NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Hi! My name is Laurel, I have a PhD in Astrophysics, and I am currently working as a rocket scientist at NASA in Alabama. I am 34 years old, I have a husband who is also a scientist, and a dog who likes jumping and hopping so much that sometimes I think she is part kangaroo.
I didn’t have what most people would call a typical childhood. I moved to a different African country every four years while my parents worked in international development. Growing up, my sister was the brainy one and I was the artsy child. In elementary school I didn’t like math, I never read books, I had a hard time memorizing anything, and my spelling was terrible! I loved art, and I was always making a mess in my room at home doing arts and crafts.
In middle school, I started to enjoy school a little more thanks to a few special teachers. I realized that learning wasn’t just memorizing, but thinking for yourself! Math became easier for me once it was about logic -- I liked algebra a lot more than arithmetic. And I eventually found books that I liked reading. When I graduated High School, I realized that I was pretty good at science, and that suddenly I was the academic one and my sister was in University studying Art! It’s wonderful how people change.
After High School, I went to university at Bryn Mawr College, an all-women college near Philadelphia. It was full of smart and interesting women who have gone on to do amazing things all around the world. But none of us knew that when we started, and most of us didn’t know what to major in, or what we wanted to do with our lives after college. I took classes that I enjoyed in Anthropology, graphic design, French, and many other subjects. I finally settled on Physics as a major because it felt right. I was lucky that I got to do some research while I was in University, including work on planetary magnetic fields that I thought was pretty cool. That experience led me to decide to get my PhD.
When I got to my new graduate school, the University of Colorado in Boulder, I started working on a computer model of the Sun’s magnetic atmosphere. I didn’t know that I would end up being a solar physicist, but I have been studying the Sun for 13 years now in Colorado, Scotland, Belgium, and Alabama.
Even as an adult I continue to change my interests and my strengths. I started my career by writing computer code to create models of the Sun (numerical modeling), and then I studied at satellite images of the Sun (observation). Now I mostly build and design cameras and telescopes that are sent up into space on short rocket flights (instrumentation). Learning new things is part of why I love my work! As much as I enjoy my work, I still do my arts and crafts at home because I haven’t stopped enjoying art, and yes, I still make big messes at home doing arts and crafts.