Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Meet the CSWA: David Grinspoon

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.  David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, award-winning science communicator, and prize-winning author. He is a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and Adjunct Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Science at the University of Colorado. His research focuses on climate evolution on Earth-like planets and potential conditions for life elsewhere in the universe. He is involved with several interplanetary spacecraft missions for NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency. In 2013 he was appointed as the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the U.S. Library of Congress where he studied the human impact on Earth systems and organized a public symposium on the Longevity of Human Civilization. His technical papers have been published in Nature, Science, and numerous other journals, and he has given invited keynote talks at conferences around the world. Grinspoon’s popular writing has appeared in Slate, Scientific American, Natural History, Nautilus, Astronomy, Seed, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Sky & Telescope Magazine where he is a contributing editor and writes the quasi-monthly “Cosmic Relief” column. He is the author and editor of several books. His newest book Earth in Human Hands was named a Best Science Book of 2016 by NPR’s Science Friday. His previous book Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Nonfiction.  Grinspoon has been recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal for Public Communication of Planetary Science by the American Astronomical Society. He appears frequently as a science commentator on television, radio and podcasts, including as a frequent guest on StarTalk Radio and host of the new spinoff StarTalk All Stars. Also a musician, he currently leads the House Band of the Universe.

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

I think my first personal cosmic connection came as a child on Cape Cod where my family vacationed in the summer, lying on the beach at night staring for hours, awestruck, at the piercing stars floating above. 

Another important formative experience was watching the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon when I was in the 4th grade. From that moment I was hooked.

How did you end up working in the field?

From an early age I was captivated by space exploration and science fiction. I knew I wanted to work in space science from a pretty young age. As an undergraduate at Brown University I fell under the spell of a several inspiring professors in the planetary geology department. Summer jobs as a research assistant secured my desire to become a planetary scientist. Grad school in planetary science at the University of Arizona was the next step, followed by a post-doctoral appointment at NASA Ames. Since then I’ve been a university professor, a researcher at a non-profit research corporation, a museum curator, a scholar at the library of congress and – now- a senior scientist at Planetary Science Institute.  In all these positions I’ve endeavored to balance my research career with a deep interest in outreach and public communication of science.  

Who inspired you?

Carl Sagan and the other first generation of planetary scientists who sent the first missions to the planets in the 1960s and 1970s. Also writers like Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Isaac Asimov and Diane Ackerman.

What is an astrobiologist?

Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary effort to understand the potential for the universe to make life in different environments. We use the history and limits of life on Earth to try to understand general principles of biology that may apply elsewhere, and we use our growing understanding of other environments in the universe to determine where promising locations for biology may reside, and how we may go about finding evidence for extraterrestrial life. My own niche in this wide field is modelling of planetary evolution, more specifically climate evolution of Earthlike planets and how planets may gain or lose habitable conditions as they evolve.

What community issues are important to you and why?

I’ve been active in environmental issues, nuclear disarmament, fighting homelessness, and various political campaigns. Within the scientific community and our field in particular, I am concerned about equity and fostering a safe, supportive and inclusive environment.     

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

Being selected as the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the U.S. Library of Congress was a great honor, and my two years there were an unforgettable experience. The resources there are, of course, unparalleled, and I learned so much from the scholars working in other fields. I’ve always been interested in exploring the boundaries between astrobiology and societal issues and for that time it was my job to do so.

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

My career path has been pretty unusual. I’m not sure I would recommend it! Actually, I would – it has often been tremendously rewarding. But, not having tenure, I’ve never had job security. I’ve balanced that to some extent by diversifying. Recently I’ve been making about half my income from book writing, and about half from my grant supported research. So, if you really want to follow my path, keep alert for ways to support yourself that don’t depend on the loyalty of institutions. 

What do you do for fun?

I like to play music, travel, read, hike, hang out with friends, and spend time with my wife. Also, we just got a puppy, which is proving to be somewhat demanding but pretty entertaining.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

Since I left academia, and then more recently left the Museum world I’ve been working somewhat more on my own, both as a “remote researcher” for Planetary Science Institute, and as a half time self-employed author. This has removed me somewhat from the channels I previously had to be involved in equity issues, as a member of institutional committees in my earlier places of employment. I was gratified to be invited to be a part of CSWA because, I hope, it can provide me with a means of contributing to these issues on a different level. Also, as a planetary scientist who has mostly participated in the DPS, I feel slightly peripheral to the mainstream community of the AAS. (I’ve only been to one AAS meeting!) Recently I’ve become more explicitly involved in anti-harassment and equity issues within the DPS, and I hope that I can help to serve as a bridge between these communities.

When did you first become involved in gender equity issues? 

My freshman year at college I was invited to participate in a feminist consciousness raising group. It ended up being a very powerful and transformative experience for me, requiring me to deeply examine my own conditioning around gender issues and to help facilitate the same in others.  After that I was part of a group that would go around campus, into frat houses and dorms, facilitating conversations about race and gender issues.