Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Meet Your CSWA: Jessica Mink

With astrolabes in Harvard's Scientific Instrument Collection
 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.

Jessica Mink has been a positional astronomer and developer of astronomical tools, data pipelines, and archives at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory for over 30 years, working with data from ground-based (and one space-based) telescopes. Between her MIT BS and MS degrees and this job, she was involved in solar system optical spectroscopy, high-speed occultation photometry, and the geometrical astronomy and catalog development needed to predict the occulations she observed with her colleagues. Her life story is complicated by the fact that she has undergone some major changes that headed her toward the AAS CSWA and CSGMA.

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

Reading from the letters of Sophia Ripley,
a cofounder of the Brook Farm Community
I started out interested in the Earth: a large bag of mineral crystals we bought when I was seven from a grizzled prospector in the Black Hills of South Dakota got me interested in the stuff from which it was made. The astronauts were selected at about the same time, and I became a space buff, too, asking for a telescope for my birthday and getting interested in the moon and planets. I grew up far enough into the country that the Milky Way was visible on any clear night from my yard, too.

How did you end up working in the field?

After high school, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to study particle physics, planetary geology, or architecture. I went to MIT because I could go in any of these directions, and it turned out to be a good place for changing majors when I found out that I wasn't very good at physics but could make a computer do anything I wanted it to. I wrote code to model gravitational fields on the moon, map planet surfaces and reduce digital spectra. I also took courses to learn all of the ways that one could study planets in the early 1970's, putting together my own major in what I now call Planetary Astronomy or Comparative Planetology, depending on how Earth-centered I'm feeling.

When I got married the day before I graduated, I became half of a two-body problem. After we spent a couple of years programming in areas unrelated to our scientific interests, during which time my spouse switched from artificial intelligence to wildlife ecology, we both applied to Cornell (attractions being Carl Sagan and a colony of skunks; it's complicated.). I didn't get in, but my spouse did, but in my rejection letter, Carl said there was a possibility of a job in his lab so I could prove my value and apply to the PhD program the following year.We moved, I got the job, which involved helping discover the Uranian rings (see below), and I started doing research and publishing papers. I didn't want to stop doing science to go back to school and get a PhD, so I just kept working. I have probably done a couple of theses worth of work over the years. And I know a lot about Eastern Striped Skunks, too, as my relationship with them turned out to last longer than the marriage.

Who inspired you?

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Higgins, got me interested in nature and everything around me. She was tough, and a lot of my classmates didn't like her, but I tried to meet her challenges, sometimes succeeding.

When I was in high school, Carl Sagan started to become well-known to the general public, and I went into the local big city, Chicago, to hear him give a series of lectures, which strengthened my interest in solar system astronomy. I treasure a signed first edition of “Cosmic Connections”, published while I was in grad school at MIT, and the two and a half years I worked down the hall from him and got to hear him ask pertinent questions at colloquia.

Jim Elliot was the most generous scientist I have ever known, making sure that everyone on our occultation team, including engineers and programmers, was involved in every aspect of the work and always got credit for their contributions. I was lucky to be able to work with him for 8 years.

What is an astronomical software developer?

I turn scientific knowledge into modeling and analysis software, performing many of the computations astrophysicists need to do their work but would rather have someone else do. The trick is to make that software accessible to everyone who can use it by turning it into a set of well-documented and testable tools, which I have done with RVSAO, an IRAF package for redshifts and radial velocities, which I wrote over 25 years ago and still maintain, and WCSTools, a standalone package of software tools for manipulating image files, catalogs, coordinates, and the world coordinate systems which tie them together. Along the way, I wrote data pipelines to make data usable, starting with one for one of the first digital spectrographs for my Masters thesis at MIT. This was followed by a suite of reduction and analysis software for high speed photometry (at Cornell and MIT), scan mapping of the infrared sky from the Spacelab 2 Infrared Telescope on the space shuttle (at SAO), and a series of one- and two-dimensional high and low resolution spectrographs (at SAO).

Why are community issues important to you?

Wearing the solar system
I like people and think that a diverse group of people is more creative than a bunch of people who are alike. When I joined the AAS almost 35 years ago, I was the only one in my research group to be a member of the Division for Planetary Science and the Division on Dynamical Astronomy because my work involved combining precise solar system motions and star positions to study both the nature of planets and their environment and the nature of the stars they occulted. I got involved in both communities, serving on local organizing committees for both and the DDA division committee, as well as running the DDA's web site for 15 years. I value the community of astronomers as friends and colleagues and want it to be as good as it can be.

When I changed gender, I simultaneously joined two professional minorities (women astronomers and the much smaller group of transgender astronomers). I found myself in the middle of a new unified campaign for inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds and identities. In the past year, I have learned a lot about what is still to be done through involvement with the first Inclusive Astronomy conference and the AAS Diversity Summit.

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

My favorite moment occurred when I was 25, less than 6 months into that new job at Cornell almost 40 years ago, while flying in the Kuiper Airborne Observatory somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean, when Jim Elliott, Ted Dunham, and I saw a star's signal from out high-speed photometer drop well before and well after it was blocked by Uranus, the atmosphere of which we were planning to probe. My exclamation,“Uranus has its own asteroid belt, obviously”, recorded and published in Jim Elliot's and Dick Kerr's “Rings”, turned out not to quite be true, as we were discovering the second known set of planetary rings in the solar system.

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

Be patient, work hard, and think about how to plan your life so you can do things you like to do in addition to astronomy. Finding partners who support what you do helps a lot, too, though lives change, and relationships aren't permanent. Sometimes, this takes sacrifices.

What do you do for fun?

Leading women cyclists on the Neponset River Greenway
I bike a lot, part of a concerted effort to try to make the world greener, starting with my neighborhood, working with others to get a greenway built (10/13 miles done so far) and preserve green space in Boston, where I live. I like to go to concerts and plays, sing in a church choir and act a bit, study and teach 19th century American intellectual and religious history (in the Unitarian church and eastern Massachusetts, they're tied together), and read voraciously. I tend to get involved in organizations, helping start them (the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition and the East Coast Greenway Alliance), chair committees like the Neponset River Greenway Council, and serve on boards, right now GLBT Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD: we got same-sex marriage), New Brook Farm (supporting our local 19th century Transcendentalist historical site), and my Unitarian church's Standing Committee.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

I want to make sure that men, women, and others, both young and old, know that there are lots of ways for a woman to be a scientist, and that diversity makes for better science.

What's next?

I turn 65 in 2016, and want to keep on doing all of things I'm currently doing for as long as I can and get more involved with exoplanet research and the history of astronomical data. I have several older role models around me that have shown how productive one can remain.