Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Career Profiles: Geochemist to Planetary Scientist

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is compiling interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Dr. Amy Riches, a freelance scientist whose work has the goal of unmasking the magmatic and interior compositions, origins, and evolutionary chapters of asteroids formed over 4.5 billion years ago, as well as Mars and the Earth-Moon system. As a broad-based petrologist and isotope cosmo/geochemist her studies generate coordinated mineral and 'bulk rock' data sets via frontline investigative approaches. The findings arising from these examinations of rocks from space are needed to resolve long-standing controversies concerning the origins of our habitable home world, as well as the search for habitable bodies elsewhere in the cosmos.

As part of her wider contributions to the scientific community, Amy enjoys driving inclusive activities such as scientific meetings and edited volumes that have advocated for and stimulated new multidisciplinary directions of study at international levels. In addition, she has led a number of public talks, articles with international media reaching many millions of readers, online showcases, and interactive outreach activities designed to enhance the engagement of global societies with planetary science themes. You can reach out to Amy at her email ajvriches AT gmail.com and catch up on her work at her website https://amyriches.org.

To access our previous Career Profiles, please go to http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/search/label/career%20profiles

What field do you currently work in?

Some years ago, I trained in geosciences and isotope geochemistry. My postdoctoral studies introduced me to the planetary sciences and this is the subject area that I am now fully-dedicated to as a meteorite researcher and planetary science educator, as well as Author and Editor of forthcoming books on these themes. The work that I and others undertake in meteoritics, planetary petrology, and isotope cosmochemistry disciplines is relevant to astronomical, astrobiological, and astrophysical communities as well as being of interest much more broadly. For these reasons I am growing to become a strongly interdisciplinary scientist.

What is the job title for your current position?

I am presently revelling in the ultimate in intellectual freedom as I am working freelance while completing journal publications, and taking the initiative to drive forward an Edited standalone, advanced-level reference text provisionally titled ‘Habitable Worlds and Planetary Sustainability’. This book brings together a diverse and expert team of writers from around the globe, and this project was recently contracted by Springer Nature (https://amyriches.org/thematic-book). I have also supported PhD candidate Nicola Mari in completing his doctoral thesis that was submitted in September.

In addition, provisional arrangements for a meeting entitled “Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds” have been set in motion (https://amyriches.org/meeting-forming-and-exploring-habitable-worlds). The two core themes of this envisaged event are: 1) The origins of habitable bodies in and beyond our home Solar System, and; 2) The motivation for and current status of priorities for space exploration and its governance.

Further, I am thrilled to be working with former colleagues – Alexandra Le Fort (https://alexlefort.com) and Julius Csontonyi (http://csotonyi.com) - whose own post-PhD career paths are very interesting in that they have become successful scientific illustrators. Together we are developing an illustrated book aimed at children aged 8 to 12 that introduces these young minds to the search for habitable worlds beyond our own. I believe that we have a responsibility to share our science with our academic communities as well as with the public that often funds us, and I enjoy doing both of these things in a variety of ways and alongside all other activities.

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

Before I answer this question, I think that it is useful to note that in some respects I come from a non-traditional background. This is because I was the first person among my entire extended family to attend any kind of university, and many of my close relatives set out to the world of work before finishing high school. I am proud of my achievements and especially thankful for positive family attitudes and encouraging teachers in my early-life. I hold a first class MSci in Geological Sciences from Durham University and obtained my PhD at the Walton Hall Campus of the Open University (OU) – both UK institutions. Though I was a member of what was the OU’s Earth Science Department during my doctoral studies, this institution is home to a large research group in planetary and space sciences, as well as astrobiology, and this is where my professional interaction with these fields began.

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

I recently held a Marie Curie Fellowship – “PGE PLANETS” – that permitted me to develop new knowledge and study techniques useful to unravelling the history of Mars and the 4-Vesta asteroid that was the subject of the NASA-led DAWN mission.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

I have been incredibly fortunate since completing my doctoral studies. My so called “non-linear” path in science is deliberate and is a strength. This is because my chosen route has allowed me to develop a number of competencies that I would otherwise not have acquired – included in this are determination, resilience, a high level of independence and organisational abilities, and creativity. Most important of all, this path has given me perspectives beneficial to my science and my skills in team management. This I find extremely useful in enriching the variety of achievements possible in my academic life. It may be because I gained my PhD at the Open University (which is a diverse and inclusive environment in which to work) that I see my history, and the choices underpinning it, as a perfectly normal part of life and thereby conventional.

The first postdoctoral appointment that I held was in the Planetary Geosciences Institute at the University of Tennessee, USA. Here I was part of the research team enthused by the unfettered passion for planetary research that was intrinsic to the team lead, Distinguished Professor Lawrence A. Taylor. Sadly, Larry passed in 2017 but the few years that I spent working with him earlier were transformative and I shall always wish for another office in which NASA TV is wired to allow mission launches to be watched live. The second appointment that I held was at the University of Alberta, Canada, where I was the first recruit by Canada Excellence in Research Chair, Professor D. Graham Pearson. As part of this role I was involved in a rare opportunity - the realisation of major new scientific infrastructure taking the form of the largest isotope geochemistry laboratories of their kind anywhere in the world. It was a very busy time and required for me to take a brief detour back into studying Earth’s mantle evolution via its geochemistry, but I was able to continue my engagement in planetary sciences through a journal club. I was also involved alongside Prof. Chris Herd (Meeting Chair, U of Alberta), Assoc. Prof Erin Walton-Hauck and Prof. Rob Hilts (both of MacEwan University) as an invited member of the local organising committee for the Annual Meeting of the Meteoritical Society.

While awaiting the result of an application for a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship I deviated from research employment. During this time I supported university teaching and worked in project management of ‘greening’ home renovation. However, I was awarded a Waitt grant by the National Geographic Society during this period and so squeezed in the leadership of an important expedition. This field work served to investigate a key theory concerning the origin of Earth’s long-lived crust via this planet’s youngest but largely submerged continent - Zealandia. This exciting study initiated a new collaboration with James Scott at the University of Otago, New Zealand, for which the first publication was released earlier in 2019. As my Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship was successful in being selected for funding by the European Commission, I then threw myself back into my true love - the planetary sciences - and did so in the Arthur Holmes Laboratories of the Durham Geochemistry Centre at the University of Durham, UK – where Prof. Kevin W. Burton served as host. In addition to developing useful new knowledge and study techniques through this Individual Fellowship, an important aspect of my work was the Chairing of a prominent international conference and my leadership of the ensuing Special Issue of Geochimica et Cosmochimca Acta (GCA) as Guest Managing Editor. These were important contributions to scientific progress and also key personal professional achievements. For example, GCA is the leading journal of geo and cosmochemistry, jointly supported by the Geochemical Society and the Meteoritical Society, and so contributing a Special Issue in a timely manner was a thrilling challenge that has helped to build my profile at a key point in my career.

Having completed my Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship, I have taken a second short side-step from research to attend to a few matters, and helped an excellent research group who were suddenly short-handed due to staff illness. As a freelance scientist I have especially enjoyed prioritising writing, securing book deals, and planning for the next stage of my career that is dedicated to meteoritics / cosmochemistry and the broader planetary sciences. As noted above, the freedom I have provided for is both pleasing and liberating; I consider myself incredibly privileged to have taken this path. I firmly believe that all of us who elect to follow such a route bring many benefits that only add to our enthusiasm for scientific discovery as well as enhancing our overall professional performance when securely positioned in academia.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

One of the best pieces of advice I can provide is to recommend engaging with wise mentors of established integrity whose objectivity you can be sure to trust and who respect your freedoms and personal choices too. Be happy doing what is best for you and your career when making critical decisions. We are each different from one another, and circumstances will vary and change with time. Be sure to strike a work-life balance that works for you.

Personally, I think that it is important to discretely reflect on what elements of a work-place environment make you feel comfortable and inspired. “Fit” may refer to a variety of factors, but it is only natural and constructive to give this careful thought so as to get this right. After all, enjoying your job will naturally support your productivity so as to optimise overall professional growth while exploring and sharing your greatest passions.

We can do a lot by networking widely and embodying inclusive and friendly constructive attitudes ourselves. It is fun and rewarding to do this and more to help improve diversity while effecting overall positive progress for our professional communities. Any one of us can do truly remarkable things at any point during our careers. This is because we are each privileged to have an advanced level of education and training, specialist skills and experience, as well as a strong work ethic. We are thereby fortunate to have choices. Do what you believe in and love, and do so with conviction.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

I thoroughly enjoy my work and am very passionate about my job as well as life – always have been. Working hard at all of these things is important to me at a personal level. I believe that it is critical to us all to honestly reflect (with supporting data) on the nature of the demands and / or “barriers”’ that employers / institutions – as well as current structural factors, policies, and procedures - can heave on to their staff.

Workplace cultures vary, but the most inviting – and in my opinion – the best performing environments are not just family friendly but are people friendly. It is always important to remember and respect that everyone is different as regards families or personal circumstances, and there will be times when we should demonstrate sensitivity. Some people have or will have children naturally, some will have fertility treatment or opt to adopt, some will not have children, and some cannot. Some people may experience ill health, some have established support networks and of varying natures, and some may be far from "home" - even recently so. Yet we must strive to make playing fields as level as possible and to properly value all kinds of people and their contributions of ideas. The latter that we hope to be progressive and potentially long-lasting. Environments that allow for unfair treatment of its staff, including excessive casualisation and / or overburden with or without the potential attempted use of intimidation, can have serious consequences and effects for individuals. If not addressed, these negative factors and their potentially tragic consequences do harm and can tarnish the perspectives of our wider community. For these reasons it is important and a duty for each of us to do what we can to help effect change for the positive in all relevant sectors. Engaging in such efforts - with direct employers / departments or much more widely - will ensure that our various career roles are balanced, rewarding, and appealing to people from all possible talent pools.

The trick to finding a workplace and work-life situation that works for and inspires you - whether in academia or otherwise - is likely to be reflected in your observations of the real and proven actions and reputations of its staff body and leadership of which you may become part. This evidenced aspect should be carefully considered before that of any available and potentially eloquent rhetoric. Do what is right for you in work as in life – and share your professional passions and knowledge because you can make a difference from anywhere.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

I have often found that in my field I hear a lot from those who engage in what could be viewed as relatively high-adrenalin pastimes. I use to be one of these types and I still dabble in this as well as camping. However, I enjoy being quietly creative and being around all kinds of interesting and talented creative people. As such, I can be found at various tea-drinking and cake-eating craft groups from time to time, and even wear what I make sometimes. At a personal level, I have always liked to stay aware and to be useful in a voluntary capacity in my own time. For this reason I also support charities that serve the homeless and less fortunate of society.

Anything else you'd like to add?

To my knowledge - and though there are established community philosophies and aligned efforts in the form of society policies and useful workshops - we do not yet have a CSWA equivalent and dedicated committee embedded in cosmo- and geochemistry’s professional bodies outside of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America (AGU and GSA, respectively). Yet “insufficient facts always invite danger” – Spock, S.T. season one. A purposeful committee dedicated to casting a spotlight on the achievements, interests, concerns, and exemplary role models of people from various minority or non-traditional backgrounds is a positive thing. Such constructive activities and their findings should, of course, be easily accessible to all during our studies and subsequent careers. Because we can do more, I hope to see this brought about for the wider meteoritics and cosmo/geochemistry communities very soon. Some new efforts are being campaigned for at present among other international and national professional societies, and I fully support these too. It would be great for the model of the CSWA and AGU / GSA to be extended and rolled-out more widely.

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