Margaret E. Landis
Margaret E. Landis
BS, Physics and Astronomy, Northern Arizona University, & PhD, Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona
What she does:
Landis is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), the largest nongovernmental employer of planetary scientists. She creates numerical models that help interpret data collected by Dawn, a NASA spacecraft that visited the protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres to learn about the evolution of the solar system.
How she got there:
“I was always interested in space (probably from watching a lot of Star Trek as a kid),” says Landis. “What really got me into space science and physics was watching the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room during the Spirit and Opportunity rover landings and seeing the first images come back. I wanted to see new landscapes on other planets for the first time.”
With this goal in mind, Landis pursued a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy and a PhD in planetary sciences. As a graduate student, Landis got a taste of what it’s like to be a researcher in academia and, through an internship at the United States Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center, in a federal agency. Part of the appeal of PSI was the opportunity to work at a nonprofit research institute. She explains, “Like any good scientist, I wanted a little more data before I made a decision about where I wanted to spend the rest of my research career.”
Best part of her job:
“I really enjoy looking at the data sets, whether they’re new or archival, and working with them to better understand the geologic or climatological history of a region. As much as I love making sure my code runs and my numerical models are realistic, I really enjoy being able to use those models to interpret what we’re seeing in the data.”
Most challenging part of her job:
“I’m particularly feeling the pressure and challenge of writing proposals at this point in my career. Wanting to direct your own research program in planetary science pretty much means writing proposals (usually to NASA) frequently until you can build up funded projects to support yourself and your lab. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have professional mentors who have been good at this. Developing skills both as a leader and collaborator on proposals is definitely a tough but essential skill.”
A message for physics students:
Emerging research suggests that the mental health of graduate students is significantly worse than that of their nongraduate student peers—that’s worth noting, says Landis. “While there’s not yet a documented causal relationship, I think it’s worth talking more and sooner about factors other than what is perceived as ‘raw talent’ that keep talented scientists either out of graduate school or out of the field,” she says. Landis is also passionate about bringing to light the stories of women scientists and their often unrecognized contributions.
To read about Landis’s award-winning book collection on women scientists, check out the Spring 2019 Radiations article “From the Shadows to the Shelf” at https://www.sigmapisigma.org/sigmapisigma/radiations.