm fine. I will say not being able to go to conferences and kind of share my research and interact, that's been a little bit more, you know, disappointing. But all in all, I feel like I am to some extent, when I'm in my home office and I'm doing my work, there are less distractions than when I'm at work and there are so many things that are pulling for my attention. The one thing that has been more difficult is the amount of meetings. We've definitely seen an increase in the amount of meetings that we have. And I'm sure that I could get much more done if I could have (both laugh) less meetings, but it seems like, you know, since we're not seeing each other, everyone who, you know, every project I'm on that may not have had that many meetings in the past is like, "Oh we won't see each other in the hallway, so let's add an hour, hour and a half meeting on top of that." So that's been a little bit difficult to deal with (laughs), but other than that, I think I've still been able to be pretty productive.
Lynnae, one of the other major story lines over this past year of course, quite sadly, has been this has been a year of real racial reckoning and injustice.
And these have been issues for which STEM has not been immune by any means. And there are all kinds of moments of introspection that are going on, with things like Particles for Justice in the physics world, and #ShutDownSTEM. In what ways have you been involved in that? In what ways has your agency been supportive of these larger efforts to make STEM more diverse and inclusive? And in what ways do you just want to be a scientist and you don't want to deal with all the sociological stuff because there's no racism in space?
Oh gosh, that last one. We'll deal with that. (both laugh) But Goddard has a new core-- Or NASA has a new core value of inclusion, and one thing that NASA has been really good at is for each Center, setting up what we call an Equity Task Force. And we have an Equity Task Force at Goddard, and I'm a representative for the science branch. My supervisor, Dr. Noah Petro, who's a white male, is also a representative, so that kind of tells you about the type of support that I feel like I have. It's really positive. And we've just been looking at Goddard and how we can affect-- what things need to be changed to make it a better environment for minorities, including African Americans, because you know, there have been blind spots, quite honestly, and those are things that we want to fix. As far as, I think you mentioned the #ShutDownSTEM. We are coordinated into research groups at Goddard called labs, and my lab heavily, really for the most part, participated in that shutdown for that one day, and we didn't have any meetings. People pledged to do certain things to help increase diversity and inclusion and just be fairer to the people that they work with who are people from under-represented groups, ethnic minorities, and so I feel like compared to other places that I have worked, although nothing's perfect, I feel like Goddard is really trying. And I do, like I said, although nothing is perfect, I do feel supported. I do feel like if there's an issue, I can bring it up with my supervisor, and he'll bring it up with his supervisor, and that's you know, my lab head was saying that his supervisor mentioned that he really enjoyed our research group, because we were one of the research groups that continues to bring up areas of improvement and areas where we see that there could be change to make folks feel more welcome. And so that's been great. That's been really great.
That's really wonderful to hear, because Goddard in so many respects sets the tone in science.
Throughout the physics and space community. So that's really important to hear.
Right. And you asked other questions. (laughs) Which I don't remember what they were.
The other question was, you know, at a certain point, it must set in to a level of exhaustion where maybe sometimes you just want to be a scientist and focus your efforts in space and not have to deal with these other things. Do you feel like you have that leeway to be able to do that? Or is that something where the sociological side of things, it's always there even if it's in the background?
It's always there. And I would love to say that I could take a day off and it wouldn't be there, but it's always there. Whether it's someone and you know, I work with folks not just at Goddard, but at many other research centers on the projects I'm on. Whether someone's going to a meeting and someone saying something that's off-color or offensive, and then I can't just enjoy the meeting like everyone else. I now feel offended and anxious about that, or you know, I have to say something about it because I'm not a very big proponent of just sitting there, and address why it's wrong, and so it would be nice to be able to go to meetings and just enjoy the science and not have to worry about educating people or worrying about my own comfort. And so, we're not there yet. It's always in the background, usually places that I go people are very upfront about noticing that there aren't as many women in science as there are white males. But getting people to understand that if we think about women, most of the women that we think about are white women, and when we think about women of color, when we think about men of color, our numbers are much less than white women. People don't really seem to want to acknowledge that. A lot of times, I'm asked questions about being a woman in science, but not about obviously how my experience is being an African American in science. And then there are always micro-aggressions. So there's always the entry onto a new team where everyone else has been assumed to have been-- is assumed to be qualified. But then I have to do this extra thing that makes people realize I'm qualified too. It's not just taken as a given. "Well she's here, she has a PhD, she works for NASA. She's qualified." It's like, oh, only after I give a presentation that shows that I can actually speak and use correct English and that I've read the same scientific papers and that I have this expertise. Then everybody's welcoming, but before that. That's not always the case.
Lynnae, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. I'd like to start first with your parents. Tell me about them and where they're from.
My parents are both from Greensboro, North Carolina. My mom was born in Manila, Philippines. My grandfather was in the Air Force, and so she was an Air Force brat. And my dad, I believe my paternal grandfather was-- he was in the Army, but I believe he was out of the Army by the time that my dad was born. And so they met in Greensboro, North Carolina. Both sets of my grandparents sang in the church choir together, and so I think it was a natural thing. My grandfather was really strict, and my mom always says that with my dad, since you know, they went to the same church, and his parents knew her parents, she didn't have to go down the third degree of, "Who is this guy? What do his parents do? What is his family like?" And so yeah, that's how they met.
How much was segregation a part of your parents' reality?
You know, I haven't talked much to my dad about it. I know that he was part of the first class to integrate one of the local high schools in Greensboro, NC, so I know that segregation was a part of his reality. My mom and dad are divorced, and I'm much closer to my mom. For her, she remembers sitting in the balcony of the movie theatre. She remembers the "For Coloreds Only" restrooms. She remembers, you know, my grandmother was a teacher for about 30 years, and she didn't teach in the city that they were living, because apparently being a teacher was such a hot topic then that you know, she found a job but it was maybe two hours away, and so they'd leave at about four in the morning to get down to where my grandmother was teaching, which was also where my mom and my uncles were in elementary school. And my mom says she remembers on rides to... I believe it was Elizabethtown, North Carolina, and on rides back from Elizabethtown, , my grandmother making a picnic. And sometimes they would get out and eat by the side of the road. And as a kid, she didn't think much about it, and she's told me since she became an adult, that she realized it was because they couldn't go in Woolworth's and sit down and eat. Same thing with having to use the restroom and having to hold it until they got to a place where they could use it. My mother's parents actually integrated an Air Force base in Alabama, and they have stories about that. So it was... I have talked quite a bit with my mom about that, and you know, her father actually took part in the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina at the Woolworth lunch counter. So it's something that we talk about. You know, her mother, my grandmother, said that she and her sister were arrested for not sitting in the back of the bus. So it's something that we talk about and it's something where I feel like my family has tried to make change, and so I'm happy about that.
To the extent that your abilities in math and science have a genetic component, is there anyone in your family that you can point to, extended or immediate, where you can say, "Maybe this is where a little bit of that comes from."
Well, my mom's younger brother, she has twin brothers, and so my uncle Marcus was a math professor at the university where I was getting my undergraduate degree, at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. So he was a math professor. He had gone there and had initially majored in engineering. And broke his leg, and unfortunately the engineering building just had steps, and he couldn't maneuver the steps, and you know, so he said, "Well, what's a major that's close to engineering in a building that has the elevator?" And he switched to being a math major. (both laugh) So he majored in math. He also received a master's degree in math and a master's degree in computer science. So he's one person that I can point to. Yeah, he's the one person that I can point to. My mom was a nursing professor, and my dad of all things is a mortician, so they do things (laughs) that are a little bit different than I do.
Lynnae, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was born and raised there, and I didn't move to the DC area until it was time for graduate school.
And what kind of schools did you go to as a young girl?
Well, I started out at a private school between, let's see, kindergarten and third grade, I was at Grace Lutheran Elementary School, which was a day school that was majority African American, and it was really, really small. We had maybe about 40 or 50 students. I tell my husband that, you know, sometimes the oven would be broken in the church cafeteria, because that's where the school was, at the church. And so, they'd go buy us 40 or 50 happy meals for lunch, and we were really excited. And he was like, "Oh, I would have loved that." I said, "Yeah, but you went to public school that had more than 40 or 50 kids, so that would have never worked." But so that was up until third grade, and after that, fourth grade on, I went to a public school. Which was quite an adjustment, as you can imagine, going from a private Lutheran school to public school. And then I went to Bluford Elementary School and Lincoln Middle School and James Benson Dudley High School, which was the same high school that my mom and her uncles had gone to, and I really, really loved that high school. It was the high school that was built for African Americans during segregation. And so it's still standing, and I had so many great memories there, and my mom purposefully wanted me to go to schools where I could see positive reflections of myself and I kind of see, the older I get, the more I see how that paid off.
Would you say that your interests in science happened before your formal exposure in the classroom, or is it as a result of taking science classes that it really sparked your interest?
It was the latter. As a result of taking science classes. I had no interest in being a scientist at all, and I kind of laugh when people say, "Well, if you want your kid to grow up to be a scientist, you have to make them do this, and this, and this when they're six, seven, eight years old." I did none of those things. I spent all day playing Barbies and I was totally happy with that. But I took an Earth science class-- Well, I'll tell you what, back up. I took honors biology my freshman year in high school, and really loved it. And at that point, I loved biology so much I decided that I wanted to do something that required a bachelor's degree in biology, whether that was premed or becoming a zoologist or whatever it is, I loved biology. And then my junior year in high school, I took an Earth science course where one of the units was astronomy, and we learned about black holes and the deaths of stars, and I was just -- It totally blew my mind that people got paid to study something that was so cool. And I remember raising my hand and asking my teacher, I asked him, I said, "So... people get paid to do this, to study this stuff?" He was like, "Oh yeah." And I was like, oh my gosh, sign me up. So (both laugh) that's kind of where it all started. Junior year in high school. Yeah.
That's right around the time when you start thinking about where to go to college.
What were you thinking? What were the options available to you? What were your aspirations at that point?
I wanted to get a bachelor's degree in astronomy and then get a PhD later. But my mom told me that she had gone to North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, my grandparents had gone, and that I would also go. And so I could apply to as many places as I would like to, but that we as a family went to North Carolina A&T. It was a place where my grandfather went on the GI Bill. Before he joined the Air Force, he had a sixth-grade education, and he really felt like that university gave him a chance and really nurtured him, having been, you know, so far behind the average student that came in. He was from a very small city in North Carolina named Reidsville, and grew up on a farm, and so he started the tradition of going to A&T and later my grandmother went there to get her master's degree, and like I said, my mom, my dad, my uncles... And so my mom said, "You can apply to as many places as you want, and you will get into them, but you will go to A&T. That is where we're sending you." It also helped that A&T gave me a full physics scholarship. (laughs) So after that, it was pretty much set. So A&T did not offer a bachelor's degree in astronomy. They offered a bachelor's degree in physics, so that is what I did. I had a very good physics teacher, actually, my senior year in high school, who had gotten his master's at North Carolina A&T, and so he encouraged me to go. He introduced me to the faculty there, in the department of physics and the department chair, and made sure that I would have scholarships. He introduced me to Reva Kay Williams, who was one of the first African American women to get a PhD in astrophysics, and she encouraged me to, "get your bachelor's in physics and then go get a PhD." So that's the way it went. (laughs)
Lynnae, in terms of your mom's insistence on college choice, how much do you think it was that it was the family tradition, and how much do you think that even in your generation, there was something really important about attending a historically Black school?
I think it was a little bit of both. My mom is always for supporting HBCUs, even -- if you go to A&T, that's the best, but if you go to any other HBCU, you're good enough too. But she always recognized, I think, maybe growing up in the segregated south, she recognized the importance of making sure that I saw people who look like me. Who were not adhering to the stereotypes of what we always saw or heard about ourselves on the news at that time, or in the media. And you know, it's interesting. The culture at historically Black universities, also at the high school I went to, which was historically Black, is very, very different from other schools. The teachers really become-- and the professors really become-- like second parents. And you know that they want you to succeed. And they'll give you tough love, but they'll also encourage you, and I think she really wanted to make sure that I had that. So I think that that was paramount. I definitely would not have the confidence to be one of the only people, or the only person, who looks like me these days in a meeting, if I hadn't attended an HBCU for college.
Now, did you know long-term that you always wanted to pursue astronomy as a graduate student, and physics was just a way of getting there because that's what was available to you?
Yes. (both laugh) Yes. And my professors in college knew that, and I would tell them that I was really bored. And so you know, they would try to fix that. We'd be doing physics, and all of a sudden, they're working on a problem, and all of a sudden, we're on a rocket ship in space. That'd become our reference frame, because you know, one of my professors joked with me. He was like, "You know what they say about you?" I said, "What do they say about me?" He said, "You know they say that Quick is a great student, but she tends to get bored. But if you frame the physics problem as if you're in space, she'll do her work." And so they really tried, they encouraged me to do internships. I interned at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory one summer, and the next summer I interned at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which is where I am now, which is pretty wild. And so they knew that physics was basically a means to get to astrophysics and astronomy for me, and they really tried to do all that they could to encourage that.
When did you start thinking about graduate school as a viable option, and not just a dream? Was it right away, or did that come later on?
It was pretty much right away. (laughs) My physics teacher in high school, John M. Brown Jr., actually, had introduced me to Reva Kay Williams, who was, like I said, one of the first -- considered to be the first African American woman to get a PhD in astrophysics. And he actually had her call me. I don't know how he knew her, but he had her call me, and so she talked to me about getting a PhD and she told me how long it took, and you have to remember, I'm a senior in high school then. I'm like, "What? It takes-- you know, I have to spend that much time?" I have to not only go to college, but then spend that much time? And I remember her saying, "You know the time is going to pass anyway. You're going to get older anyway. You might as well get a degree." And I just thought that that... you know, I initially though it sounded awful just to be in school that long. There were other things I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to get married, I wanted to have a family, I wanted to not be in school. And so I kind of always knew that if I got a bachelor's degree in physics, it would be-- In order to have the type of career that I wanted to have, I would have to get a PhD. And I've known that since I was a senior in high school.
What kind of advice did you get about programs to apply to? Either specific professors to work with, any sociological considerations, or geographic considerations? What were you thinking at that time?
Don't go to school in the deep south. (both laugh) Some people consider -- I've learned since I moved to Maryland that some people consider North Carolina the deep south, which is pretty wild for me, but you know, Mississippi, no-no. Alabama, you probably don't want to try that. But just -- I was encouraged to make sure that I could find an advisor that I felt like I could work with so, you know, it was the general, when you not only email someone, see if you can visit the school to kind of talk to who your potential PhD advisor would be. See if you could get along with them, kind of see what the vibe is there as a minority student. As a woman, that's important. As a minority student, it's even more important, because you want to make sure you're working with someone... It's that you're going to be in grad school for maybe four to six years. You want to make sure you're working with someone who can work with you. And so that was the advice that I was given. I was also, once I got into graduate school, I would still talk to my professors from undergrad. And I remember the same professor that said, "Quick, you're a good student and you do your work if we give you the reference frame of being in space," said, "You know that you have two choices. You can do--" Or three choices, rather. A) Is your dissertation where it's this fantastic dissertation and it's this ground-breaking research, but in order to get it done, you're going to have to be in graduate school almost ten years. And then you have choice B) which is a good dissertation. It's built on solid science, you do some great work, you can publish off of it, but you're not going to be in school forever working on it. You're going to get your PhD in six years. Then you'd have option C) which is just an okay dissertation. It fits the bill. There are no bells and whistles. But it'll help you graduate. And I remember he told me, "Quick, if you can, do option B. Because what we want you to do is get your PhD. We don't want you to be in school for ten years working for somebody else." So that was the advice that I got. (laughs) I'm sure other people get more, but they were so excited to have -- you know, we had a graduating class of six. Six of us who were physics majors at A&T, and they were just so excited that the vast majority of us went to graduate school. I think they were just really pushing us to apply, and they were so excited. And that excitement, they came back and they gave the advice later after we got in for the most part.
Lynnae, in physics of course, there's this clear binary between the world of experiment and theory.
To the extent that that applies to your interests in astronomy, what were you thinking along those lines going into astronomy programs to consider?
I was thinking more of theory, and I guess because I think of theory as being more “mathy”, and that is how I had been trained. You know, I tell people that going to A&T, people say that A&T lets everyone in. And it does,-- that school is a school that gives everyone a chance, but if you can't do math, you're probably not going to graduate, and if you're not willing to learn to do it, you're probably not going to graduate. So very, very math-intensive. I remember my roommate in college was a social work major, and she was fussing about having to take math, but that's just what A&T did. So you know, with that background I felt more comfortable doing theory than doing experimentation, so that's where I landed.
Now, you started at Catholic.
I did start at Catholic University. And so actually, I'll back up. I actually spent one year at a large state university in North Carolina. And it was just not a fit. (laughs) It was not a fit. And so I had gotten into several universities, and my mom had actually gotten her master's at Catholic University in the 70s. I believe in 1976. And I had gotten into Catholic U., and she said, "You know, if you're not enjoying where you are now, and it doesn't seem like it's the best place for you after leaving A&T, you got into Catholic. Why don't you send an email or call the department chair, Dr. Charles Montrose, and ask Dr. Montrose if he can reactivate your application and if you could come?" And I said, "Well..." You know, part of the issue that I had at that time, in addition to culture shock, was it's a school in the south. It's not an HBCU, and so there were some comments that were made about my abilities, negative comments that were made about my abilities from professors there, because they knew that I had gone to an HBCU as an undergrad, so--
Meaning that they thought you might be under-prepared?
Basically. I was told before I turned in an assignment in my quantum physics course that, you know, "Well, I know that this is where you went to school and you may not be prepared because you went here. So I just want you to know that." Which was very offensive and very wrong. But I quickly realized that was not the place that I needed to be. In addition, I started to gain interest in planetary science, and there really wasn't much planetary science. There weren't many research labs in North Carolina like there are here in the DC/Maryland area where I could, you know, look at John's Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab, or Goddard or the Naval Research Lab. So I digress, I apologize. So I called Dr. Montrose, he was the chair of the physics department at Catholic University, and I said, "You know, I didn't come. I got accepted but I decided to go somewhere else, and I would like to reconsider. And is there a way that you would be able to reactivate my application?" And he goes, "I remember you. We were sorry you didn't come. Of course, please come and we'll reactivate everything." This was close to the middle of my first semester of graduate school that I called him. And he said, "Would you like to come up towards the end of the semester, maybe sometime in December? I'd like to sit down and talk with you." And so my mom and I drove up to Washington DC, which was for her pretty much like coming home. She and my dad-- not only had she gotten her graduate degree at Catholic University, but she and my dad had lived here for a couple of years. And so we got to Catholic, I met with Dr. Montrose, and you know, we had a good talk. An honest talk about my experiences and he was very open and he introduced me to some of the professors that were there. And it just started off really positively. And so I got to Catholic University and it was just -- My experience there was just as positive as my first impression meeting Dr. Montrose and talking to him. And I really appreciated that. And sadly, by the time I got there in August, he was almost unrecognizable. He had cancer. And so he died the end of my first semester there, and I think about that a lot, that if I hadn't -- if my mom hadn't encouraged me to call him when she did, my graduate school career and my entire career could have gone so differently. And I was just so grateful to be able to backtrack a little bit and come up to DC and go to Catholic U.
And not only that, but what a nice antidote from Dr. Montrose in terms of giving you that confidence that you were wanted, that you did know what you were doing, and that you would be able to succeed.
Oh sure. Oh sure, and all the faculty were like that. I told my mom, I said, "You know, I feel like Catholic University is not an HBCU, but I feel like the professors care about us the same way... you know, these were not African American professors, but they cared about all of their students and they wanted us to succeed. And it was really positive for me to see that and to have that support, and it was really invaluable at that time, because I had lost confidence from attending the other university. So it was great.
Was this a terminal master's degree, or was the original intent to go on to the PhD at Catholic?
No. The original intent was to go on to a PhD. I began graduate school in NC in a PhD program, and I had transferred to the PhD program at Catholic University. So that was the original intent, and then I had an internship, and I guess we'll talk about that later on, why I got pulled to the “dark side” of planetary science and some things changed. But it was. The original intent was a PhD in physics with a concentration in astrophysics, yup.
So let's talk about that internship. What was it and what happened?
Sure. (laughs) Sure. When I was at Catholic University, I worked with Dr. Aki Roberge at Goddard, and she's still there and has still served as a great mentor. And Aki was a postdoc at the time, which was pretty interesting. I think I was her very first graduate student. And she was studying exoplanets. She was in the stellar astrophysics and exoplanets lab. And we were studying star formation and trying to figure out at what time during star formation did their planetary systems form. And I thought that that was really cool, but I also started thinking about planets and thinking about, gosh, it would be nice to characterize the environments on the surfaces of these planets. Well, back then this was maybe 2007? 2006-2007, all the planets that we were finding as I'm sure you know were hot Jupiters. So these large gaseous planets that don't have a surface, and so you can't really characterize them. I started thinking, you know, it'd be really cool if there was a way that I could characterize planets. And around that time, I read about Dr. Rosaly Lopes, who's a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and she talked about her studies of Jupiter's moon Io and how it's the most volcanically-active body in the solar system, how it has a molten surface. And I thought that that was really cool, and so I sent her an email, in typical HBCU-trained form. She was never going to be Rosaly, she was always going to be Dr. Lopes. So I told her who I was and where I was in graduate school and that I found her work really interesting, but I wasn't in the LA area. Was there anyone in the DC-Maryland area who did similar work? And she gave me two names, Dr. Elizabeth Turtle, who you may know is now the PI of the Dragonfly mission to Titan. And Dr. Louise Prockter, who's now PI of a mission called Trident to go to Neptune's moon Triton. That mission is in competition with another few missions. And so I emailed both of them, and Louise Prockter got back to me first. And I told her I thought, you know, I had talked to Dr. Lopes and I thought that the research she did was really cool, and Dr. Lopes gave me her name, and I said, you know, I'm a physics major at Catholic University. I don't know any planetary geology. But I’d love to learn, and I just wanted to know if you thought you might need a summer intern. And she asked me for my resume, and after she got my resume, she said, "Well, why don't you come out to APL? Why don't you meet me and my postdoc?" And so I went and I met them, and this whole time I'm thinking, you know, I had been trained to do-- As a physics major, we do math and we love math. And when you look at planetary geology, it's not necessarily as “mathy” as physics. And so I remember talking to Dr. Beth Brown, who was an astrophysicist at -- you may have heard of her. She was an astrophysicist at Goddard at that time.
And she also became a mentor. We had so many similarities that it was just, you know, it was wonderful to have her as a mentor. And I told her, I said, "You know, I'm thinking about planetary geology and planetary science. It's not “mathy” but I think I really have an interest in it. What would you think if I change from astrophysics to planetary? Is that too much of a shift, because it's not “mathy”? And we've both been trained to be “mathy”." And she really encouraged me to just go with your heart, if that's what you're interested in, then do it. So with her encouragement, I went to APL. I met with Dr. Louise Prockter and with her postdoc, Dr. Wes Patterson, and so I talked with them for about 15 minutes, and she's still looking at my resume, and she said, "Well, are you still interested in an internship? Because if you are, I'm going to hire you." And I was like, "Are you kidding?" Well of course, I didn't say that. That's what I was thinking. And I was like, "Yes, I'm definitely interested." So she hired me and I spent that summer looking at regions on Europa's surface. Of course, Europa is this icy moon, as you know. And I had never seen anything like it. It was just this ice-covered moon and I learned about chaos regions, which are these areas of the surface that are broken up like large icebergs and it's believed that these icebergs, they broke apart from the rest of the ice shell. They flicked over and kind of floated in the subsurface ocean, and it was just... I loved it and I found connections with math, because since it's an ocean moon, we're thinking about fluid mechanics there. And so after that summer, I pretty much realized, hey, you know, astrophysics is pretty cool, but I think planetary science is cooler. And I started thinking about that a lot more. I started thinking about planetary science a lot more at that point.
Lynnae, it's such a great story because your inner astro-nerd is really coming out here.
And I mean in the sense that before you developed these mentor relationships, you had that interest yourself that sparked reaching out to these people and developing these relationships. So in terms of what you were finding in yourself, obviously, it's a big universe out there. What was it about this particular general area of research, this field of specialty, that initially drew you to it in terms of your own sensibilities, your own curiosities?
You know, I don't know if I could put my finger on that. Now, I had done an internship at NASA Goddard a few summers before that, and I worked with Dr. Mario Acuña, and that was my first time ever doing anything planetary-centric. And I remember he showed me how to-- you know, he pulled up images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that's orbiting Mars's surface, on the computer that I was working on, and I just didn't know that that was a thing, that you could look at another planetary surface, and I was just amazed, but I still hadn't-- it didn't click, planetary science didn't click for me at that point. So I'm not sure what it was. I don't know if it was, "Wow, I didn't know that there were worlds that existed that were made of ice and water," and that was it. I think it was also the environment that was created at APL when I worked with Dr. Prockter. I mean, we're going to go back and talk about inclusion now. I was -- you know, they didn't have any other African American interns, or any African American scientists, working in that group, but I always felt so included. And I think that went a very long way too. As much as the science, it just felt like at least at that particular place, it was such a welcoming environment. I enjoyed the science and I enjoyed the people, and it was like, I've pretty much hit the jackpot. So yeah, I'm not quite sure. I don't know if I can answer your question directly. It was just something where I felt like, you know, at that point I had been searching for a dissertation topic and I had kind of vacillated on a few topics, and that summer it just all clicked. "No, this is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing." This is what I could see myself doing for the rest of my life, and I just can't give you a better answer. I apologize. (laughs)
Lynnae, how did this experience in terms of the new things you were learning, the new people you were working with, how did that all translate into the decision to transfer to Hopkins?
It was a direct translation, and I will say too that the culture of planetary science is so much less uptight than the culture (laughs) of physics. And so I liked that. I liked, and I think something in me, I never had a physics professor that was a woman. And so even at this HBCU, although there were female physics professors, I never had them. And so I think, you know, part of the culture of planetary science, having a planetary scientist that I'm working for that's a woman and seeing other women who were in planetary science, I think that that kind of helped, and that pushed me on and I was thinking about places to go to grad school. Well, I was already in grad school, but I wanted to think about grad schools where I could focus on planetary science, and I listed several places, and I would go to Louise Prockter and talk to her about them. And it's funny looking back on them. She either had a negative response or a neutral response to them at that time. And it was, I said, "Oh, what about Caltech? I thought about Caltech." She goes, and she has this nice British accent, she goes, "I know people who've gone to Caltech. And 50% of them loved it, 50% of them hated it. I wouldn't suggest it." And then I would talk to my professors in undergrad about this, you know, they're still a part of mentoring me, and so you know then they tell me these-- I said, "Well I'm thinking about this school, I'm thinking about that school." And they go, "Well you know, that school is not-- it has a history of students dying by suicide." Which was sad to learn that that's actually true. There are a lot of schools that have good name recognition, and people have died by suicide because they have such a tough time there. And so between Dr. Prockter and my professors from undergrad, you know, it basically came down to, I want to say John's Hopkins, because at one point after-- she shot down all the other schools (laughs) that I was thinking of that I thought would be great to go to. She goes, "Well, you know, Hopkins has this Earth and Planetary Sciences department and they're trying to beef up their planetary science offerings there." And she says, "I've been talking with them about sharing students with them, if we could get some students to go there but do research at APL, we're trying to beef that up." And so she said, "If they'd do that, would you be interested in going there? Because you could continue the research that you're doing here with me." And I thought, well, you know continuing the research that I'm doing with her and having her as a co-advisor, I can't get any better than that. So I applied. And I remember she talked to the department chair, and Hopkins I felt like was a very interesting place. All of these other universities that I had gone to, you know, you go through the admissions process and you get sometimes rejected at the admissions phase. And Hopkins was really interesting. You know, I later learned it was a place where you identified a faculty advisor, and because it was such a hoity-toity private university, even more hoity-toity than Catholic University, the power lied within your faculty advisor. So if they said, "I want this student," then they got that student. And so it worked out that way. I applied after I’d emailed Bruce, Dr. Bruce Marsh, who was a volcanologist, and he worked there for years. And I emailed him, and I told him that I had been working with Louise Prockter, and I had also read about his research, and I thought it would be really interesting to combine the two. I'm working with her on icy moons. He's a volcanologist, she's been teaching me about something called cryovolcanism, and I think that there could be an overlap there. And Bruce Marsh was around my parents' age, maybe a little bit older, and he sent me an email and he goes, "This is really interesting and I'd love to take you on as a graduate student, but I'm thinking about retiring. I don't want to write anymore grants. But if Louise is willing to pay for your research assistantship and your stipend, we can work something out." And that's how it went. I went to meet Bruce Marsh before I was formally accepted into Johns Hopkins, and had a wonderful conversation with him, and sometime later Louise came to me and she said, "Well, do you really want to go? Because I've talked to them, and they're really excited about having you. What do you think the odds are that you'll go if they accept you?" I said, "I think the odds are pretty high." And so I got accepted and that's how it went. (laughs)
Lynnae, just to add some personal context to these decisions, are you single at this point? Is there a spouse or a spouse-to-be where you have to consider their options?
Oh, there was. There was someone who I thought was going to be spouse-to-be. And so staying in Maryland for that was also a big reason. And to be honest, I really didn't feel like moving across the country, having been born and raised in North Carolina. For me, moving to Maryland was a huge step at that time. (both laugh) So if I didn't have to -- you know, I didn't want to move to California. I didn't want to move to Massachusetts and try MIT. You know, MIT's wonderful, but I didn't want to move again. So that definitely helped. It also helped when I went to meet Bruce Marsh, because of course although Louise Prockter was going to co-advise me, I needed a faculty advisor to sign off on things and sign off on forms. I sat down and I talked with him, and I wasn't quite sure how it was going to be. And Dr. Marsh, I sat down in his office and we talked about science, we talked about all sorts of great things, and I kind of wondered, "How is this going to go? Because he's an older white gentleman, I'm a young African American woman. How is this going to go?" And you know, he talked to me about some things, and at one point he mentioned-- He said, "You know, my brother-in-law--" He started talking about his siblings, and he said, "And you know my sister--" he talked to me about his sister, and he said, "And she married this guy named Michael, and Michael is wonderful. And he's like the best brother-in-law I could ever have." And at one point we began talking about football too, and he said, "And you know what I found out? Michael is Tony-- Tony Dungy is Michael's cousin." And I started thinking about it, and I was like, "Tony Dungy is his brother-in-law's cousin..." And I put two and two-- I was like, "Oh, Oh!" And so (both laugh) I was like, "I think I'm going to be okay working with this guy because he's been talking about how much he loved his nieces and nephews and how wonderful he got along with his brother-in-law, and I was like, "I'm going to be okay." So that was the kind of thing that helped pushed me to decide that I wanted to go to Hopkins.
Do you think he was specifically trying to communicate that, to elicit exactly that response from you?
I think he might have been. I think he didn't want to say. You know, it sounds odd if you have a black student and you just say, "Well just so you know, I'm not a racist. I have black family."
You know, how do you say that? And I think that maybe he was trying to communicate, "I have nieces and nephews who look like you. You're going to be fine, that's not going to be a problem between you and I." And it wasn't. He was just great. Great to work with. My family came for my dissertation defense. He met my mom and you know, my mom had started talking to he and his wife, and she sent them a flower a couple of summers ago to thank them for being so welcoming to me-- like it was just a great experience, it really was.
Lynnae, coming in with a master's in astrophysics, to what extent was that useful and it supercharged your curriculum, and to what extent is planetary sciences really a different academic world, and it was more like you were starting from the beginning?
Sure. So I will say it supercharged the curriculum in two ways. One, that the Earth and planetary sciences department at Johns Hopkins was more “mathy” than I expected it to be, and Bruce Marsh had gone to UC Berkeley and taken all these math courses, and he was teaching a magma physics course at the time that I had to take. And so, because the department itself was “mathy”, because Bruce had a very-- even though he was a geologist, he had a very math-heavy background. It really, really did help me. And I tell people today, if I hadn't come in with an astrophysics background, I don't know that I would have made it in that department at Johns Hopkins, because you don't expect to go into Earth and planetary sciences department and have to do that much math. I mean, he had me taking heat and mass transfer courses, which were engineering courses, but it was basically like the physics of heat transfer. So I think it really helped also at Hopkins then. I don't know if they still do it now, but in that department, if you came in with a master's in another STEM field, they liked for your to graduate with your PhD from their department within four years, because their thinking was you've already proven that you have an ability in STEM. That was two ways that it fast-tracked, but in a sense, it was kind of like starting over. I mean there was a learning curve going from you know, physics and astrophysics to geology. I don't think the learning curve was as tough as it would have been if I had done the reverse, but I had never taken a geology course. So I spent the first year in grad school at Hopkins taking courses in mineralogy and petrology and all of these things. There was a learning curve there, and it wasn't as steep as it could have been, but it was steeper than I expected it to be. So in that sense, it kind of was like starting over and learning the baby geology because I had been so concentrated in physics and astronomy.
Lynnae, there are so many considerations that go into what you actually focus on for your thesis research.
You know, what your graduate advisor is working on, your own interests, thinking about what's useful for a career. With all those things in mind, how did you settle on Europa?
Well, so I had, from that internship, remember I'm still working with Louise Prockter, and she's a Europa expert. And so I learned to love Europa. And again, Bruce Marsh is a volcanologist, and so you know there was this weird phenomenon that people had theorized had happened on Europa, where you have instead of molten rock erupting as lava, you have this salty, icy slush that's erupting called cryovolcanism, and I thought, "Okay, well I'm very interested in this. I have a volcanologist on one side and someone who studies Europa on another. Why not just do that?" And so that's what I worked on, and it was mostly theory. And so two-thirds of my dissertation was trying to figure out-- I don't know, have you seen these images of Enceladus where we have these beautiful jets erupting -- Right. And so, Europa's bigger than Enceladus. It has more water. Why don't we see these jets erupting? Two-thirds of my dissertation was focused on fluid transport through Europa's ice shell and heat transfer and the dynamics and how fluid might get caught in Europa's ice shell and how it might prevent these geysers from erupting. And my last dissertation chapter, which was work that I had started on with Louise Prockter, was if we send a spacecraft to Europa, and there were geysers erupting, maybe the Galileo spacecraft had missed them for some reason but they were erupting. What type of camera would we need to build to actually catch them in the act? And that was fun, and that led to other opportunities. And since then, we now think there are geysers on Europa, and I remember presenting my dissertation, and I was thinking, you know, I'm saying that there's cryovolcanism on Europa, I'm saying that there are likely geysers like there are on Enceladus. People are going to think I'm a quack. I don't know if I'm going to be able to get a job. (both laugh) But it worked out the opposite way, which I was very happy about.
Lynnae, what were some of the advances in the world of observational astronomy that might have been relevant for your research at this time?
I don't know if I would say advances in observational astronomy helped. It definitely helped to go back and look through data from the cameras on the Galileo spacecraft. I will say that the Hubble Space Telescope, though, never disappointed. It always delivered, so I gave my dissertation in... I defended in I want to say it was June or July of 2013? And by the following December, this paper came out that was led by Lorenz Roth, who was actually a postdoc at Johns Hopkins in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department when I was there. But I totally don't remember crossing paths with him at all. This paper claimed that they had actually imaged water vapor with the Hubble Space Telescope at Europa's south pole that they believed came from these geysers. So it was really...that is one way that observational astronomy helped. I don't know if it was an advance because they basically just used the capabilities that Hubble had then to detect it, but observational astronomy did help and did prove in some sense that I wasn't a quack scientist thinking about these geysers on Europa.
Lynnae, perhaps as a window into your sensibilities as a scientist or thinking about the ways that you could leverage this dissertation for your next-best option, to what extent did what you learned about Europa, to what extent could you extrapolate that more broadly about, you know, planets in the universe, and to what extent were you really laser-focused on Europa and you made no claims about what else it might tell us?
At first I was laser-focused on Europa, and then I knew that there was Enceladus, but you know, in studying Enceladus's geysers and the environment on Enceladus, we had a whole mission doing that, and we had scientists who were working on the Cassini mission. I didn't really feel like there was an area there where I could contribute more, because it was so saturated. But I later learned that Neptune's moon Triton had geysers. And so you know, Triton is much closer in size to Europa than Enceladus is, so maybe some of the processes that could cause geysers to erupt and fluid to be transported on Europa would also work for Triton, because like I said, it's the same size with similar gravity. And so at that point though, I was pretty much singularly focused on Europa, but I did feel like I needed to get a better understanding of just our traditional silicic volcanism where we're talking about molten rock, and so I applied to a postdoctoral position at NASA Goddard working with Lori Glaze, who was a planetary volcanologist, and I learned about volcanology on Venus. And it was a good sanity check, because cryovolcanism is this really new thing, and most of the theory in cryovolcanism is based off of volcanism, so in order to make sure your models are correct, you want to make sure you have a good understanding of rocky volcanism and all that it entails. Later on, I started wondering if we could have super Europa exoplanets, and so I recently had a paper come out just last year where we looked at exoplanets and looked at the amount of heating that they -- the tidal heating or gravitational heating that they got from their host stars, and suggested that many of them that were likely to have ice-covered surfaces, because their surface temperatures are so cold, could also have subsurface oceans and may also have cryovolcanism. So it's led to other things; it has.
Lynnae, beyond the positive relationships you built with your mentors, generally did you find Hopkins to be an inclusive and accepting place?
It was okay. I will say. It was... I tell you what, I feel like-- If I had never gone --
And again, this is you know, 2013 is like already a long time ago, and we're talking about these things.
Yeah, so I'll put it like this. I felt good working with Bruce Marsh, and I felt good in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. But if I had had a different graduate advisor who wasn't as invested in me and I didn't feel like it was someone that I could talk to, and if I hadn't gone to Catholic University and gotten over, you know, culture shock, I think Hopkins would have been a totally different experience for me. I tell my mom a lot, if I had gone to Johns Hopkins right after I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I probably would have felt totally lost. Johns Hopkins people don't realize, it's a pretty small school-- it was about the same size as Catholic University. But because they do so much cutting-edge research, and they're so well-known, they really operate like a larger school, and in that environment I probably would have felt lost had it not been, like I said, for Bruce Marsh and for the experiences that I had at Catholic University before going to Johns Hopkins. So it was okay. I found the international students, oddly enough, I took a geomorphology field course where we went out and we looked at streams and the rate at which water moved in streams, and I thought it was awful because I didn't want to be outside doing that, I wanted to be behind my computer. But it was something that I did. You know, we had to put on these boots and wade in streams, and I've always been very prissy and not wanting to get dirty, and I just thought it was horrible. We had to walk through the forest, and we came out with leaves in our hair. But there were lots of international students in that class. Maybe I shouldn't say a lot, but there was a significant number. And I found the international students to be honestly the most welcoming part of the student body at Johns Hopkins... and I don't know why that was. I don't know if I felt a lot of "otherness" and they felt this otherness too. I had two friends from Taiwan, and we were in the geomorphology class together and none of us wanted to be outside. (laughs) But we trudged through it together. And there was another student who I believe was from India. So I didn't feel like, as a whole, Hopkins was as welcoming as it could have been, but with the little niche that I had at Hopkins, I made it through and I did pretty well with it.
Last question for today's session, and it's a great narrative stopping point. We'll pick up next time for your postgraduate career. And that is, was your thesis defense, was that a positive experience? And did you get questions from your committee that were really useful and challenged you to think about where you might take your skills and interests next?
Let's see. So at Hopkins, that was another thing that I learned, so in a lot of cases, doing your thesis defense is more of a formality, right? And so, they won't let you schedule it until they feel like you're ready to graduate. Of course, they didn't tell me that then. I didn't learn that until afterwards. But by the time that you schedule it and you've scheduled the presentation and you have your committee, and at that time Bruce Marsh signed off on me, you know, having the thesis defense, it was really more of a formality. And I did get good questions from the students. I feel like cryovolcanism on Europa was so foreign to the planetary scientists and to the geologists at Johns Hopkins that some of the toughest questions came from Louise Prockter, because she wasn't faculty in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. She was on my committee, but she kind of wasn't. It was like this weird hybrid thing. And I remember she walked in after my defense had already started. She walked in and sat in the front row. And the toughest questions came from her. (laughs) And so she was the one who asked questions that made me think about where do we go from here when we're thinking about Europa? When we're thinking about space exploration? I think by that point, Bruce Marsh was just beaming with pride, and he didn't really (laughs) ask too many tough questions. He had asked those before during my comprehensive exams and during my graduate oral exam where you have to come up with your thesis and then defend to the faculty why your thesis is even worth doing. That's when those questions had been asked. After my defense was over and they sent me out of the room and they were "discussing" whether or not I should become Dr. Quick-- they came out of the room and I was so excited and they go, "Dr. Quick, you did great." And I was so excited, my mom told me weeks later, "You know, when we were waiting for you to start, Dr. Marsh came up to us and said, 'She's going to do great. Don't worry, she's going to do fine. This is a formality. We wouldn't have let her get this far if we thought she wasn't ready. So you all can relax. We haven't told her she can, but you all can relax. This is going to be a great day.'"
Great. And we’ll pick up for next time.