Dr. Holly Gilbert is the Deputy Division Director of the Heliophysics Science Division at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She is also the NASA Deputy Project Scientist for Solar Orbiter, a collaborative mission between NASA and ESA dedicated to solar and heliospheric physics, set to launch in 2018.
How did your career path lead to NASA?
I started out as a physics major in undergraduate school and I was always interested in astronomy. I started an internship at UCAR’s High Altitude Observatory, which is a place that has solar data and studies the sun, and I immediately fell in love with the images I was seeing. I was so impressed with this big ball of fire (that’s what I used to think the sun was), and all of a sudden it became this incredible ball of magnetic fields and plasma, and to find out that we don’t know a whole lot about the sun – we do, but there’s so much we still have to explore. It just caught my attention, and that’s when I became interested in solar physics, specifically. Luckily I was able to do a PhD program through the University of Oslo in Norway while I was actually still residing in Boulder, Colorado. It was this fantastic experience in this wonderful program and after I got my PhD from University of Oslo, I had an opportunity to work at Rice University as a research scientist there, and then an opportunity opened up at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I came here to actually work as the Associate Director for Science, originally, and then I, after three years in that role, switched over to being Lab Chief for one of the labs in the Heliophysics Science Division.
Were you always interested in science?
From what I’ve been told by my parents, I was always fascinated by the moon. I was always looking up at the moon and wondering about it, and my dad was a geologist, so I had a science-y kind of background. But astronomy was just so cool to me as thinking of things that were so far away, in just some philosophical terms, I think it’s like, wow, the Earth is just a minor, small part of the entire universe, and how cool is that to even be able to see and observe and study things way beyond the world that we’re used to. So, philosophically, it was just amazing to me, and I think that’s what caught my attention, and I always had a knack for math and science and so it just kind of felt right to go into astronomy or astrophysics.
I went to a boarding school, Interlochen Arts Academy, for high school. At that point I had always been interested in science, but I played the cello from a fairly young age and when I was in high school I thought, “Okay, I’m going to become a concert cellist.” But I missed science so much; I was still taking academic courses in that school and, at that time, physics, and I didn’t want to dedicate all of my time to music and not be able to become a scientist, so I switched my path at that point. When I went to college, that was when I was like, well, I need to pursue science; music can be a hobby, but it wasn’t going to be my main career.
How do you feel about your choice to become a scientist?
I love solar physics. I’ve had to move into a more managerial type role, once you’ve done your post-doc work and everything, you can’t always do research, you have to find funding, and so I have these other administrative responsibilities that I don’t love as much; but it allows me to do the science. The research is where my heart is and I’m very lucky and excited about what I do. My job, I don’t really consider it a job. It’s something that’s more my life; it’s part of who I am. If somebody can find that sort of thing that drives them and is their passion, it’s worth spending however much time to incorporate that and make that their career if it’s possible.
Do you have any advice for women who are interested in a career in science?
In science, in particular, physics and astronomy, there are fewer women than men, and I think it’s a little tough for females coming into the field; it’s a little intimidating, but gender does not matter. Women and girls are just as good at math, and I think there’s a perception out there at the middle school age that girls just aren’t as good at math and science, and that’s just not true. They can be, if they’re interested, and so if you’re female and you’re interested in math and/or science or even have a little interest, pursue it!
Don’t be intimidated, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and that is advice for anybody, gender doesn’t matter, but I think women tend to be a little more quiet. If you can find a good mentor, that helps a lot. It may not be the first mentor that you have – I know some people, men and women, who have not had the best mentor. So if you’re not working well with someone mentoring you, that’s okay, find another mentor. Don’t be afraid to try things! Don’t be afraid to take opportunities. I think that was one thing that really allowed me to get where I am today. I took advantage of opportunities, even if they were scary. It’s worth it. When you get over the fear, it’s worth just trying new things and not being afraid to take chances.
What advice do you have for students who are struggling with their studies?
It can be hard. The classwork is hard. Some people might find it really easy, but the fact is, even people who become scientists have a period of struggling through courses like physics. It’s okay if it’s really hard; if it’s something you enjoy, then it’s worth getting through, and it’s worth all the time that you put in, because it takes a lot of work, and it’s a lot of hours of working hard and it pays off, as long as you love it. If it’s not something you’re loving and you’re struggling at, then maybe it’s not worth pursuing, but if it’s something you’re really interested in yet you still find it difficult, that’s okay. Work through it, put in the hours, put in the hard work, and it pays off.
It’s funny, because so many people say, “Well, why am I going through this math, I’m not going to use this.” Well, calculus comes up all the time in the work that I do. All the math that you end up learning, it totally applies to the physics that I do; plasma physics, for instance, is very important for the work that I do because the sun is a big ball of plasma. Fundamental science, fundamental physics, not only do you use the tools that you learn in these courses, but on a higher level, you learn how to solve problems in other areas of your life as well.
What is your typical day like?
My perfect day-to-day activities – my ideal day-to-day activities – involve finishing up a paper. But for my particular position, I don’t get as much time to do that kind of thing. So, my typical day in my non-ideal world, or my actual real world, is attending a lot of meetings; I attend staff meetings, I run a lab, so I hold staff meetings. Those are some of the more mundane things that I end up having to do, but I also get to serve on committees outside of NASA, in the solar physics community. There’s probably not a “typical day,” but overall is generally split between administrative work, approving timecards and that kind of thing, and some research, and then being able to attend science meetings and presenting the research. So that’s an important aspect of the science that I do – it’s not just doing it, but making sure that I’m getting out there and communicating it, and especially as a NASA scientist, because taxpayers are paying for us to do this and so they are owed the, sort of, end result, here’s what you’re getting for your money. So I do a lot of outreach as well, talking to kids at schools and that kind of thing.
Does studying the Sun have practical implications?
Well, it has very practical implications because of a whole field we call, “Space Weather,” and just like weather here on Earth, we try to predict and understand and forecast what’s happening in space because there’s a constant solar wind blowing away from the sun at a million miles an hour, but there are also these solar storms that come out away from the sun at much faster speeds and carry a lot of material and magnetic field. If those are directed at the Earth, they can interact with the Earth, with the Earth’s magnetic field, they can cause power outages, they can cause satellites to have issues, and they can actually interrupt cell phone service. So, there’s actually practical implications for people here on Earth, even though we’re protected from the solar wind and the storms here on the surface, they don’t come to the surface, but they have these currents in the atmosphere and the magnetosphere which do interrupt technology.
Should students in the sciences focus on one field?
I think that it’s important to be a little bit broad and to have, nowadays especially, computer skills and programming skills. As scientists, for instance, in solar physics we create programs that allow us to look at the data. In general terms, it can be okay to have a narrow focus, to have one area of research that that’s all you’re going to do, because you’re going to become an expert in that area, of course, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind it’s not bad to broaden out a little bit in case funding doesn’t happen for that one area for a while. So I think it’s important to keep yourself a little broad, so that it allows you more opportunities if you need them. But again, it’s good to also be an expert in one particular field or one area, but if you can spread that out a little bit, I think it can be beneficial.
What topics should tomorrow’s scientists study?
I would recommend taking a variety of courses – all related to the field that you’re choosing. It’s nice if you have one area you’re dedicating a lot of time or become an expert at, but also be open to taking classes in other areas of sciences as well, because sometimes you’ll never know when knowledge from one area will be applicable to the area that you’re focused on. But again, I think technology is definitely a part of that, you definitely need to be up on skills, computer skills and programming and that sort of thing.
How can aspiring scientists keep up to date with trends in science?
I think keeping up, making sure that you’re knowledgeable of what’s going on in the field, and reading science articles so that you’re exposed to all the research that’s going on in your particular area are very helpful, then you can know what everybody else is doing, but you should also reach out to people in the field. Now, not everybody would respond if you emailed them, because people are very busy. I think it’s worth a try, if that’s a need, if somebody is feeling somewhat isolated, just reaching out to people in the field that they’ve seen or heard of through papers or through videos, or whatever, I think that’s not a bad thing to attempt to do. I’m used to that one-on-one interaction and walking down the hall to talk to somebody, ask questions, but again, I’m sort of old-fashioned. These days, you can do that online. You can use technology to get your questions answered.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring scientists?
There are going to be times, if you’re in the sciences and you’re doing active research, when funding is very difficult. I think if you can hang on and weather those times, it’s very fluid and things always change, so don’t be discouraged if you’re not able to succeed right away or if you’re having trouble. If you hang in there long enough, you probably can work things out. But I think it’s hard because a lot of people, especially the more junior people coming into the sciences today where the funding levels are not as good, are just frustrated. It’s a little demoralizing, so I think if they can weather that out, they can realize that it won’t be bad forever and that being persistent is a good idea.