Sarah “Sally” Dodson-Robinson

Assistant Professor - University of Texas

This profile has been adapted in part from an interview conducted by Susan Niebur for the "Women in Planetary Science" website. To read the full original interview, click here.

Where are you from?

I was born in Los Angeles, Calif., but I have lived in many different places. I usually say I'm from California since I spent more of my childhood there than any other place.

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

I almost can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in space science. When I was seven or eight years old, I joined the Planetary Society and I collected the mini-posters of planets and moons that came with the magazine. Then my dad went on a business trip to Washington, D.C., and brought back a Voyager 2 poster book he picked up at the Air and Space Museum. I spent almost all of my spare time poring over that book and memorizing the planet and moon facts on the back of each photo. In fact, I used to quiz my family at the dinner table with such questions as which moon was the biggest in the solar system (Jupiter's Ganymede) or which planet had a sideways-rotation axis (Uranus), for example.

How did you end up working in the space program?

By the time I went to college at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) I had decided that I would get a job in industry. I still liked astronomy, but I didn't know if it was a "real" career path. I also liked photography, so I decided to get a degree in imaging science. That way I could go and design printers for Kodak or chips for Intel.

I didn't start thinking about graduate school until my junior year. There were a couple of astronomers on the imaging science faculty and I got a job with one of them reducing observations of binary stars. Once I started doing the research -- making it part of my day-to-day routine -- I hardly wanted to do anything else. My advisor told me I could be a "real" astronomer and make it my job by getting a Ph.D. in astronomy.

When I applied to graduate schools, I was not at all confident that I would be accepted anywhere: imaging science is an unconventional bachelor's degree for a graduate student in astronomy -- most students study physics or astrophysics. I was extremely surprised when I was accepted into all the schools I had applied to except one. I chose the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) because it had an active research program on exoplanets and the solar system, and because Santa Cruz has good weather -- I was very tired of the cold, gray northeast.

UCSC turned out to be a very good fit for me. I immediately started working with the N2K planet hunting consortium and I really enjoyed helping to discover new planets. However, planet hunting is an extremely competitive, fast-moving field and it is not particularly suitable for a graduate student who needs time to learn new research methods.

At this time, I became interested in the chemical aspects of planet formation. I had always been bothered that astronomers spent a lot of time and energy understanding Jupiter's formation, but not Saturn's. (Many of the known exoplanets are similar in mass to Jupiter, and so Jupiter had become the prototype planet.) However, I felt that the other planets in the solar system were being neglected as objects of study.

I decided to do my thesis on the chemistry of planet formation, with a focus on Saturn. (I later applied this research in a very fun way to the exoplanet astronomers call "hot Saturn.") My ability to choose my own thesis project was a direct result of receiving the National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship. All of the chapters in my thesis were projects that I had designed, which made me very heavily invested in the outcome of the research.

In my final year of grad school I applied for 17 jobs, which is actually a modest number compared to some of my colleagues. Most of the applications I did were for postdocs, but a few were for faculty positions. My goal was just to get on a faculty shortlist and experience the interview process; I never thought that I would get an actual offer. The first postdoc offer I received was for the Spitzer Fellowship. I was at first relieved to have any job offer at all, and then excited because it was one of my top choices.

After I had accepted the Spitzer Fellowship, and while still in my final year of grad school, I found out that I had made the shortlist at the University of Texas (UT). I was extremely surprised, but I knew I had a fantastic opportunity and so I accepted the position. While on leave from UT for one year I used my Spitzer Fellowship to work at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute. There I was able to continue working with one of my Ph.D. committee members and the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with whom I had collaborated for my thesis.

Having the one year as a postdoc really helped me get my research program going. I had time without teaching or committee responsibilities to publish my remaining thesis papers, complete several new projects and start a new collaboration. Now I use my postdoc work as a foundation for a lot of the new research I'm doing as a faculty member.

What is an Assistant Professor of Astronomy?

I am an Assistant Professor in the astronomy program at the University of Texas (UT). I teach undergraduate and graduate astronomy classes, including a class on the solar system. This class is a lot of fun because I get to teach a lot of the things that first got me interested in astronomy. I show some of the same pictures I had in my childhood Voyager II poster book, plus the beautiful new images from Cassini.

Sometimes the students get really excited by the class material. For example, they like to know exactly how big an asteroid has to be in order to wipe out life on Earth, or how long you would free fall if you jumped off a cliff on Uranus' moon Miranda, for example. I also interpret the title "solar system" rather broadly and include material on the exoplanets too -- other nearby solar systems!

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

Defending my Ph.D. was definitely a favorite moment. I went out of the room while the committee deliberated, and they only talked for a few minutes before my advisor called my cell phone and asked, "Can Doctor Robinson please return to the conference room?"

Who inspired you?

Early on, I was inspired by Stephen Hawking. Later, I was inspired by my undergraduate and graduate advisors, Elliott Horch and Greg Laughlin. Mostly though, I was inspired when I saw real people working in the field.

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

It really helps to have some research experience in college if you want to go to graduate school. Especially since it appears that graduate admissions are getting tougher (in my opinion). It is also common now for graduate school applicants to have publications. While I don't believe undergraduate students should be under pressure to publish, they generally need at least one letter of recommendation that focuses on research skills in order to be competitive for most astronomy graduate programs. Try the Research Experience for Undergraduates program (see below) if your school doesn't have research opportunities.

What do you do for fun?

I have a young baby, so taking care of her fills most of my non-working hours. Lately, my main hobby is walking outdoors since the baby can come with me in the stroller. I do like hiking, and when I have time, I also enjoy cooking and reading.

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

A science or math degree can be useful for so many exciting careers. For me, if I weren't an astronomer I'd be a climate scientist or any kind of Earth scientist. In fact, one thing I love about my specialty (planetary astronomy) is that I get exposure to Earth science.

Plus, there are so many choices for math and science majors that are not only interesting, but good for society. For example: oceanographer, medical researcher or environmental toxicologist. Stick with it and you'll have a rewarding career!

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Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.