Bio: Nicolle Zellner is an associate professor of physics at Albion College in Albion, MI, where she teaches introductory and advanced astronomy and physics courses. Her research interests focus on understanding the impact history of the Earth-Moon system and how those impacts affected the conditions for life on Earth. Dr. Zellner studies lunar impact glasses to interpret the bombardment history of the Moon (and Earth), and a second project focuses on understanding how the chemistry of simple molecules is affected by impacts.
During the 2006-2007 field season, she was a member of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) team that searched for meteorites in Antarctica. She spent two months there, and the team collected over 800 meteorites! Before coming to Albion College in 2005, she was a post-doctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. While there, she was also a Faculty Scholar associated with the Edward Teller Education Center. She was a member of the scientific ground crew during NASA’s STS-67 Astro-2 mission in 1995.
Nicolle's PhD is from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2001), where she received the school's first Multidisciplinary PhD. Her undergraduate degree, with majors in Physics and Astronomy and a certification in Environmental Studies, is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Zellner was an AAUW American Fellow, as well as a two-time Zonta Amelia Earhart Fellow. Her research has been supported by the American Astronomical Society and is currently supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars?
My earliest memory of thinking about the sky occurred during a presentation in 4th Grade at Winneconne (WI) Elementary School. A professor from UW-Oshkosh came to talk to our class and afterwards, we drew constellations. I drew Cancer the Crab.
How did you end up working in the field?
I have to credit my start in the field to my excellent undergraduate education and research experience at UW-Madison. Thanks to Dr. Chris Anderson, I was hired as an undergraduate telescope operator, to work at the Pine Bluff Observatory, a facility outside of Madison that is owned and operated by the UW. A few years later, the faculty in the Astronomy Department and the staff at the Space Astronomy Lab were getting ready for Astro-2, a space shuttle mission dedicated to ultraviolet astronomy (STS-67). I was hired to work the mission, and in particular, to reduce data acquired by the Wisconsin telescope (WUPPE). Working with the Wisconsin team, as well as with the astronomer astronauts (4 of them!), on this mission convinced me that I wanted a career that somehow involved space exploration.
Who inspired you?
My mother was a great role model who showed me that school was cool, receiving her undergraduate degree when I was in high school. Thus, neither she nor my father ever failed to support me in my academic pursuits. But I think I was inspired to stay in astronomy by Marilyn Meade and Dr. Karen Bjorkman, two astronomers who were at Wisconsin when I was an undergraduate student working at the Pine Bluff Observatory. I could tell from the moment I met them and then worked with them that they loved their jobs. I, too, wanted a job that I loved, and so far, I do!
What is an Associate Professor Physics?
An associate professor at a liberal arts college is a jill of all trades. A professor at the associate level has (usually) received tenure at his/her college/university. At Albion College, a liberal arts college in south-central Michigan, I teach six courses per year, which usually means two lectures and two labs (labs count as ½ of a course) each semester. Since I do have external funding from NASA and the NSF, I have been able to buy-out teaching time each semester and use that time for research. At Albion, we are strongly encouraged to work with students, and I’ve been able to mentor many of them in my time here. We are also expected to provide “service” to the College, which can come in the form of committee work, recruiting students, meeting with alumni, and working in the community of Albion. Of course, we are also expected to be excellent teachers and to be active in our field of research.
What community issues are important to you and why?
As one of just a few female scientists at Albion College, I’m particularly interested in the hiring and retention of female faculty in tenure-track lines. Studies have shown that gender bias as it pertains to faculty development, promotion, and retention is rampant, but very simple changes in policy can help to reduce or even eliminate those biases. For example, studies have shown that female scientists receive lower scores in student teaching evaluations (which are often used in faculty career evaluations) due to a variety of things not related to teaching, including weight, pregnancy, and clothing style. Having a faculty member (e.g., department chairperson) observe in class and then comment on teaching style (e.g., in tenure reviews) is a far more effective way to assess teaching ability. Additionally, female scientists are not nominated for awards as often as men are and if they are, they are held to higher standards. Having women serve on selection committees, having defined evaluation criteria, and educating nomination and selection committee members about biases, can help to increase the number of female nominees, and thus awardees.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
I have three of them: Working on the STS-67 mission, going to Antarctica, and spending my first sabbatical in Australia. The latter allowed me to develop excellent collaborations that resulted in two once-in-a-lifetime trips Down Under with more scheduled in the next few years.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Be flexible, be patient, and be prepared for anything! And be determined. If you want a career in academia or the space business, stay true to your passion, no matter how rocky that path might get.
What do you do for fun?
Dance, travel, garden, watch reality TV, read... I’m a voracious reader – I think I have 10 books on my nightstand right now. This summer, I read “Ask for a Convertible” (by my Albion colleague Danit Brown), “Rocket Girls” (Nathalia Cole), “We Could Not Fail” (Richard W. Paul and Steven Moss), “Orphan Number 8” (Kim van Alkemade), “Here I Go Again” (Jennifer Lancaster), “High Price” (Carl Hart), and “Boys in the Boat” (Daniel James Brown), because every two years, I become obsessed with the Olympics. I’m currently listening to “Primates of Park Avenue” (Wednesday Martin), a fascinating (true) anthropological study of housewives who live in New York City’s Upper East Side (and an educational counter to my watching of reality TV).
What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?
As a member of CSWA, I learn so much from my colleagues at other institutions and I look forward to interacting with them, especially in developing programs for a diversity summit and/or the next Women in Astronomy workshop. Additionally, as one of the editors of AASWomen, I hope that the newsletter can provide timely and relevant stories and announcements for scholarships, awards, and jobs.
If you weren’t in the field of astronomy, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t in the field of astronomy, I would definitely be doing something related to dance – perhaps managing a studio or touring as a company’s stage manager. I spent my entire childhood and much of college and graduate school taking dance lessons at various studios around the country, including Los Angeles and New York City. Even though I no longer perform, I do love to watch dance and musical performances, from those of local studios to those of national touring companies who come to the local performing arts theater. This year I’m looking forward to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and Stomp performances, as well as seeing Wicked (2nd time) and Rent (4th time) again. I still dance now, though not as often – creative self-care helps keep me balanced.