Amy Mainzer with Mike Cushing at Caltech

As soon as I saw her name and job description, I knew. I said to myself, "I have to meet this person whose job is watching and studying our amazing galaxy, whose job is to see every moment of every day what the rest of us only see on Discovery Channel."

I was chosen by my high school to write an article about one of the women scientists who work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part its Women's History Month celebration. I chose Amy Mainzer, an expert on asteroids and the evolution of galaxies. She's the deputy project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission, a four channel, super-cooled infrared telescope designed to survey the entire sky with 1,000 times more sensitivity than previous infrared missions. In her role, Amy gets to research asteroids, brown dwarfs, planetary atmospheres, debris disks and star formation, and she's involved in the design and construction of instrumentation for ground and space missions.

Mainzer and I agreed to meet on a Friday afternoon at the Caltech campus. I can't emphasize enough how time crawled that day. It felt as if the arms of the clock were standing still, as if time itself had stopped. In my mind, I had pictured a much older person, but to my surprise, waiting for me was a vibrant young lady radiating enthusiasm, confidence and intelligence.

We made our way into the building where she works, and the moment she started talking about her job, I got captivated and forgot all the questions I had prepared for her. It was like everything disappeared around me, and I got immersed in her world.

Soon, I began to get a clear understanding of what the scientists at JPL do. But I was curious what brought all these experts and Mainzer, herself, to JPL. The answer was quite simple.

"The JPL team is a group of people who are really some of the best in the world at building and launching space satellites, space-based telescopes and robot missions to learn about our universe," Mainzer said. "There are few places that do that kind of work. Every time I go in the gate, I think, 'Wow! This is a really cool place! I'm really lucky to work here.'"

I'd say that JPL is pretty lucky to employ her. Not many women go into a field like hers and become as successful. Amy is truly one-of-a-kind. She's a Harry Potter fanatic, loves math and roller blading, and most important, her job.

"I'm interested in all kinds of astronomy," she said. "But the project I had been working on happened to be particularly good at looking at asteroids. I started reading about the asteroids, and I thought, 'Wow! This is kind of fun. It's really interesting. They move!' It sounds simple, but when you study astronomy, a lot of the things you look at are really far away, and to our perspective, they don't move very fast. They look fixed. But with asteroids, they move and they get very close, so constantly they're kind of fun." 

I thought Mainzer's line of work sounded fantastic and I realized that maybe it's not so hard to be a woman working in science, especially when you have as much passion and intelligence as Mainzer. It was clear from my interview that JPL is a beehive that nurtures and acquires young, brilliant, enthusiastic minds. Mainzer taught me a lot, and I wish to follow in her footsteps. She's a very bright young lady who's part of a brilliant team of scientists who are trailblazing and opening the doors for future generations of teenagers.

TAGS: Women in STEM, High School, Women's History Month

  • Jasmin Ionescu
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Farisa Morales at JPL

Today, successful women in science all contribute to a "little piece of the puzzle." Farisa Morales makes her contribution as an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory studying other planetary systems, observing the sky through the Spitzer Space Telescope and analyzing the dust around distant stars outside our solar system in search of new planets. But she didn't discover this passion until she was in college.

At the start of her college experience, Morales was majoring in mathematics and decided on taking an internship at JPL for engineering. She was later introduced to Spitzer Project Scientist Michael Werner, who asked her to take on huge task far from her comport zone: help take in data from the giant space telescope. This would range from searching for baby star formations to discovering distant galaxies at the edges of the universe. Farisa found her calling and she wanted to be exposed to even more. She switched her major to astrophysics and now has her PhD. "Life just takes you places and you are the main force pushing through," said Morales.

As part of the University of Southern California's Organization of Women in Physics, Morales takes an active role in encouraging women to be a part of the science field. Over the years she's juggled raising two kids, working and studies, but she says, "If I can do it, why can't others?" hoping to see a rise in the number of women in science.

These days, she spends her time writing proposals, programming downloaded images from Spitzer, learning about a specific telescope or publishing a recent finding. Even teaching astronomy at Cerritos College, Los Angeles Mission College, Pierce College and California State University, Northridge adds to her busy schedule.  In five to ten years she sees herself at a full-time job teaching at a university while still maintaining her research activities at JPL. She's earned a few awards including an American Astronomical Society Chambliss award. To Morales, the work itself is satisfying. "My life has not been in vain because I'm providing the answers to one little tiny piece of the cosmic puzzle," she said. "I came into this world, and I worked and solved a little tiny piece of the puzzle. And when I leave, that is my legacy. The realization of knowing you're a productive human being and you're leaving something positive for humanity to continue to build upon is just tremendous!"

TAGS: Women in STEM, Women's History Month, High School, Astronomy, Science

  • Vanessa Magdaleno
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Maggi Glasscoe

It's been said that the best opportunities come when least expected. Margaret Glasscoe was on her way to becoming a journalist when one class during her freshman year of college set her life on a different course. It would turn out to be the catalyst that set her future into full throttle.

Glasscoe was born on the Air Force base in Blytheville, Arkansas, to an air force engineer and his wife. Her family moved to Arizona when she was nine years old. There she become a star pupil. She was among the other high achieving students at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, Arizona, that were "slated" to go to college. Even though her main focus in high school revolved around journalism, she still loved the sciences. Astronomy research was an activity she participated in during her junior year of high school. Playing clarinet in the school band, volunteering with the district video crew and participating with the school newspaper were among her favorite high school activities.

Journalism was how she came to California. The University of Southern California was doing recruitment for their school of journalism, and it sparked her interest in the school. However, her decision to attend USC led to more than just a change of scenery.

College definitely brought out Glasscoe's inner passions. College is where people go to try new things, discover themselves and their future; Glasscoe accomplished this and more. Staying true to her roots, she became involved with the college radio station as a disc-jockey and news-staff reporter. This was on top of tutoring students and working. Amazingly, she found time to take a class in oceanography. And it was that small decision that would lead her to declare a major in geology her sophomore year. It was only the beginning. She would go on to participate in the Geology Honor's Society and take an internship with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory - the beginning of a long and rewarding relationship between herself and JPL. The work she did during her summer internship at JPL involved developing web-based modules for global positioning systems. The internship allowed her to explore all the possibilities that JPL had to offer. She even went on to achieve a master's degree in geology from the University of California at Davis. She is now on her way to completing her doctorate in geology, which will mark her fourth degree including her bachelor's in print journalism, for which she never forgot her passion.

Today, Glasscoe's contribution to science goes beyond her background. When people do what they love, it becomes less like work and more like play. Glasscoe has gotten to play around with some of the coolest "toys" JPL has to offer all in the name of science. She is a master multi-tasker. Not only is she the principal investigator on the E-DECIDER (Earthquake Data Enhanced Cyber-Infrastructure for Disaster Evaluation and Response) project, but she also collaborates with other researchers, scientists and engineers on the QuakeSim and DESDynI projects. These projects take research to another level. The E-DECIDER project is striving to find better response scenarios for earthquakes using a web-based tool that interprets complex science data so decision-makers can be better prepared to react to earthquake events. The QuakeSim project is what interprets that data and makes it useful.

Such complexity requires teamwork. Glasscoe collaborates with the researchers, scientists and engineers at Indiana University, University of California at Davis, and the Sacramento U.S. Geological Survey. Even with all these great people and resources at her disposal, she stays almost constantly busy, but being able to solve problems of this scale helps keep her motivated. It also lets other women know that this kind of field isn't impossible. Glasscoe is proving that women serve important roles in science and that even more can be accomplished.

Glasscoe has done marvels for the world of science. Her research contributes to improvements in earthquake response. Her past contributes to her individuality and drive. Her decisions contribute to her future. Glasscoe is paving the way for women pursuing careers in science.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Women's History Month, Earthquakes, Science, High School

  • Chelsie Sunblade
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