Goddard Space Flight Center
I am from Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the oldest of three daughters. As a kid I was quiet and bookish-- reading novels was my favorite activity by far. I started getting interested in astronomy in grade school (before I wanted to study dinosaurs), but I didn't really think of it very seriously as a career because 1) I was told you had to be good in math, which I thought meant (yawn) arithmetic and 2) I heard it was very hard to get a job as an astronomer. Still, I got involved in a local Astronomy Explorer Scout group in high school. We had a lot of fun doing star gazing parties and goofing around on computers. I still have a number of friends that I knew in that group.
In high school, I took all the standard college prep classes, including math and science. I liked my history and literature classes as much as the science ones, though. My parents encouraged me in science. I remember my mother saying that she had always liked physics class because it was like doing puzzles. My dad was also a scientist (a chemist), and he was always cutting out astronomy articles he though I might like to read.
When I started college (at Carlton College in Minnesota) I didn't know what I wanted to major in, although I think most of the people who knew me figured I'd go into science. I did very well in my first physics class (a feat never to be repeated) and enjoyed it. I kept taking physics and ended up majoring in it.
After college, I was still not sure what I wanted to do, but I thought as long as I was considering going to graduate school, I'd go ahead. I decided to enter the University of Colorado Department of Astrophysical, Planetary, and Atmospheric Sciences. I started out taking atmospheric science classes, but then I heard from another graduate student that there was a professor looking for a student to work with radio data from the sun. That sounded interesting-- I wanted to work with data and the sun seemed to combine my interests in both astronomy and the earth. I was planning on doing my thesis in the sun's "quiet" corona, but a number of big solar flares occurred while we were collecting the data. The flares made it impossible to do the original project, so I ended up studying the flares instead!
When I was finishing up graduate school I began asking around about jobs. Someone I'd worked with told me that her group at NASA/Goddard was looking for a young scientist for a two year position studying x-rays from solar flares, and I got the job. When that ended, I went to the scientist in charge of the SOHO mission at Goddard to ask if they had any job openings, and here I am.
I currently am a solar physicist on the team of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO). I also work with data from other observatories like the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Japanese Hinode mission. I analyze the data we get back from the satellites, studying different features in the sun's atmosphere (like prominences and active regions). I want to compare the data to predictions of different models of how the sun works. I also work with teachers who are figuring out how to use our data and information in their classrooms.
Sometimes I am pretty surprised that I am now working as a professional astronomer, and that I like it so much. When I was a kid and thought about astronomy, I really had no idea what astronomers actually did. I liked reading articles in astronomy magazines, but didn't know what kind of work was behind those articles. It takes lots of different people with different skills and interests to "do" astronomy and space science. People have to build and operate the telescopes and other instruments, write computer software, analyze the data work out the physics behind it all, explain the results to other scientists and the public, and coordinate all the people doing those tasks. I don't do all those different things, but I do at least a little of a number of them, and it is fun.
I like my job because it is full of interesting challenges and there are lots of different things to do-- you are never done learning. Working on the team of a spacecraft mission means that you meet and work with lots of great people who care about what they are doing. They come from all over the world, and, in addition to meeting them when they come here, I get to travel, too. I've been to both France and Japan for work in addition to lots of places in the US. it's fun to work as a team with people to get a project done, but I also have time to work on things by myself. I am pretty much in charge of my own time, so I decide what I want to do and when.
The only thing I don't like about my job is that it's usually pretty inactive. I stare at computer screens a lot. of course, this is true of many professional jobs these days. Also, if I want to stay in my field, there are not all that many places I can work and live.
I manage to keep pretty busy outside of work. These days it is mostly bicycling, reading, and playing the mandolin.
My advice to those of you who are interested in pursuing careers in science is to pay attention to what you really like doing, both in and out of school. When you have a job some day, you'll probably be spending at least eight hours a day at it-- it's best if you enjoy it. Also, be open to surprises and trying new things. Some of the most interesting and fun things I've done (like my current job!) were not things I planned ahead of time (although you certainly have to have the background to take advantage of the opportunities that may come your way