Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dr. Catherine Neish (Conversations at the DPS, profile 2)

A world of possibility: Dr Catherine Neish at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, CA in 2006. Photograph by Diana Smith.

It was only recently, once I finished a dissertation on "habitability," that I finally admitted to myself that I am a bit of an Astrobiologist. Perhaps a bit of the reason I was so slow to come to that realization was that I tend to eschew the sorts of things that are in fashion and, especially a few years ago, nothing was more in fashion than Astrobiology. However, this week's interview subject, Dr. Catherine Neish, has always been an Astrobiologist and has said it loud and proud. Even during her undergrad at UBC, it was a topic of interest and led her to complete an REU at the famous Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico and to the presidency of their Astronomy club. Since that time, you could often see the SETI screen saver putting away, participating in a program to help process all the accumulated data, searching for signals from the sky.

When it comes to academics, she's no dilettante either. At the University of Arizona, Catherine held down a Julie Payette fellowship from the Canadian Government, the most prestigious fellowship on offer, and was a Galileo Circle Scholar. At the time, she specialized in laboratory experiments to simulate the prebiotic chemistry of Saturn's moon Titan (a tough task, to be sure!). Somehow, even with all of that she managed to participate in student government as the president of the U of A's graduate and professional student council. She also was the Principal Investigator of her Team-X class.

These days, she holds down a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA's Applied Physics Lab in Baltimore, MD, where she works on Lunar Science with the mini-RF team, a component of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Also, as a dual citizen, she straddles the line between the Canadian take on planetary science and that of the United States, able to move effortlessly from one to the other. As such, she offers a unique perspective on the space aspirations of both countries, which I enjoyed fleshing out during our conversation.

Catherine's Interview runs Monday, November 1st at 8PM EDT over on's "Live at York U" program. I'll be on-air to discuss further the topics from the interview, so if you'd like to ask a question, join us over at I'll happily answer any questions from the audience on the air!

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