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Credit: Lynnae Quick
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Interview of Lynnae Quick by David Zierler on 2021 January 28Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45340-2
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In this interview, David Zierler 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 28th, 2021. I'm delighted to be back with Doctor Lynnae Quick. Lynnae, it's great to see you again. Thank you so much for joining me again.
Great to see you as well, David.
All right, so we left off last time, "Congratulations Dr. Quick. You have passed your oral exam."
(laughs) That's right.
And so here you are, you're all wrapped up. You have finished your graduate degree. What's next? What were the opportunities available to you? What was most compelling to you at that point?
Well, so what was most compelling was basically what most people do -- well, people in STEM after getting a PhD is just going and doing a postdoctoral fellowship, and so I had worked on this wacky kind of mixture of looking at icy moons and looking at volcanism and doing graduate research on cryovolcanism. So that presented a little bit of a problem, though, because there were several places where I applied for postdoctoral fellowship positions, and because I was doing such a strange combination of combining two topics from almost two separate fields, I was told that, "You really shouldn't apply here. There isn't really anyone who can guide you on that type of work or who does that type of work." Which, looking back on it, I think that was a little bit of bias. Most postdocs, by the time they get to that point, they can lead their own research and they just need an advisor to make sure that you're not going crazy or going too far off in the deep end. But I did end up, I think it was...what was it, it was maybe my last year in graduate school going to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which is the standard conference for planetary scientists. And Dr. Lori Glaze, who is now the head of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters, gave a talk about volcanism on Venus and the formation of volcanic domes on Venus and these large structures that were called colloquially "pancake domes" because they look like, you know, they're volcanic domes, but they're flat like pancakes, and they're circular. And she did something that I didn't see many people do at planetary science conferences. She gave a presentation that had equations and math in it.
And they were equations and math that I knew, because again, I had gone to Johns Hopkins and had a very “mathy” experience taking heat transfer and all of these courses in fluid dynamics and all of that. And I recognized some of the equations. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is interesting." So I did not know her, but I went up to her after her presentation. She was talking to a few people. And I introduced myself and told her who I was and that I would be graduating soon and that I really found her research interesting and I told her that I studied cryovolcanism, but it would be good to look at volcanism. Just plain old rocky volcanism on another planet. And I asked her, just straight out, "Do you think that you have any interest in having a postdoc?" And her response was, "Well, actually, the postdoc I have now will be leaving soon, and I do have a lot of interest, so let's start talking." So (both laugh) once again, just running up to people and asking them for a job helped. So she and I began to talk back and forth, and I learned a little bit more about Venus and I turned in an actual fellowship application where my proposal was to work with her, extending her work looking at the formation of volcanic domes on Venus. But also looking at the formation of cryovolcanic domes on Jupiter's moon Europa, because there are these dome-like features on the surface of Europa that are thought to have formed in the same way as these volcanic domes on Venus, and Dr. Sarah Fagents, who's at University of Hawai'i, had studied those domes in the early 2000s, those domes on Europa. So, that worked out. I ended up doing a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA Goddard. And was there for about two years. And I'm not sure how much farther I should go with that. (laughs) How much farther do you want me to go?
Let's zoom out for a second, because this a formative point, obviously, in your career.
This is an amazing amount of luck that you were at the right conference, you saw the right person at the right time. As you're beginning to develop a professional identity. You're not thinking about, you know, in graduate school you're just focused on what's interesting to you. But now as you graduate, you have to grapple with the idea, "Where can I fit this expertise into something that's going to be a job?" And so I wonder if you could explain a little bit, when you're thinking about job talks and postdoctoral appointments and things like that, what is the specialty of volcanism? What is it that that tells us, more broadly conceived, about planetary science, about other planets, about how the universe works? Basically, in those concentric circles in a way that you can articulate, okay, so there's volcanoes on these other planets. Here's what we know, here's the bigger story that this contributes to our understanding of how things work.
Sure, well I'll kind of take that from thinking about cryovolcanism, though. I think if we don't-- cryovolcanism, studying that is pretty new. And so we use what we know about volcanism to, you know, to understand that. But if we know that, for example, if we're looking at Europa or Enceladus or any of these icy moons, that there's cryovolcanism, that tells us that not only is there a liquid reservoir, maybe in a lot of cases, an ocean in the subsurface of these bodies that is pumping these fluids to the surface to erupt. There's also enough heating that these bodies have. And that is, you know, causing these processes to occur. And so when we think about the outer solar system, if we have water and we have energy, in this case in the form of heat, we know that those are two of the necessary ingredients for life. So it kind of triggers, I think when we think about cryovolcanism, it triggers the prospect that there are habitable environments in the interiors of these moons. And if they are habitable environments, people like to take the next step and say, "Well, maybe there are living things there." And what's interesting is, a lot of these moons that have cryovolcanism like, you know, Enceladus that has these geysers, people have also found organics. So that's the third ingredient we need for life, you know? So organics, water, and energy that could lead to us maybe finding life elsewhere. So when we back up and think about volcanism, I have to tell you, I find volcanism interesting, but I use it as a means to an end (both laugh) to understand cryovolcanism. But on a planet like Venus, it's really interesting, right? Because we have these-- we think Venus is, you know, we know it's hot and dry and very hellish today. And it doesn't have water. However, one thing that was interesting about these pancake domes that I was studying with Lori Glaze was that, unlike the rest of Venus's surface, which is basically a basaltic, you know, kind of like Hawai'ian lava, made up of Hawai'ian kind of magma or lava flows, whichever you want to call them, these pancake domes may have been formed from evolved magmas, that had some sort of... and to have an evolved magma, just to simplify, there had to be water in the mix at some point in time. So depending on what the composition of these domes were that we were studying, if they were made of evolved magmas, that would suggest that Venus may have been wetter in the past, which would change our whole paradigm of what we think about when we think about a habitable planet. You know, we know that Earth is habitable because we're here. We believe that Mars had flowing water on its surface at one point in time. But people don't seem to think of hellish Venus as being a place where there could have been life, that could have been habitable. So in that case, when we're thinking about those volcanic domes, like I said, the composition of the lava that formed them could tell us a lot about the past environments on Venus. I don't know if that was as far-reaching as you wanted, but…
Well, Lynnae, it's very interesting because it sounds like you would partner very naturally with the world of astrobiology.
I do, when it comes to Europa, you're going to be doing astrobiology and thinking about habitability. I don't consider myself an astrobiologist, but definitely, when you think about environments where there could be life, that's definitely something.
So is that to say that an astrobiologist would come to someone like you as a first stop and say, "What are the building blocks that we're working with here?" in order to even consider the possibility that life would be there? Would volcanic activity definitely be, you know, first or close to the top of the list in determining that criteria?
Well, it definitely should be, but I think that, unfortunately, a lot of these fields are stove-piped. We don't talk to each other as much as we should. And not only thinking about volcanic activity as far as there being water and evolved lavas, but I'm sure as you know, early volcanism is what created the atmosphere on Earth, which makes it a livable planet. But I really haven't found that there's been this type of cross-talk that you would think there would be, to actually solve some of these problems. You know, NASA has set up some research coordination networks. The Network for Ocean Worlds and other research coordination networks, and there's the NASA Astrobiology Institute. And so I think we're working on it, but it's not quite there yet.
Lynnae, what about on the totally other end of the spectrum, with regard to terraforming? The idea that if we need to go somewhere else, right, if we've screwed it up here so badly, we need to go somewhere else. Is there an important role for exoplanet or solar system planet volcanology that would help us make that happen?
You know, I honestly have to say I don't know. To me, terraforming seems a lot more science fiction-y than actually something that could happen in reality. And I think about the amount of great science that we could do, you know. People talk about terraforming Mars, but I think about the amount of great science that we could do on the moon that has not advanced to the point where I would have thought it could have advanced to by now. So I kind of wonder, is terraforming Mars really anything that's going to happen? We don't even have a Lunar colony. So I don't know.
I don't know.
Well let's return back to planet Earth. Let's talk about your postdoc. What was your first project at Goddard? What were you working on initially?
It was those volcanic domes on Venus. Modeling them. We had a model that looked at the formation of these domes as the lava was erupting onto the surface, it cools with time. So we had this model that looked at the formation of these domes as the lava cooled. Most of the previous models had looked at their formation and the lava had the same temperature, the same viscosity throughout. But if we just tune the viscosity parameter, of course the viscosity is going to increase as the lava cools. We were able to obtain good results. So that was my very first project. And then we went into looking at these domes on Europa. And so it wasn't, you know, it wasn't like I was doing field work. I was mostly sitting behind a computer, putting my math skills to work, which I was glad that I had because Lori Glaze and the folks that she worked with, they used computer programming, but what they really liked to do was take a pen and paper and write all of these equations down (laughs) and check them once, twice, three times, to make sure they were valid. And after we have, I don't know, a notebook full of mathematical equations that're going to describe how this lava flows onto the surface and may have formed these domes, putting in your input parameters, and making a nice plot and watching these domes form based off of those mathematical equations that we did by hand. So that was an interesting experience. It was a good experience. I remember on my first day there, I remember she had me working out some math by hand and I had to use partial fractions to do it. And I immediately teleported back to my junior year in high school where we did partial fractions in trigonometry or algebra 3/trigonometry, and I remember hating them and thinking, "When am I ever going to use this?" And I guess the joke was on me, so… (both laugh)
Lynnae, I wonder if you can talk about, given that you're at Goddard and you have access to some of the best technology, the best instrumentation, what are the most valuable tools in a volcanologist's tool box for looking at this stuff, analyzing the data, you know, coming to the conclusions that you're coming to? What are you relying on in the course of a normal day at Goddard?
Sure. So I'm relying on things that would be very boring, but well I shouldn't say boring, but it's not like I'm a field volcanologist who's going out in the field and looking at lava flows or anything like that. I'm relying on at that point data from the Magellan spacecraft that went and visited Venus, just imaging data of these domes that tells me about their dimensions and how thick they might be. And you know, like I said, a lot of the math was pen and paper math I can program, but I wasn't really using many computer programs. It was pretty much-- I put it like this, it was like going to work every day and looking at nice images of a planetary surface, but then doing math by hand to understand what was going on the surface of that planet.
Is there any particular opportunity for land-based telescopes to be useful in your field of research?
Oh sure. There is. The Arecibo Telescope--it was so sad that that telescope sustained so much damage. But you know, there are a lot of people in my field who use Arecibo. A lot of people who study Venus, who use Arecibo because that radar, of course, the radar can get through the dense clouds and actually see surface features. So yes, you can use ground-based telescopes. I didn't. (laughs) But there are a lot of people who actually do.
What were some things that you were learning that you might not have known or appreciated as a graduate student during your postdoc experience?
Oh, what were some things? I think just learning more about, you know, terrestrial volcanism. I had taken a magma physics course, which was great. But I only picked up... I feel like I only picked up the tidbits that I needed to know to be able to apply it to cryovolcanism. But actually being able to take a step back and learning, this is how, when you're thinking about a lava flow, this is the motion of a lava flow, and when you're thinking about cryolavas, you want to think about the salt and, you know, for silicic lavas, dacite, and so it was just... It allowed me to expand from just looking at this narrow focus of the parts of volcanism that applied to cryovolcanism but actually have a better understanding of the process all the way around. Which I think in the end really helped my studies when I'm thinking about cryovolcanism, because it made my models more accurate and realistic. You know, if you're thinking about cryovolcanism, it can quickly go into the science fiction realm. So I was really grateful for that. I was also grateful to be able to work with other people who were volcanologists. When I was at Johns Hopkins, there was Bruce Marsh and his group, and that was it. But you're at Goddard with all of these people who were studying volcanoes on-- Like I'm looking at volcanoes on Venus, but people who are looking at volcanoes on Mars and people who are looking at past lava flows on the moon. And Goddard has a very good field team that actually goes to Hawai'i and goes to Iceland and goes to all of these places to study lava flows on Earth and use them as analogs for lava flows on Mars and past lava flows on the moon. So being able to talk to people who actually were really focused on volcanology was great.
As your two-year term was coming to an end, what were you thinking about next? Was a university professorship in the mix for you?
(laughs) It was in the mix, but it wasn't my first choice, oddly enough. I have always wanted to be a research scientist, and I think that came from doing so many internships. And meeting so many great people who were research scientists and seemed to be fulfilled and seemed to be advancing in their careers and seemed very happy with what they were doing. And so I initially-- I went into the postdoctoral fellowship wanting to stay at Goddard. And at that time, Goddard was not hiring. I kind of would have been able to stay there for a couple more years, maybe just kind of as a -- I don't want to call it a glorified postdoc, but I would have been using my postdoctoral advisor's grant money as salary. It wouldn't have been a permanent position. I wasn't really jazzed about doing that at that point. The only type of universities I thought about being a professor at were Historically Black Colleges and Universities, since I graduated from one, and I really liked the sense of family there and the way that folks look out for students. So I did apply for several teaching positions. The one that I was most likely to have taken, had it been offered, was one at Howard University. I applied for one in their physics department. Made the short list, but I think planetary science was a little bit farther out of the realm of what they wanted to do, so didn't get that job. That was a little bit of a bummer. So I decided to apply to the Planetary Science Institute, which is run out of Tucson, Arizona. And it's basically soft money. I had won some grants by that time, and it's basically whatever you win in grants, that's your salary. You can work from wherever you want to in the United States, and so I was able to actually go back home to North Carolina for a little while and work from there and be around family and friends. My now-husband, he and I had just started dating, and he was in North Carolina, so that kind of was a setup that worked for that time.
Lynnae, I wonder if in terms of career considerations, particularly because you thought about teaching possibly at a historically Black college, given your interests in diversity and making the field-- being a model and being visible, so that people who look like you might be inspired to think this is something that they can do as well. Did you ever think in terms of impact value? The kinds of places that you could work and the best, most positive impact you could have on those kinds of people?
I did. I thought about that a lot, and that was why I wanted to-- you know, part of the reason why I wanted to teach at an HBCU, but I also knew that the course load at those institutions is much heavier than they would be at other majority universities, and so I think, you know, since I had --
You mean teaching expectations would be very high?
Yeah, the teaching expectations. At most universities, it's maybe -- you know, maybe teaching one class each semester, if that. And I think Howard had the best deal of all HBCUs, because they didn't want you to teach more than two classes each semester. Which is two or three times what I'd be teaching at another university. So I say that to say, I did think about impact, I did think about being a role model. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to be there. I never had a physics professor that was an African American woman, even though I was at an HBCU, and I always wanted there to be a professor that I could talk to about astronomy and space when I was an undergrad. I thought that I could be that. But that would have to be balanced with such a heavy teaching load, and so I kind of, at the end of the day, wasn't sure -- I'm not sure if this is going to make sense when I say it, but I wondered how difficult it would be to show the students how cool it would be to do planetary science and have a career where you're basically doing your research in planetary science, when I would have had to do so much teaching at the same time. Not saying that that impact wouldn't still be very good, but it would have been something that I would have had to figure out how to balance. I'm not sure if I answered your question. (laughs)
Yeah, absolutely. And it's an ongoing question. It's not just limited to that particular time.
Okay. So that was the answer.
It's, no, I mean the answer that you're giving now is not limited to a particular narrative point in your career. These are ongoing issues to consider.
Right. They're ongoing issues, but I think where I -- and I'm probably jumping ahead -- I think where I am now is a pretty good spot, though. Because I am -- you know, I'm working with a student from Howard now. I plan to start working with another one in the future, and so what I've found is they have students who are coming into their physics PhD programs, they're interested in planetary science, but because they don't have planetary science faculty, it's kind of like, 'Well hi. I'm here," and I know some of the professors. I've known some of the professors there actually since I was in graduate school. And I feel like I'm still able to have that impact by just having them come over to Goddard and complete their research for their dissertations with us at Goddard.
When did you figure out how to get off the soft money train and find something more stable?
(laughs) I didn't last very long on the soft money train, let me tell you. I really enjoyed being back in North Carolina and being able to spend time with my mom. I enjoyed spending time with my husband, Lamar, who was my boyfriend then. But within the first year, I think I realized soft money was not for me, because the proposal selection rates were so low, and there was such a pressure to be writing proposals all of the time. I was like, I can't sustain myself on this. And I think then too at that point in time, you know, I went back to North Carolina after having lived in the Washington D.C. area for ten years, and it was hard for me to get used to the culture of North Carolina again. Especially as an African American person, having been in the Washington D.C. area, which is quite different. So I realized if I stay soft money, it's probably going to be best to stay in North Carolina, because the standard of living is lower, everything is cheaper. And I can actually sustain myself pretty nicely on soft money in North Carolina. But do I actually want to be writing proposals all the time? Do I want to have to see Confederate flags on cars all the time? You know, all of these things went into the thinking that had me come back to Maryland, and so there happened to be an advertisement for a position at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. They have a small center for planetary science called the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. And I saw a position there and saw what they were looking for with the qualifications, and I applied there. And I got the job, and that's what got me away from soft money and got me back to the D.C./Maryland area.
That must have been extremely exciting for you, for any number of reasons.
It was. I felt like that was my first big girl job. You know, it was my first job where I was actually a staff scientist. I was a civil servant, it was a civil servant position. So it was really exciting, but it was also really stressful. I started that position in January of 2017. And essentially, you know, the first day was exciting, but I spent the first two or three weeks, me and the people who were working with me, a little bit panicked about whether or not I was going to be able to keep my job, because I think I started the day after Trump was inaugurated. And he introduced a federal government hiring freeze. You know, it was retroactive for the Sunday before he was inaugurated. Any positions that were open that Sunday were mandated to remain open. There was no fill them. And so there was a lot of uncertainty of like, "Well, we know we had you go through orientation, but until we can kind of figure out what this executive order means, we don't know if you went through orientation for naught, or if your job was considered unfilled, so basically the position has to be frozen." So that was definitely stressful, and I lost a little bit of hair-- I feel like I lost a little bit of hair off of that. I had spent my savings moving back up here from North Carolina. So it was an exciting moment, but it was also very stressful.
Was your sense that you actually got in by the skin of your teeth, or that they made some special arrangement for you?
My sense was that all of us who went to orientation that day got in just by the skin of our teeth. I mean we had taken the civil servant oath, you know, I think several minutes before that executive order was signed. We had just taken it and someone ran downstairs into our orientation room and said, "Did you all take it?" And we were like, "Yeah." And they were like, "Okay, good. Because he just signed this executive order," so I think it was one of those "just by the skin of your teeth" things. And I think later on there was some extra instruction on that clarified what an open or unfilled position meant at the time that the executive order was signed. But it was one of those things like the travel ban that was set up. It was just thrown up and there wasn't great explanation, and so there was just a lot of confusion of what was going on.
What was your initial work? What was the first project you did?
At that point I was working on the Europa Clipper mission, and that's the thing with science. As you move around, your work goes with you. It's not like your assignments change based on where you go. So I was still finishing up some of the work, honestly, that I had started on my postdoc, looking at these domes on the surface of Europa to see if they formed similarly to volcanic domes on Venus.
Lynnae, just to clarify, because that's an important point, so this is to say then that you have a certain portfolio and a freedom to do what you want to do, or you were hired on the basis of, they knew what your expertise was and they wanted you to continue? If the nuance makes sense to you, that's an important point to distinguish.
So it does make sense. I want to say it was a little bit of both. They were actually looking to hire someone at the time who studied icy moons and the outer solar system. But they also wanted someone who could-- you know, most of them studied Mars, or Venus, and they also wanted someone who not only had expertise in studying the icy moons in the outer solar system, but could also fit into this niche that they had created of studying geological processes on the terrestrial planets. And thankfully because of the work that I had done with Lori Glaze on Venus volcanism, I kind of fit in there. But I brought all of the grants with me that I had, still working on the Europa Clipper Mission, and I think that helped because they had someone who was working on a mission, like I said, to a place in the outer solar system. Not just Mars or Venus. I hope I answered that question.
You did, you did.
So despite-- I mean, getting in, thank goodness, when you did, you had that orientation. Given the general budgetary environment during the Trump administration, did you feel that at your level? Were there things that were slated to happen that didn't, because of where the budget was? Or you were mostly sheltered from that?
I think I was mostly sheltered from that. A lot of my funding came from just working on the Europa Clipper Mission, and that was something that Congress was very much behind. So I was sheltered from that, I would say.
How long did you work on this initial project?
I was working on multiple projects. I'll just say that I worked at the Smithsonian for about two and a half years. And it was great, but it couldn't offer all of the same benefits that a position at a NASA center could. And there wasn't the type of history of diversity within that center that I would have wanted to see. So I was there for about two and a half years and--
Could you expand a little bit on that? What was it that you weren't seeing?
Sure. I was the very first African American scientist that they ever had. I think I was the second female scientist they had ever had. And there was a history of not retaining diverse hires.
That's a very diplomatic way of putting it, I'd say.
Yeah (laughs) you know what I'm saying. It was a very homogenous group. Most of the men who worked there had come to the Smithsonian right after graduate school and stayed there. You know, done a postdoc, then became civil servants, and so not only was there not a lot of diversity as far as ethnicity or race or gender, there wasn't a lot of diversity of thought. I initially thought when I went there, I thought, "Oh, this will be great. I'm interested in outreach, I'm interested in making sure that, you know, we're in the middle of D.C. I'm interested in making sure that kids who look like me know that they can have this career path. But with all of the outreach that the museum did, a lot of times people wouldn't call those of us who fit the identities of the students they had come in to talk to those students. You know, there was a... I don't know if it was a girls in science event or what, but there were several of those events while I was there, and I and some of the postdocs, they did have female postdocs, were a little bit upset because they brought all these girls in from the D.C. public school system to talk to them about science and careers in aerospace, and we're just upstairs, and nobody thought, "Have them come down and talk to these young girls and see their faces." And so you know, and I brought that up that that was something that I felt like we could do to be a little bit more effective, and the response that I essentially got was, "We have a good deal here where we just do our research and people leave us alone. If you try to do more education and public outreach, people will expect us to do it all of the time. So try to keep your head down, because if you make too much of a big deal, it's going to ruin it for everyone." And I thought whoa. This is not the place for me. Being an African American female scientist, I don't feel like I can afford to keep my head down and not let people who look like me see that, you know, that there are so many options when it comes to what we can study and the careers we can have. I thought that that was a privileged statement that I don't know would have come from anyone other than an older white male who's used to seeing people who look like him in his career field. And he doesn't need to do outreach because people who look like him are dominating the field.
Lynnae, for so many reasons it's, you know, anything before 2020 feels like eons ago, right?
That even something like 2016, 2017.
And that's specifically because you know, with #ShutDownSTEM and Particles for Justice and the tragedy of George Floyd and all too many other issues, right? The things that-- like if we could just do a counter factual, if this was your experience not in 2017, but in 2020, right? When all of a sudden, so many people came alive to the importance of these things, right? Do you think it's possible, just in terms of the cultural impact where we are with STEM now, which is a far way away from 2017. Do you think you would still have gotten that same response? Am I being naive in thinking like they should have seen in you, first of all that you're a star, you're a rising star.
Thank you. (laughs)
But second of all, that there's these amazing opportunities to do great things, and you are there and you want to do it.
You know, I would like to think that it would be different, but I have to say that even with everything that's happened, with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. This was actually something that I was just talking to my husband about before I signed in. You know, we have a lot of people who are allies but only in theory only. I come into contact still with a lot of people who they may have put up a Black Lives Matter banner on social media, or you know, they may have mentioned how horrible it was, everything that happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others on social media. But when I interact with them, it's almost like there's some sort of disconnect. Like, we can be allies in theory, but when it comes to being understanding and sensitive to and respectful of the one black colleague that they do have, it doesn't quite translate. And so of course that's not the case with everyone. Some people have been great. But there are more people than you would think that, even though this awakening has happened, it's like they're able to see it from far away. Like they can watch it on TV and say that, "This is horrible, things need to change," but that doesn't translate to, "Let the change start in me with the way that I interact with my black colleagues." Which is pretty bad. So I would hope that after everything that has happened, it would be better, but I'm not exactly sure that in that type of environment that it would be. I will say the one thing that does give me hope for that particular museum, and that Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, is their director. Dr. Ellen Stofan. Ellen is wonderful. And the first thing that she did when she came in was to make them change the exhibits at the Air and Space Museum so that they showed more contributions from minorities and women in aerospace. And she's very forward-thinking. I've had several conversations with her. Actually when I studied these domes on Venus, she was a co-author on one of my papers, and so she was wonderful, and I think if she’d been head of the museum when I started, I would have probably walked into a different environment than I did. But unfortunately, she wasn't.
What you're saying also is that individuals really matter with these things.
They do. Because sometimes, a lot of times, when places are a mess, it comes from the top down, and so I think in the next couple of years, with Dr. Stofan's leadership, I expect the environment there to change for the better, and it's probably changing now. But you know, and it's going to help that some people are going to retire. (laughs) You know, with civil servants, you can't actually-- they have to retire. We have to voluntarily leave. So that's got to help too. But unfortunately, it wasn't a situation where I felt like I could have waited five to six years for that change to happen.
Well, you know this is not where you belong. You know that soft money's not working for you. What's your next move? What are the opportunities available to you?
A job opened up at NASA Goddard. And I wasn't going to apply. I’d been talking to my mom, because she and I have always been very close about, like, I talk to her almost every day and tell her, "Well this happened at work, and this happened," and in addition to everything else that I had been going through there, I kind of wanted to be in an environment that was a little bit more dynamic. And I'm talking to her about all this stuff, and I said, "You know, there's a job at Goddard. I'm not really sure I want to apply, but it's there." And my mom's, her advice is always, "Well, just apply. If you don't apply and later on you wish you had, you can't go back in time and fix it. But if you're not sure exactly what you want to do, apply, just so that you can say that you did. And if it works out, you have the option." So I applied. Not thinking that I was going to get the job, just saying, well, I'll give it a shot. I did apply, and I was called in for an interview, which I was very surprised about. And the interview went very well, and you know, they told me some time after the interview that I was on the shortlist of their top choices, and then some time after that, someone called me. Actually, while I was at the Smithsonian with my office door open, and I happened to open the door with the phone on speaker. And she goes, "Yes, this is so-and-so and so-and-so from Human Resources at Goddard." I'm like, "Ah!" And the next thing I do is close the door, because I don't want anybody to know what's going on. (laughs) So I was really excited about that, and it was actually a job-- the job I have now-- as a civil servant at Goddard, it's in the same research group that I was in as a postdoc. So there's a comfort level there because I knew some of the people and the person who is my direct supervisor now, he wasn't in management at the time I was a postdoc, but he was the postdoc advisor of one of my friends. So it's a great-- it ended up turning out beautifully, I would have to say. (laughs)
Lynnae, did you have the confidence from your previous experience that this would be a more positive environment for you long-term?
I did. And I have to say, having been an intern at Goddard, having done my master's research at Goddard, I already knew what it was like here. It wasn't like the Smithsonian. This was not unknown territory. It was a place, I knew where I could be comfortable. It was also a place that I knew that there were a certain number of African American and women who were there as scientists. You know, it's not perfect. The numbers could always be better for both, but you know, there are enough scientists here that I could get a group of African American scientists and engineers, and we could sit down and have lunch together. Like we used to when I was a postdoc, which was not something I was able to do any other places that I worked. So that helped. And so it was just wonderful. I knew that I would feel comfortable there. I felt like people were confident in my abilities, which I was never sure was the case at my previous position. I always kind of felt like an outsider. So it was a good deal. It was a good deal.
Lynnae, there's the numbers question, but then there's also the culture question. Did the culture match the numbers? Did you feel like the environment was such where the things that you needed, the things that you wanted to do, minimally, people would accept it, and maximally, people would celebrate it? What was your feeling about that at Goddard?
That was my exact feeling. It was the type of dynamic environment where... I say this, Goddard is competitive. And so they like to see people producing and working on missions and publishing papers and doing all of these things that I was always raised as a baby scientist to see as important. But things that kind of, I felt like weren't as celebrated in my previous position as they should have been. And so yes, you know, they were excited that I was on the Europa Clipper mission. Part of my performance plan had a component where I had to do outreach. Which again, at a museum I would have thought that that would have been something that was celebrated too, but you know, at Goddard they actually expected you to do outreach. They like for you to talk to other people about the science that you're doing. So yeah. Yeah.
To what extent did you pick up on where you left off scientifically and to what extent did your previous role, the positive aspects, the science part of it, influence what you were doing at Goddard the second time around?
It was a heavy influence. They were actually, Goddard was actually looking for someone who studied moons in the outer solar system but who could also apply that to studies of Earth's moon, studies of extrasolar planets. And so I kept doing the research that I had been doing before, but extended that to studying extrasolar planets. You know, we see when we have planets in our solar system, planets and moons that have heat and some liquid layer. They have volcanism or cryovolcanism. And one of my first big projects at Goddard was using what we know about these planets and these moons and the geological processes that occur on them, if we scale these planets and these moons to the sizes of Earth-like exoplanets, can we expect similar processes to be occurring on their surfaces? And that was a project that I did, I think it got a good bit of attention. They highlighted it on the webpage. They did a NASA Twitter thing celebrating it. And so I really felt like I was at a place where my expertise, as you mentioned earlier, was something that people were excited about and something that people wanted to highlight. Which made me feel good. And I feel like the culture, at least in our research group, is one that's inclusive. It could always stand to be more diverse, but I don't feel like I'm an outsider. You know, it may not have as much of the diversity as I would like, but it definitely has the inclusion. I may be the only one that looks like me in a room, but I don't feel treated differently because I'm the only one who looks like me in a room.
Lynnae, can you give a sense of the academic connections between journals, conferences, Twitter accounts, all of the ways that you remain connected with the academic community even though you're not teaching in a university environment?
Sure, sure. So the conferences, I think, are the biggest thing. Whether you're at a university or whether you're at a NASA center or whether you're at the Smithsonian or whether you're working for the Planetary Science Institute. There are certain conferences that all of us go to each year. Now those conferences, of course, are virtual. But you're expected to go and present your latest research. You meet students there, sometimes students from universities want to come and do internships with you. And so that's one of the bigger ways in which ideas are exchanged with university professors. On these missions I'm working on, Europa Clipper, the Dragonfly Mission to Titan, there are quite a bit of team members that are university professors. The vast majority are university professors. So that's another outlet. When we go to these science team meetings for these missions. And social media, I guess I don't think about that as much. That's definitely a way to get out your research to the masses. So that connection is definitely there.
Well, let's bring the narrative right up to the present. What are some of the things you're working on currently?
(laughs) So, still working on Europa Clipper. Instrument selections were made for the payload in 2014. We're going to launch in this decade, so I'll probably be working on that for another 10 years. The same thing with the Dragonfly Mission. I was recently put on that mission. That's going to be another 20 or so years. And one thing I will say about the Dragonfly mission and about the Europa Clipper mission, I'm on the camera team on the Europa Clipper mission, and the principle investigator of the camera team is also the principle investigator of the Dragonfly Mission , Dr. Elizabeth Turtle, who's at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab. If we go back to the last interview we had, where I talked about how I got interested in planetary science, Dr. Rosaly Lopes gave me her name as someone who would be a good person to work with whenI first developed an interest in planetary science. And so it almost comes, you know, full-circle from being able to do my PhD research and meeting her. And now being able to work with her on these missions. So anyway, I'm still working on that. Believe it or not, I'm still looking at these domes on Europa, still modeling them and trying to make a database of domes that could have been produced cryovolcanically. I have worked a little bit on the Dawn mission looking at dwarf planet Ceres and these infamous bright spots which are basically, we found, are salt stains on the surface that were formed via cryovolcanic eruptions, we think of just water and salts and mud. And so let's see, what else am I doing? Extrasolar planets. Recently got into lunar research, where I, you know, studying ancient volcanism on the moon and mostly for me, since I model, it's going to be trying to model some of these processes. And so it's, like I said, the projects follow you wherever you go. A lot of times if you're lucky enough to get this long-term funding. But it's really the-- how do I say this? I worked on the same projects, basically, or similar projects, since beginning at the Planetary Science Institute up until now. But the difference here is, I think that I'm in an environment that's supportive that makes me excited to come to work and to do the work that I do. It's not perfect by any means. There are days that are, you know, there are good days and there are bad days. But all in all, I feel like my research fits. I feel like I fit, finally, into a community of scientists. And a lot of times, that's what makes all the difference when you're working on the same old projects. But you're working on them with great scientists who are also good people. That makes all the difference.
Lynnae, two last questions looking to the future. And I always emphasize the optimism. So let's go with that.
On the sociology side, talking about the good days and the bad days. Talking about not being so sure how far away 2017 really feels from 2020. Making sure that #ShutDownSTEM does not just become a day on the calendar and then it's life back to normal, as you indicated very well could be, and on many days, maybe it is. Right?
For you, in terms of your impact, in terms of your interests, in terms of making yourself visible. In terms of just demonstrating excellence in science. What are you most optimistic about in the sense that we are in the midst of a generational change, and that hopefully things are getting better?
Hmm, what am I most optimistic about? That's a very good question. What am I most optimistic about?
I hope if I asked you what you're most pessimistic about, you wouldn't be having such a ready answer.
I think I would, and I hate to say that. But I think-- I'll tell you a few bright spots. And I can't change the world, I can only affect, you know, I had a pastor who used to say, you know, you have to work your garden. You can't change everything, but you try to affect change where you are. I think as far as NASA goes, with this new core value of inclusion that we have, I see changes at Goddard. I see people-- You know, Goddard I always thought was in a better place than a lot of other places I worked, but I see now that they're still trying to improve. They're having listening sessions and trying to figure out what they can do better. I see a push to diversify our cadre of civil servants by reaching out to Howard University and other HBCUs in the area, which wasn't happening before. I see Anne Kinney being the deputy director of Goddard. You know, something that gives me a lot of hope. And I'm surprised it took me so long to think about that. There were times when I was a postdoc, that those of us who were African American postdocs would need to talk about things. And Anne would ask if she could come, and she'd go, "I want to come, but I don't want to make anybody uncomfortable. Are you okay if I show up for this meeting?" And Anne would come and be so supportive and so understanding. And just the fact that she was sensitive to our concerns. And I felt like she looked out for us. And now that she's second in command of the whole Goddard Space Flight Center, that really encourages me. I think we're going to see some very positive changes. She has a new program where she's reaching out to HBCUs. So I think in my little corner of the world, at Goddard, in the research group that I'm in, I am optimistic that it's going to get better and better. Now, as far as for when I leave Goddard and I go to other meetings, and when I interact with other planetary scientists that work elsewhere, I really don't know. But I think where I am now, I really do believe it's just going to keep getting better.
Well thank you for searching deep in you to figure out what an optimistic answer could be, and it's sobering that it's not easy for you to think of it.
You know, it's not easy. It's not easy being a scientist in this skin. There are any level of challenges that you have at any meeting. Whether it's, well, somebody just made a comment. Let me stop the science I'm doing and address why that comment is inappropriate. You know, even small things. And so I have to say, I'm a little bit discouraged that it took me that long to think of the positives. But they're definitely there, and it speaks to something you were saying earlier. People make a difference. It makes a difference who's in charge. It really, really, really does. And sometimes it can be a total hot mess depending on the philosophy of the person that's in charge. But I think with Anne at Goddard with Dr. Noah Petro, who is the head of the research group that I'm in, I think that little corner of the universe is, like I said, only going to get better and better.
Well Lynnae, let's go to the happy place always that is science and the optimism there. Given that your part of collaborations that will be decades in the making, right?
Let's really extrapolate. Best case, because there's that commitment to knowing, it's worth funding this for 10, 20, even 30 years, right?
Best case, what's the best-case scenario? What do we learn, what are those bigger questions that I was alluding to before that happen as a result of this massive, long-term project?
So best case, we get to Europa, we image these huge geysers. We find out the properties of the subsurface ocean. We learn that there could be life there. (laughs) And best case, I would say NASA puts out a program that's just for studying icy moons. (laughs) We don't have that. We've talked about an ocean worlds program at NASA before. We don't yet have that. But best case, we get a program that just studies icy moons. And best case, maybe one day I have my own mission. I don't know. (laughs)
Well, Lynnae, good luck on all of that. It's been a pleasure spending this time with you. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much, David. I appreciated it too. And just take care. My best to you and your loved ones.