Rosaly Lopes, former ISH resident and currently Directorecte Scientist for the Planetary Science Directorate, and a Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California shares her career path and experiences working for NASA.
When did you discover you had a passion for science, and how did you find your niche?
I had a passion for science and astronomy and space from a very young age. One of my first memories was of my parents talking about Yuri Gagarin, this Russian who had gone to space, and my father asked me if I wanted to go to the moon. I said, ‘Oh yes I would love to go to the moon,’ and somehow was fascinated by the stars and space.
I grew up with the Apollo Programme and I really wanted to be an astronaut, but I happened to be very near-sighted. It’s corrected now, but I realised that I was Brazilian, female, with bad eyesight, so being an astronaut was probably not going to happen. So, I decided that I would study astronomy and I would work for NASA and help the space programme. I decided that when I was about 6 years old, and people just used to think it was really cute and laugh that this little girl wanted to become an Astronomer and work for NASA. But I persisted.
I was a very good student, and I could speak English because luckily my mother insisted that I start learning English at a very early age. I realised that in Brazil I was not going to have many opportunities, so I decided I should study abroad for university and applied to University College London. The British Consulate in Rio de Janeiro really helped me.
When I first came, I was renting a room in a family house, but I didn’t find that to be a very good situation, and then I heard about ISH. They had a shared room available and then I had a single room, and when I was a graduate student, I lived there again for a couple of years. I really liked ISH and it was such a super environment. I think for people like me – I was alone in a country where I really didn’t know many people, finding somewhere that you feel comfortable living in and having that supportive environment is very important. There were such delightful people there, and I’m very fond of ISH and my memories there.
What were some of the first stepping stones into your industry? How did you get to be where you are today?
I studied Astronomy at University College London – it was very challenging for me. I had always been a really good student, but I didn’t realise that the education system in Brazil was quite different from the one in England. So, I was behind all the students in maths and physics, and I had to do a lot of work to catch up. It was in a foreign language, so that was hard in the first year particularly.
In my last year of the Astronomy degree, I had a course in Planetary Geology – I really liked that, and the professor was a Volcanologist. I remember one day he didn’t show up and he sent a postgraduate student to give the class, and he said, ‘Oh Mount Edna erupted and the Professor had to go.’ I thought this is really exciting.
“I have always had a very adventurous spirit, and I liked that course so much that I asked the Professor if I could do a PhD with him and he accepted me into the PhD programme, and I really found what I liked”
I liked making that connection between the earth and other planets, and particularly volcanoes. I started travelling to volcanoes and seeing volcanic eruptions, and that became my passion.
When I was finishing my PhD, I got a job at with the National Maritime Museum, as the Curator of Modern Astronomy at the Greenwich Royal Observatory, and that was a very nice position with some very nice people. But it wasn’t really what I wanted to do – I had that dream of wanting to work for NASA. So, by chance, I found out from a NASA JPL Jet Propulsion Laboratory Researcher about a postdoctoral programme that was open to foreigners, so I applied and got the position, but it was only for two years.
I took this enormous risk because I left my civil service position in England at the museum, and moved to the US with only a guaranteed job for two years. The JPL people really liked me, and I liked them, and I’m still there. I arrived as a post-doc in 1989, in 1991 they hired me, and I’ve made my whole career there so far. I’ve worked on two great flight projects, the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Now I am the Chief Scientist for the Planetary Science Directorate. So, I can say I fulfilled my childhood dreams, I haven’t flown into space yet, but, who knows?
Thinking about the prominence of women in your industry, did you notice any changes or developments from when you first started in the industry, to where you are now?
There are a lot more women now in my field than there used to be, the number has increased a lot. According to the American Astronomical Society membership, women are now 30% of Planetary Scientists, but I think among younger women, it is higher. But some things certainly have changed. When I started my PhD, my PhD Advisor told me that I had an advantage being female, because he said there are so few women in the field that they get known pretty quickly.
“Everyone knows who they are because you’re kind of that rare bird. So, people would want to talk to you, and want to know what you’re doing, because they’re curious”
I found that to be true, it was almost like the men thought, ‘Wow, here is a young female wanting to go into our field, and that’s good and she must be really special.’ Maybe I did suffer from discrimination at some point, but it’s not something that I paid attention to, because my position was always just to go ahead and do the work. If someone has a prejudice, that’s their problem, not mine. I think that’s the healthiest attitude.
Can you share some of your career highlights?
I’ve been very lucky in that my career has had many highlights. Of course, the work and discoveries are always highlights, or when you have a paper that gets a lot of attention, that’s always really satisfying. Normally you put a lot of work into the research and into a scientific paper before you get those rewards, so the work itself is satisfying.
I’ll mention something that is by no means my most important work, but when I was working with the Galileo spacecraft, I made observations in the infrared of Jupiter’s volcanic moon called IO. I kept finding these active volcanoes that had not been known before – the previous mission had found about a dozen active volcanoes; I started finding more and more and in the end, I found 71 previously unknown active volcanoes. People in my team used to joke with me, ‘Ah you found another one,’ and then one of the guys started joking that I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Some years later a young man from England came to be my post-doc at JPL and he heard these jokes, and he said, ‘you know, I have a friend who works for the Guinness Book of World Records, I should tell him that.’ So, he told his friend who contacted me, and contacted several colleagues of mine, I sent him my papers and I thought this is a bit of a joke you know, this would never happen. But, in the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records, there is a little note about me having found more active volcanoes than anybody else. Something that I never imagined, so that was fun.
I love scientific work, but one of the most important things to me is inspiring the next generation. I think one of my proudest moments was when I received the Karl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society. That medal is given to Planetary Scientists who go above and beyond making Planetary Science accessible to the public, showing real dedication not only to scientific research but in communicating the science to the public.
My mom, my sister, and my son were there, so that was a very proud moment, and it happened back in England which is where I went to college and did my PhD so that made it extra special. I spend quite a bit of time talking to students, young people, Astronomical Societies, and talking to the public all over the world. Now since Covid, with everyone doing everything online, I have had opportunities to reach people in many different places. It’s always very satisfying to inspire the next generation.
I think that’s one of the most important things that we can do because the science work that everyone does in their career is limited. Even if you’re a scientist who wins the Nobel Prize, you only have one lifetime, and it’s what you pass on and how you inspire other people. When understanding the importance of science and technology to the world, I think that’s the most important thing a Scientist can do.
Is there anything you’d like to say to the future generation of graduates, academics, and scholars?
Many people will come to study in England, and maybe English is not their first language, or maybe their education in their home countries did not quite prepare them for the very rigorous academic standards of British universities. Many of us had difficulties, particularly in the first year when we were trying to adapt to a different way of life, not having family around, not having friends and making new friends. But just persevere, because, in my experience observing students and young people, the most important thing is determination. Determination will get you very far, and it’s true, that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” So don’t be discouraged, just keep going.
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