As a scientist, you’re undoubtedly obsessed with research and creation. You want to make your mark on the world and create and discover new things that will help and teach others. You want to be part of something bigger than yourself, and you know that if you work hard enough, STEM fields can allow those dreams to become realities.
Abigail Fraeman has those dreams and aspirations. She loves being a scientist, exploring the unfamiliar and thinking outside the box. In fact, she spends most of her time thinking out of this planet.
She is a fifth-year graduate student in the Earth and Planetary Science department at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research is focused on understanding the history of Mars, and she spends her days analyzing the data returned from orbiting satellites and rovers on the ground.
Fraeman hopes her research can be used to help answer questions about what Mars was like four billion years ago, how it evolved to its current climate and if it ever supported life. With her advisor, Professor Ray Arvidson, she is a participating scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. (She also worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California with the rest of the science team during the first 90 days of rover operations and continues to participate in operations remotely from Washington University in St. Louis.)
At work, Fraeman provides input about what observations would be scientifically interesting to make each day, and her research ensures that those proposed observations fit within time, data, and power constraints. As if that’s not enough, she has also been analyzing orbital data to find the fastest and most scientifically interesting paths for Curiosity to take.
Inspired yet? I sure was, so I decided to talk to Fraeman and see what makes her tick. By picking her brain, I found out what makes her—and her passion—truly out of this world!
KC: Tell me about your upbringing. When did you first fall in love with science, and when did you realize you wanted to make a career of it? Tell me about the Intel competition and its impact on your career.
AF: I can't remember when I fell in love with science—I've always been curious about the "why" and "how" of things, so science was a natural field for me to gravitate towards. When I was little, I remember I especially loved mixing things together to see what would happen and was very excited to get a chemistry kit as a present one year. I fell in love with space and astronomy when I was in middle school, and my dad brought home a small telescope from work. We saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter from our own doorstep, and at that point, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer.
I focused my interests slightly in 2004 as a high school student when I had another amazing experience participating in an outreach program sponsored by an organization called the Planetary Society (where I got to be at JPL when the Opportunity rover landed). It was such an exciting time to see the first images return while sitting in a room full of scientists who could interpret those images, and I decided that night I wanted to explore Mars for my job, too.
I was selected as a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search as a high school senior. I did an astronomy project looking for a planet around another star, and I think the experience was good for me because it was the first time I was exposed to research in lab. I learned what research was like, which helped me make a decision to continue with research in college. As a participant in the competition, I also got to meet other people who were excited about science, which was inspirational.
KC: Wow! That seems like a very clear-cut path! Talk about being tailor-made for space study! You’re in graduate school now at Washington University, but you went to Yale University for undergrad. What did you study at Yale? How were classes and acceptance there for a female scientist? Did you find yourself surrounded by men or women in classes?
AF: I double-majored in Physics and Geology & Geophysics at Yale. My geology classes were generally pretty split between men and women, while physics classes tended to be more male-dominated. I felt accepted in all of my classes, and I think it helped a lot that I had a core group of "study buddies" (both men and women) to work together on problem sets and projects.
I will note that most of my professors were men, but the Geology & Geophysics department did hire a lot of new faculty around the time I graduated, including several women. The physics department was also chaired by a woman starting my junior year (the incredible Meg Urry), and I think it was important that I was able to interact with such a strong role model.
AF: I got involved as a member of the Curiosity Mars rover science through my graduate-school advisor. In terms of a bigger picture, I think it's because I've worked really hard and made a positive impression on the people who could give me this opportunity and also because I've gotten very lucky in that the cards fell just right for things to work out the way they did.
KC: Stop being so modest. You’re also extremely talented and a badass scientist. It’s not all luck. You worked hard, and it paid off. What’s your advice to women who want to get involved in a project like this?
AF: My advice to women who want to get involved in a project like this is to take initiative and not be shy. Don't be afraid to contact people to let them know you're interested in what they do and ask if they might have any available opportunities for you to get involved, too. Similarly, try and take advantage of every opportunity that you can, even if—or especially if!—it scares you because it's out of your comfort zone. And don't be discouraged if things don't work out exactly as you'd planned—there is usually more than one way to achieve something!
KC: What is it like to work on the Curiosity science team? Is it a boys’ club, or do you and your ideas feel welcome?
AF: My experiences on the Curiosity science team as a woman have been extremely positive. I don't know the exact number off the top of my head, but the science team is a large percentage of women, and there are a fair amount of women on the engineering team, too.
I remember at one point during the primary mission we were all out at JPL working well into early morning to develop the next day's plan when someone looked around the room and pointed out that it was entirely women on shift that day. I think that moment was especially cool because we didn't go out of our way to plan things like that, but it just happened. Even cooler was that no one had noticed for a few hours.
Another one of my favorite "women on the Curiosity science team" moments was when a large group of us reunited at a conference several months after we'd all gone back to our home institutions. One of the female team members (who also happens to be a former NASA associate administrator) organized a girls’ night for us. We ended up having to pull a ton of tables together because there so many women who stopped by, and a bunch of us ended up with cosmos in our hands, which felt very Sex in the City. It was such a great night!
I think both of these experiences are really a testament to how far women have come since the first Mars missions in the 1960s and ‘70s, when you only see photographs of male science team members in button-down shirts and ties. I hope things continue in this same positive direction.
KC: What’s the most exciting scientific discovery you’ve made? How did you celebrate?
AF: The most exciting discovery I've made has been analyzing orbital data and finding an area that Curiosity could visit which happens to be a very promising spot for supporting ancient microbial life. (We're headed there now and will probably arrive in a year or so) I didn't celebrate until the paper was accepted (I had to get through some tough, but very fair reviews), and I went out with some friends.
KC: In your opinion, how early is too early to start teaching kids about STEM in school? If they learn about science at a young age, do you think they’re more likely to study it when they’re older?
AF: Solely based on my own interests, I don't think it's ever too early to start teaching kids about STEM. I don't know if students who learn science at a young age will be more likely to study it when they're older, but I do think how science is presented is extremely important. A great teacher is also an invaluable tool for getting students interested in STEM fields, and even though I've always loved science, I can still attribute specific science teachers as making a huge positive impact on me in middle and high school.
AF: I think the STEM drop-off gets worse as you move up the academic chain. While there are a lot of undergraduate women who major in the sciences, there are fewer grad students, and much fewer female professors. I honestly don't feel like I've faced a lot of gender-related hurdles in school, but I do expect I may face some after I graduate. Ask me in a few years what happened!
KC: You’ve been awesome. Thank you so much for your time! My last few questions are about inspiration and advice. What (or who) inspired you to study Mars? Do you think there is more or less support for women in STEM now than before? What’s your advice for budding scientistas?
AF: I'd say my inspiration is a combination of my dad with his telescope and the landing of the Opportunity rover in 2004.
I think there is more support for women in STEM now than there was 50 years ago, but I'd like to see more female professors, especially in the physical sciences. I think we're headed in that direction, and I hope the field will look very different 50 years from now.
My advice for budding scientistas is to focus on whatever makes you feel most excited and try and set achievable and stretch goals for yourself. Studying science can be very challenging for all sorts of different reasons, so it's important to understand your personal motivations for becoming a scientist.
The rewards are awesome when you do reach your goals, and despite the difficult days when you may wish you were doing something else, you will also have days when you feel like there's nothing else in the world you'd rather be doing.