Pamela Gay

Astronomer and Assistant Research Professor - Edwardsville

Where are you from?

I was born in California, but my parents moved to Westford, Mass. when I was in the second grade. While I remember living in California, I call Massachusetts home.

Westford is a fairly small town, and from my childhood bedroom I could see dairy cows grazing on the other side of a corn field. One of the advantages of growing up somewhere fairly rural was the dark skies. Westford is home to both Haystack Observatory and Wallace Observatory. I was actually lucky enough to get to work at Haystack during my senior year of high school.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

It's hard for me to remember a time when space wasn't a part of my life -- my earliest memories are scattered with space connections.

I remember being made to take naps, at the age of five, so I could stay up to watch on TV the images from the Voyagers missions as they passed Jupiter in 1979. I also remember later getting to see contrails of the space shuttle as it came in to land at Edwards Air Force Base. From these experiences I went on be a kid who read science fiction books, while pouring over the science fact pages of "Odyssey" magazine.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I'm an astronomer (I've been employed most of my life as an astronomer). While in high school and through my undergraduate years, I analyzed Very Large Array (VLA) data of T Tauri stars. I later went on to study variable stars and galaxy evolution as a graduate student. But that was all astronomy from the ground, and not space science. I feel like I snuck into the space program through a rather wonderful back door.

In 2008, while working on plans for the International Year of Astronomy, I became involved in online citizen science. As we worked to find ways to engage the public in astronomy and space science, a group of us realized that NASA data was the answer.

Many different NASA missions produce so much data that if scientists tried to look at all the data on their own, they'd never be able to make it through more than a small percentage of the images. And there are lots of different science problems that require human beings to look at images for features that computers just can't always identify on their own. We realized we could, in many cases, train the public to help NASA since the tasks that scientists need help with just require people to be able to recognize patterns. Our ideas from 2008 started to become a reality in 2010 with a project called Moon Zoo, a website that asks the public to help identify craters and other features in images of the Moon.

From there I went on to build the site Ice Hunters, which asks people to help find the Kuiper Belt object (or objects) that the New Horizons mission will visit after Pluto.

Today, my time is consumed in building and planning two new sites -- Planet Investigators and Planet Mappers -- which will look at the environments around planets and map the surfaces of planets respectively.

As long as there is a problem with too much data, I hope that I will continue to be able to engage the public in helping the space program.

Who inspired you?

I'm not sure I can name any one person. I remember being impressed in high school by the work Henrietta Levitt did studying variable stars at Harvard, but at that stage my interest in astronomy and space science had already been present for years.

I think what mattered more for me may be who it was that facilitated my interest.

My dad was always there, handing me books, and when he could, buying me a telescope and sending me to Space Camp. In high school, a regional teacher, W. Russell Blake, taught an astronomy club at my town's community center, and he pushed me to study more and do more. He even helped me go spend six months working at the 6-m telescope in the Soviet Union while I was still in high school.

Mentoring has been important to me, and even today, I know that my success is largely thanks to a few key people periodically saying, "You know, you really should ..." and encouraging me to do new things and reach for bigger things. We all need someone to push us, and I've been lucky to have a series of people helping me throughout my career.

What is a Assistant Research Professor?

When people ask me what I do, I say I'm an astronomer. Technically, I'm an assistant research professor, which is a complicated way to say that I'm a scientist lucky enough to get to work at a university where I can engage students in helping me with all my different projects. Since I am a research professor most of my time is spent working on research projects for NASA, but I do teach classes.

My typical week includes a mix of spending time writing software to allow people to do citizen science, analyzing the results of their work, mentoring my students on their research projects, recording episodes of my podcast "Astronomy Cast," and, of course, attending meetings and telecons. During the less than typical weeks, I get to travel the world and share astronomy and planetary science with others through giving public lectures.

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

In 2010 I was able to attend the "Communicating Astronomy to the Public" meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. After the main conference, we were given a chance to go on a side trip to Sutherland Observatory, where we toured the large telescopes and used several smaller telescopes to explore the southern skies. The last night, a group of us from nations scattered across the planet, sat outside talking while watching the sky rotate and waiting for the sun to rise. We were at one of the darkest places on Earth, and just sitting there looking up with our unaided eye was an amazing experience. As dawn approached and the sun brightened, we realized that where we'd settled on the side of the mountain was in the middle of a herd of springbok, and watching them come awake and begin to graze while we sat still in the grass was the perfect way to end the night.

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

If you are willing to work hard, and keep working hard, you can be really successful. Having a career in space science is harder than you'll ever imagine. The jobs are very few, the funding is scarce and every year you find yourself wondering if Congress will cut the budget in a way that cuts your job. I work long hours, and I have to admit that sometimes getting everything done on time means working late into the night.

Working in space science isn't an easy path, but if you wake up each day hungry to explore the solar system, the stress is worth it. For many though, it makes more sense to seek jobs in other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related fields (many of which pay better!) and to have astronomy and NASA image processing or other forms of citizen science as hobbies. There are many ways to be part of the space science community!

All that said, I have one of the best jobs in the world, and for me the hard work is worth it. I get to help people understand the solar system and define the places of future exploration for spacecraft.

What do you do for fun?

I ride horses whenever I can. I like to jump small courses, and I enjoy constantly learning new skills. It is hard to be distracted by the stress of the day when you're riding a horse and I like being forced to use my brain in a completely different way than I do at work.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Don't ever be afraid to look for opportunities to get involved today. Many people don't realize that it is possible to get involved in science and engineering while you're still in high school. Check your local university, and see if you can work with one of the faculty (especially if you are looking for a science fair project). Check with local companies that do what you want to do, and see if they have internships. Look to start living your future dream right now. The worst that can happen is you don't find a local opportunity, but if you're lucky, instead of serving burgers, you might get to spend high school searching images from NASA spacecraft, writing video games or doing whatever it is that excites you.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.