Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Research Scientist Highlight: Dr. Elisa Quintana

Dr. Elisa Quintana, NASA Senior Research Fellow 
at NASA AMES, lead discoverer of the Earth analog
Kepler-186f, and 2015 Hispanic Scientist of the Year
Dr. Elisa Quintana is a NASA Senior Research Fellow at the NASA Ames Research Center, and a Research Scientist at the SETI Institute, where she investigates Earth-like planets and multi-planetary systems with the Kepler spacecraft.  Raised in rural New Mexico, Dr. Quintana earned her Bachelor's in Physics from UC San Diego and PhD in Astronomy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has since worked at SETI and NASA Ames. Dr. Quintana led the team that discovered Kepler-186f, the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star (i.e., “Earth 2.0”). She received the Lupe Ontiveros Dream Award in 2014 and was named Scientist of the Year in 2015 at the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC)

Burgasser: Your discovery of Kepler-186f, the first real Earth analog, was an incredible achievement and a real breakthrough in the field. How did it feel to lead that effort?

Quintana: It was definitely an exciting journey. I started my graduate studies at NASA Ames in 1999, working on both planet formation models and on a project called Vulcan, which was a ground-based exoplanet search program that was a pre-cursor to the Kepler Mission. I’ve been working on Kepler for the past decade and have done a little bit of everything - from work as a software developer where I wrote code to calibrate the pixel data, to searching for and validating new exoplanets. I participated in the discoveries of many diverse Kepler planetary systems, but Kepler-186f was the first planet that I worked on from start to finish. Leading a project like this, you get to work with a lot of great scientists that are experts in their various subfields of astronomy, but you still have to learn and understand all the pieces and put them together in order to confirm, publish and announce a new planet. I think working on Kepler-186f was the most challenging year that I’ve spent during my time at NASA Ames. The data was also public at the time, so it was a bit nerve-wracking knowing that we were putting so much work into confirming this planet, yet anyone at any time could publish it. It’s one reason I really like working on my theoretical planet formation models, it’s typically more relaxing than the world of planet hunting!

It was an honor for me to lead the efforts for the Kepler-186f discovery, as it was a major milestone for the Kepler mission. I’m proud to be able to say that the first Earth-size planet that could potentially harbor life was discovered by a Latina.

Burgasser: How did it feel to be named Scientist of the Year?

Quintana: I was surprised and felt very honored to receive this award from the wonderful Great Minds in STEM organization. They have been so successful in promoting STEM fields and supporting the Hispanic community (K-12, college and professionals!) for many years, so receiving their top honor is something I’m very proud of. (I also got to meet Mario Lopez who was hosting the awards event.)

Burgasser: If NASA gave you half its annual budget ($9 billion) to do any astronomy- or space-related project, what would you do?

Quintana: I believe in manned spaceflight and would love to see humans go to Mars, but if I had this budget I would definitely choose to fund a LOT of small unmanned science missions. Faster, better, cheaper! $4B could fund about 8 Discovery class missions (like Kepler!), then $4B to fund lots of $100M missions. I would like to see lots of Solar System sample return missions that could give us clues to our origins, and visits to as many moons and asteroids as possible, and all of them would require student involvement. I would give $1B to the SETI Institute, half to expand their classic SETI program (the truth is out there) and half to scientists working in astrobiology, studying life in extreme environments.

Burgasser: Was astronomy something you’ve always been interested in?

Quintana: No. My career path is so different to many people I know in astronomy. Many of my colleagues either have parents that were scientists, or have known since they were 5 that they wanted to be one. It honestly never crossed my mind until I was in community college. I was born and spent my childhood in a small town (Silver City, NM) surrounded by my large extended Mexican family. My father writes Chicano poetry and I grew up going to poetry readings. There were no scientists, let alone female or Hispanic ones, that I can recall. It wasn’t until I took my first physics class at my community college that I became intrigued, partially because I did so terribly in the class and the challenge drew me in. I ended up earning all of my degrees in physics.

Burgasser: Who inspired you as you were pursuing your career, and how?

Quintana: When I transferred to UCSD, my physics advisor was former astronaut Sally Ride. I basically went from having no role models to having the ultimate role model. I loved how she just exuded strength. Growing up I always liked space-related things, which I can attribute to Judy Jetson. Maybe she inspired me more than I think!

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career? How did you overcome them?

Quintana: Because I went to a community college and transferred to a UC school, I had a hard time calibrating how I fit in with my peers. I always felt a few steps behind and assumed that I was supposed to know things, so I rarely asked questions in class and worked alone (for long hours). That is the worst way to get through college! Looking back, I realize that physics is just hard, for (nearly) everyone, and my lack of confidence only made things harder for me.

Even now, after all of my accomplishments, I don’t feel like I’m taken seriously many times. After I published the Kepler-186f work, I received quite a bit of backlash from some senior male scientists that I can only attribute to envy, and it’s disappointing because I’ve never seen such behavior focused towards male scientists following the discoveries of the other hundreds of Kepler planets. I’ve developed thick skin over the past few years and my experiences have only made me stronger. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way. Thick skin shouldn’t be a requirement for a woman, or a person of color, to succeed in science.

Burgasser: People of color, especially women of color, are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors etc.) that helped you succeed?

Quintana: A huge factor that helped me succeed was that my California community college had a Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) program with the University of California. The program requires a student to plan ahead and meet a set of requirements in order to have a guaranteed transfer. The program gives people a second chance in life to pursue a dream career, and gave me hope. Many community college students come from underserved communities, are the first person in their family to get an advanced degree, didn’t have a college fund set up, and/or never considered a career in a STEM field was even an option. There are so many brilliant and talented people attending community colleges, some simply because of the low tuition and the flexible schedules. I was saddened to hear that UCSD had cancelled their TAG program (it will be interesting to see their diversity stats over the coming years), however six other UC campuses still offer it.

Burgasser: Can you also share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

Quintana: I would encourage all scientists and engineers that have survived college or graduate school to become mentors, regardless of their career path. I think the one-on-one support can do wonders for student retainment. There are lots of programs, like MentorNet (http://mentornet.org), that don’t require a huge amount of time, and knowing that you’re helping someone succeed, and helping the field of astronomy, is very rewarding!

Burgasser: What advice would you give to young women of color interested in following your path?

Quintana: I would advise young women of color to pursue what interests them most, but learn how to program really well because it will always give you an advantage. Also, realize that it’s ok not to be perfect. Don’t let a lack of self-confidence become a barrier to reaching your full potential, find support groups or a mentor to help with that.

Also, I know in the Hispanic culture that it’s not easy leaving home. In my extended family, for example, kids are expected to stay close to their parents. Encouraging children to go off to college (especially to move out of state) isn’t a thing. However, you have to take risks sometimes, break the cycle, because you can always go back home, with your degree in hand, and be in a powerful position to set your own path. Your community will come to look up to you, and you’ll likely inspire others to follow in your footsteps!

Burgasser: Any final words?

Quintana: Thank you for allowing me to share my experiences. Astronomy in Color is a wonderful idea and I can’t wait to read future posts from other scientists. I’m also happy to answer any questions anyone may have on graduate school, careers in physics/astronomy etc. (my email is elisa AT astrob DOT io).

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

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