Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Meet The CSWA: Cristina Thomas

In our newest series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.  Cristina Thomas is a research scientist with the Planetary Science Institute. She received her undergraduate degree from Caltech and her Ph.D. from MIT. After graduating she had postdocs at Northern Arizona University and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars?

When I was young, Voyager completed its reconnaissance of the Solar System. I had this amazing book that was full of great pictures of all the planets and short descriptions of what we knew about them. I absolutely loved that book. I went looking for it a few years ago because it had been so incredibly influential to my life. I never found it, but I can remember so much about it.

How did you end up working in the field?

I discovered I loved science fairly early, but had no idea what a scientist actually did. So for many years I thought I would become a medical doctor. It might seem like a strange conclusion for some people, but medicine was the one visible, successful scientific career. In high school I realized that medicine was not a good fit and started to think about other possibilities. Then Mars Pathfinder landed successfully. NEAR was on its way to Eros and soon after Stardust was off to visit a comet and return samples from the coma. I was hooked. I jumped at the opportunity to attend Caltech as an undergrad and it was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. I intended on joining the astronomy program, but discovered they did not study the planets, so I joined the Department of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

In one of my classes I learned that the spectrum of the asteroid Vesta matched the spectra of HED meteorites. The idea that we could connect meteorites to asteroids using telescopes was absolutely amazing to me. I applied to graduate school to study asteroid spectroscopy. Now one of the things I do is connect asteroid spectra to meteorite analogs. 

Who inspired you?

My family. They all have very interesting stories and have worked hard all their lives. They’re always very encouraging and supportive.

What is a Research Scientist?

As a research scientist, I spend my time working on a variety of different and exciting projects. I am a soft money scientist, which means that I need to find funding to cover my time. This means I end up writing and participating in a large number of research proposals. I really enjoy thinking of new projects and designing the programs that I propose. Unfortunately, the proposal process can be difficult since selection rates can be quite low. I have to constantly be looking ahead to new opportunities and upcoming deadlines while maintaining my current research program. In my research, I primarily use telescopes to characterize asteroids using spectroscopy. My ongoing projects include studies of Main Belt asteroid families, multiple near-Earth object observing programs, and preparing for asteroid observations with the James Webb Space Telescope.

What community issues are important to you and why?

It is extremely important for us to increase the diversity (of all kinds) within our field. Additionally, I hope to help people from all underrepresented groups succeed in astronomy and other STEM fields. I understand many of the challenges that underrepresented people face. I am keenly aware of the demographics when I enter a room. I know when to code switch and have made many changes to how I relate to people over the years. More broadly, I also want to create a support structure for young scientists. There are plenty of reasons that people feel like outsiders or impostors. They are not alone. It’s not always easy, but there are so many people that are willing to help.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

I really love telescopes and I have been to several really impressive observatories. In my first year of graduate school I had the opportunity to go to Mauna Kea to observe on the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF). It was amazing to me that I was in control of what that telescope would do for those nights.

I’ve had hundreds of hours of observing since that trip (trust me, I used to keep a log!) and seen many other telescopes. I still slip into the dome every night to take a look at the telescope.  

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

It’s completely okay to ask for advice. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and get a graduate degree. I did not always know what I was doing. For a long time I did not ask for help because I thought it reflected badly on me. Now I know that I can’t always know everything and that I don’t have to stumble around in the dark. My colleagues have been incredibly helpful about so many different things over the years. They have talked with me about big decisions and helped me learn new skills. I would not be where I am today without them.

What do you do for fun?

For the past few years, I’ve gotten very interested in long distance running. I have run the Marine Corps Marathon twice and have done a number of half marathons and ten milers. Running is a phenomenal way to get rid of stress and long runs give me the time to think through problems.

I am a big fan of science fiction, especially Star Wars. I have a Wedge action figure that I carry with me and I try to take pictures of him when I travel.

I am also a big fan of hiking and traveling with my husband. We’re often trying to plan our next adventure to get more national park passport stamps.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

I want to help increase and maintain interest in diversity issues in our community. I am happy to be an editor of the AASWomen newsletter. We all work hard to collect interesting content for each week.

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