Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Importance of Advocacy

When I was in High School, I was a bit of a film buff. I was so interested I even worked at a movie theatre part time! I saw as many as I could manage and looked forward to Sunday Mornings each week when I could sit down and hear what Siskel and Ebert had to say. While I valued their opinions, what I enjoyed most was getting a glimpse into how their critiques were put together. And if they could do it, why not me? So a friend of mine by the name of Robert and I decided to write our own film reviews and publish them in the School Newspaper. We called it "Films Under Fire" and it was a hit. We had our own website and a logo.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dr. Jonathan Fortney (Conversations at the DPS, profile 6)

Dr. Jonathan Fortney enjoys a field lecture and the start of a life in Planetary Science near Dry Falls, Washington State in 2002. Photo by Jason Barnes.

Well folks, we've come to the end of our journey. I'll have some additional insights from DPS to post later in the week, but for now please enjoy the short blurb below of Dr. Jonathan Fortney, the last of the DPS interviews. In some ways, Jonathan is our most distinguished guest, as he won the DPS's Urey Prize as the top early career researcher this year. You'll have to forgive him if his voice sounds a little raw - I snagged him right after he gave his lecture! Even though Jonathan got his PhD at the University of Arizona, I can't say that I knew him well while he was there. His last year and my first year were the only ones that overlapped, so in some ways we were only ships passing in the night.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Night at the RASC

UPDATE: PDF of the Talk Slides are available here!

Last night I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Annual General Meeting in Toronto at the Ontario Science Centre. For 45 minutes (and then some with questions!), we talked about the exploration of our solar system by robotic spacecraft over the last 50 years. In my talk I made some comparisons to the earlier era of maritime discovery which lasted from the mid 1400s up until the early 1700s. Later, in lieu of the upcoming Planetary Decadal Survey, to be released in March of 2011, I discussed some of the big questions that we're on the verge of answering and what exploration by spacecraft might look like in the next 50 years.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dr. David Choi (Conversations at the DPS, profile 5)

Dr. David Choi (provided photo) - if it weren't for the background, this could be a candid shot. No one smiles as much as he!

Like myself, Dr. David Choi is an atmospheric scientist, after a sort. However, while I look at the atmospheres of Earth, Mars and Titan, David studies Giant Planet atmospheres. The Gas Giants are, of course, essentially all atmosphere, which makes them very different targets from the thin shells that I look at. As David will himself tell you tonight, this gives them a bit of a 'fluid dynamics laboratory' quality which lets us test out our theories of how an atmosphere should fundamentally behave. Thus, David runs computer models and tests the results against spacecraft observations of the flow of the atmosphere, most recently using Cassini Data.

While at the University of Arizona, where he got his PhD, David worked for Dr. Adam Showman. From Adam, Dave got a thorough grounding in geophysics and mathematics (I remember my Principles of Planetary Physics-B well and still shudder at the sheer complexity) and has produced some impressive research. For his accomplishments he was awarded the Kuiper Prize from the Department of Planetary Sciences earlier this year. Since then David has stayed on at LPL as a postdoctoral research associate. As such, despite the connection of all of my interview subjects to LPL, he is the only one whose main affiliation remains at the U of A.

The hard-core computer modelling and observation-interpreting researcher is only one aspect of David's personality. He has also been a stalwart part of the organizational and social sides of the department and graduate student life and a strong believer in outreach. His contributions include working as a reviewer for the community, both for NASA R&A and Icarus, an organizer of journal clubs, and speaking at elementary schools about science and the planets. It's not often that I get to speak to such a well-rounded individual as David and I hope you enjoy listening to what he has to say tonight!

David's Interview, part 5 of our 6-part series, "Conversations at the DPS" runs tonight at 8:00 PM EST on Astronomy.fm's "Live at York U." I will be off again this week, but Paul & company will keep things lively! Next week we will wrap up with Dr. Jonathan Fortney.

(You didn't think I'd forget the obligatory Death Valley, 2006 Shot, did you? Here's Dave passing the time on the road from Death Valley to Racetrack Playa in 2006, as photographed by Catherine Neish. There was some downtime as the result of a vehicular break down (eventually, we were forced to abandon that vehicle, as opposed to my truck, which I simply drove for five miles over rough ground with a shredded tire on that journey!)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dr. Britney Schmidt (Conversations at the DPS, profile 4)

Dr. Britney Schmidt poses in front of a combination of rocky and icy material, sadly not at Death Valley.

Britney Schmidt is a rising star of planetary science, as many of us have known for a while now. I first encountered her in Bob Brown's lab at LPL where she worked as an undergraduate. At the time, she was performing lab experiments on isotopic systems in sublimating ices, and cutting her space mission baby teeth on Cassini. I also had the opportunity to participate in a JPL Team-X exercise (aka Planetary Science Summer School) with her in 2005. While we butted heads a bit on that project, we gained a mutual respect for one another (or so I'd like to think) and our group put out a solid proposal for an Europan Orbiter.

Britney would later follow-up on what is perhaps the most critical part for such a spacecraft, an ice-penetrating radar, which is something she looks into in her current position as a postdoc at University of Texas at Austin. In her spare time she is also the director of the Education and Public Outreach effort for the Dawn Mission. Dawn will be the first robotic spacecraft to enter into the gravitational well of a body as an orbiter, break orbit and go on to another body, in this case two of the largest main-belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres.

This expertise with asteroids is something that Britney picked up during her doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles. Like me, she is a bit of a jack of all trades with experience running lab experiments, doing theory and observing other planets in their natural environments. In particular, she has used the Hubble Space Telescope to look at asteroids, revealing that there are examples which bear the spectral signs of water ice on their surfaces. I find it facinating that the more we look at comets, the more they look like asteroids (the flyby of comet Hartley-2 showed a very "asteroidal-like" body) and similarly, the more we look at asteroids, the more some of these look like comets. Britney's work was published in Science last year and won her acclaim. At the time of her interview, I hadn't seen her in person for over five years and it was good to catch up.

Britney's interview runs tonight (Monday) at 8:00 PM EST over on Astronomy.fm's "Live at York U" program. Unlike for the previous interviews, I am off tonight - but not to worry, Jesse and Paul will keep you entertained with the latest news from the Observatory and commentary on what Britney has to say, so feel free to pop by yorkobservatory.com and ask questions in the OPV chat room!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. David Minton (Conversations at the DPS, profile 3)

Dr. David Minton has made a career chasing the solar system's earliest rocks. Provided Image, captured at Racetrack Playa, above Death Valley in 2006

Not everyone showed up at LPL fresh out of undergrad. Among us were several students who had previously studied in other fields and obtained masters degrees. Most of these were the usual suspects: geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy. However, I admit I took some interest in David Minton, who was coming to us with an Aerospace Engineering Degree. To my knowledge he was the third such student after myself and Yuan Lian (also in my class).

You might think that with an engineering background, the obvious speciality would be in spacecraft, and indeed David started out working with Peter Smith on the Phoenix Mission in the summer of 2005. But after that summer, he discovered that his passion was dynamical simulations. It is the work in which he has had a great deal of success, and he has stayed with it ever since, first in Renu Malhotra's research group and later at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. Next fall, David will take up an Assistant Professor position at Purdue in Layfayette, Indiana where he will work alongside several other researchers in a budding planetary science group founded by National Academy of Science member H. Jay Melosh.

Perhaps dynamical simulations needs some more exposition. Basically, what David does is run simulations of particles in the early solar system to see how the planets formed out of the material in the solar nebula. From this information we can say why we have the planets where we see them, and what composition we expect those planets to have. It also gives us a statistical tool which enables us to examine planet formation in general and, therefore, gives us information on what kinds of planetary systems we can expect to find around other stars.

This field is still young, and as computing power increases, the simulations that David and his colleagues can run become more and more detailed. What we see is that the solar system, early in its life was a fascinating and strange place, full of giant impacts, and migrating giant planets. In fact, it was David who found evidence of this behaviour by closely examining the distribution of rocks in the asteroid belt. It was this achievement, while he was still a grad student at LPL, which won him the Kuiper Award and set him on the course that led him to Purdue.

For me, David's interview was a chance to learn about a field about which I knew little, but whose results were vitally important to my own work. After all, if you don't know the starting value for D/H who is to say that today's value is enriched? I hope that you too enjoy hearing what he has to say about the ancient arrangements of the planets.

David's interview runs Monday, November 8 at 8:00PM EST on Astronomy.fm's Live at York U program. I'll be there able to answer questions live on the air. To ask a question, leave me a comment here or better yet, join us in our online chat room during the show over at yorkobservatory.com .

Friday, November 5, 2010

And now a word from our sponsors

Opportunities to do planetary science may be somewhat limited in Canada, so it behooves us to spread them as widely as possible when they arise. I'll be starting work with this program on December 1st as part of the 2010 round of fellowships (Post by me on this to follow in a few weeks, I hope!). The good news is that the program will also be selecting fellows next year (2011) as well. The advert is pasted below. Interested? Feel free to contact the folks listed below below, or myself, or make a comment below and I will get back to you!

NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program
MSc, PhD, Post Doctoral Fellow positions available 2011

Astrobiology is broadly defined as the scientific study of the origin, evolution, distribution, conditions and destiny of life in the universe. This new, transdisciplinary science is based on two scientific revolutions - the recent realization that microbial life is extremely hardy and can thrive in very harsh environments previously thought uninhabitable on Earth and the explosion of space technologies that are driving the robotic exploration of Mars and other planets in the search for life in our solar system. The Canadian Astrobiology Training Program (CATP) is the first Canadian cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training program in Astrobiology and is a NSERC–funded Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program (CREATE) (2009-2015) located at McGill University, McMaster University, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, and the University of Winnipeg. CATP by its very nature will be accomplished through collaborative and integrative research approaches containing elements of geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, microbiology, and robotics. CATP trainees (~70 graduate & undergraduate students, PDFs over the next 5 years) will be exposed to innovative research and training approaches, combining fieldwork at unique Canadian analogue sites, including those in the high Arctic, with laboratory work at cutting edge analytical facilities at participating university, government, and industry partners. Shared expertise within and among institutions will be provided by means of course and seminar videoconferencing, and interdisciplinary supervision. Professional training will be enhanced by training rotations with our collaborators at CSA, MDA Space Missions, and our international partners, including NASA Ames. CATP HQP trained in various aspects of astrobiology will be at the forefront of the search for life beyond the Earth. Indeed, CATP will address the recognized lack of HQP in space science and lead to new scientific opportunities and promote Canadian participation in future missions to Mars. The skills acquired through this program will be directly transferable to various other disciplines, such as Earth and environmental sciences, robotics, medicine, and astronomy.

We are presently seeking applicants for Graduate Student Fellowship (MSc and PhD) and Post Doctoral Fellow (PDF) positions available in 2011.

Successful applicants will have a strong interest in astrobiology and have an excellent background in microbiology/ molecular biology, geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and/or robotics or other related disciplines.

Applications will be received until January 14, 2011.

For detailed information on the CATP and how to apply, please visit the CATP website (http://create-astrobiology.mcgill.ca/) or please directly contact:

Mr. Robert Oxley
NSERC CREATE CATP Project Coordinator
McGill University
Telephone: (514) 398 7901 Email: robert.oxley@mcgill.ca

Thursday, November 4, 2010

DPS Follow-Up: How Science Gets Funded

It's a fact of life, we all need to eat, our cryostats need liquid nitrogen and where would we be without paying for telescope time? All those things need money, but as postdocs we're not always well acquainted with where the money comes to pay for them. At the basic level, we recognize that our supervisors get paid a salary. If they work at a University, 9 months out of the year (in the US) this salary is paid by the institution. However, if your supervisor is a research scientist, then 100% of his or her salary comes from a little something we like to call the granting system. Grants likely pay for your salary if you are a grad student or a postdoc, and the equipment and resources you marshall to do your work are typically paid for by grants. As a whole, this type of funding is called "soft money." The funding is "soft" in the sense that if the stars align badly for you and your grant proposals are rejected you will find yourself not only without that new Mass Spectrometer you needed, but may also find yourself out of a job.

Some think this aspect of science is a bit unseemly and professors often shield their students from the funding side of the equation. They think they are doing us a favour, but it is to our ultimate benefit to understand how the system works and how to use it to our advantage. The faster we figure it out, the more rapidly we can become productive professional scientists and harness the built-in power of the granting system to advance our craft. The granting agencies know this too, which is why the best of them try to help us out. NASA R&A is the model here, and Curt Neibur (whom I like to think of as the man who makes Bureaucracy fun) from NASA-HQ has been giving presentations for the past few years at career development workshops.

Curt's message is direct: you need to start applying for grants yesterday, and (in the US) you can do it at all levels of experience past undergrad. A key point of his was that nothing attracts the interest of hiring committees more than success in acquiring funding. It simultaneously proves several things. First, that your work is of a high enough caliber as a committee has voted you scarce resources. Secondly, that you will not be a burden on the new department, but you have a proven ability to bring in the overhead dollars that keep it afloat.

Even so, it can be a bit daunting, and that is where Curt's presentations propose to help. By outlining how the system works, how decisions get made, and what you can do to help as well as increase your chances of success, he bleeds that mystery out of the process. By clearly defining the options are, we can make better decisions about which way to go and how to learn how to avoid pitfalls. A great example - you can serve on a grant decision panel either as a full member or an associate as a senior doctoral candidate or as a postdoc.

The clarity of the US system gave me an action item upon my return to Canada. How does grant writing get done here? Unfortunately, things aren't so clear here, but I'll share the information which I have managed to gather so far. First off, instead of supporting 9 months, most Canadian universities support the activities of their faculty for the full 12 months out of the year. That means that the urgency of paying for your missing three months is largely missing, and it is possible to subsist entirely on hard money. However, if you want to support graduate students or do research you still need to bring in soft money. There are several agencies that can help here including the canadian fund for infrastructure (CFI) who you go to when you need that new mass spec or some other expensive durable good. As well there are grant opportunities that come up every now and again.

However, the most common agency to apply to is NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). You'll be familiar with these folks if you've ever received an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA), post graduate scholarship (PGS) or postdoctoral fellowship (PDF). These three awards are the usual progression of things, and as such, NSERC does not allow non faculty to write or be a P.I. on a grant application.

That's a combination of a bad thing and a good thing. It's good in the sense that Canadian students and postdocs aren't expected to apply for grant money outside of the USRA/PGS/PDF system and so theoretically can concentrate on their research. Furthermore, since it is essentially impossible for Canadian students or postdocs to obtain grant funding, one would hope that Canadian Universities would not expect grant success when selecting entry-level faculty positions. But at the same time, it's bad because there will be more of a learning curve once you do get selected for a faculty position. It also means that Canadian postdocs will be less competitive outside the country. In a perverse way it could also make us less competitive inside the country, as a department might want to skip the learning curve and go with someone who has existing granting experience from working in the US.

Can we Canadians take advantage of the clear-cut US system? Well, the short answer is no. While it's true that you don't need to be a US citizen to apply for a NASA-type grant (only the nationality of your sponsoring institution is important) if you're a foreign national you will need to move to the US and secure the appropriate visa to hold the grant. If this is something you'd be interested in, note that you may be able to make your application from your home country and move only if your application is successful. To do this, you will need to sign up with a US-based research institution. In planetary science, some of the most well known include PSI (Planetary Science Institute) in Tucson, SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) and SSI (Space Science Institute) both in Boulder.

So what's a Canadian to do? Luckily there are some hopeful signs. For starters, the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) new SSEP program looks like it hopes to be a Canadian version of NASA R&A, thus it is conceivable that they will eventually break ranks with NSERC, whose rules are followed by most other granting programs, and allow all comers to apply. However, I advise you not to wait. Talk with your advisor and see if you can participate in the grant writing process, as it's never too early to learn.

Oh and one other thing, especially if you're interested in space missions - make friends south of the border! As a foreign national, you don't cost NASA a cent. Therefore we are attractive additions to mission proposals. As NASA has no issue with a grad student or a postdoc being part of a science team this is a flashy way to get your own funding, if you can swing it. The danger is that CSA may choose not to participate, as they did with the most recent Discovery proposal cycle. If that happens, you're up the creek without a paddle. For the sakes of all us early career folks, I can only hope that this decision not to support was merely a blip, as there are many more opportunities to develop younger scientists through the lower-cost missions, and I would hate to see our substantial participation on fewer flagship missions cut down on the opportunities to participate.