"Follow your passion and your curiosity" – Meet Dr Sarah Noble, Planetary Geologist at NASA

NASA_logoIn July, some of us Mendeleyans had the amazing privilege to fly over to Washington to visit the NASA HQ for the New Horizons Pluto Flyby. During our trip, we had the chance to meet some of NASA’s scientists, one of whom is planetary geologist and a program scientist Sarah Noble. Sarah’s specific interested are in space weathering on environments such as the Moon, Mercury, and asteroids.

We recently got in contact with Sarah again, to speak with her about being a women in planetary geology.

Who are you and what do you do?

I am a program scientist at NASA Headquarters. In my job I have two main hats to wear, grants management and mission work. I manage several Research and Analysis (R&A) programs for the planetary science division, making sure that we find and fund the best planetary research. I also serve as a program scientist on missions, like the recent LADEE mission to the Moon, and I’m currently the Deputy Program Scientist for our next Mars rover, Mars 2020. A program scientist serves as a sort of liaison between HQ and the science team, it’s our job to make sure that the mission actually produces good science. I also get to do a little science once in a while, my research is mostly working with Apollo samples to understand the effects of space weathering on the properties of lunar rocks and soils.

Is this what you wanted to be, when you were growing up? If not, what did you want to become?

I think I always knew that I would work for NASA, though as a kid, of course, I wanted to be an astronaut, didn’t every kid?

What is your background and how did you get to where you are now?

I started my undergrad as an aerospace engineering major (because it was the only major with the word “space” in it), but quickly realized that I was much more interested in science than engineering. I switched to geology and fell in love with it, I also minored in both political science and art, because why not? I continued on the geology path in graduate school, specializing in planetary geology. After completing my PhD, I took a year or so off from science to scratch my political science itch and went to work for Congress. As an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, I worked as a committee staffer for the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology. Then I went back to science, in what I like to call my “NASA-nomad phase, where in the span of a few years I worked at NASA Johnson Space Center, then NASA HQ, then NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, then NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and finally back to NASA HQ.

Apart from being a lunar/planetary, what else are you/do you do?

In my spare time, I’m an artist. My day job tends to leak over into my art, most of my paintings are of the Moon and planets – they are so beautiful and amazing that I can’t help but paint them.

What are the best and worst parts about working in planetary geology?

In planetary science, we literally get to discover new worlds. Like NASA’s New Horizons mission that flew by Pluto this summer, giving us our very first pictures, and ESA’s Rosetta mission that has brought us incredible views of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. And every time, every new world, they are more amazing and incredible than we had imagined. But it’s a two-sided coin, space is hard, and vast, so our data is always limited. It took New Horizons nine and a half years to get to Pluto (and that’s just from launch, it doesn’t include the nearly three decades of work lobbying, planning, proposing, and building to get the mission off the ground), it will be a long time before we go back.

Is there a problem attracting girls/women to planetary science?

At the graduate school level, we are doing pretty well, about 40% of planetary grad students are women. Recruiting isn’t the problem, retaining is a bigger issue. Those numbers fall off precipitously among tenured faculty and senior researchers.

Have you had any role models or mentors in your field/during your career? If so, how did they support/encourage you?

My PhD advisor, Carle Pieters, was/is an amazing mentor.  She was a women in planetary science back when there weren’t any women in planetary science.  When I was her graduate student, her door was always open and whenever I would knock on it, no matter how busy she was (and believe me, she was always busy), she would give me her full attention. No phone calls, no quick glances at her computer, her full attention, which taught me that what I had to say was important and worthwhile.

Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced as a woman in STEM?

Imposter syndrome (the feeling that you are not as smart or qualified as those around you and that one day you will be found out) is something that I have struggled with. It turns out to be quite common among scientists, particularly female scientists, and actually I have found it to be very comforting and reassuring to realize that most of the people around me are struggling with the same feelings. One thing I try to remember to do when I mentor early career scientists is to talk about my failures, not just my successes, it’s important to realize that everybody fails sometimes and it’s not the end of the world. When we only talk about our successes it makes us appear superhuman, and that can be a tough standard to compare yourself to.

What has been your best experience, as a women in STEM?

I help run the Women in Planetary Sciences event at our annual meeting, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. I used to attend those events when I was a graduate student and it would be maybe twenty people crammed into someone hotel room swapping war stories. Now we fill up the big ballroom, well over a hundred women (and a few men) gathering to support each other and offer advice. Every year as the women are gathering, I take a minute to look around, take in the scene, and remember how far we’ve come.

Sarah Noble 4
Women’s in Planetary Science Event 2012

Is there anything you wish you’d had, to support your career path?

My career path has not been a straight line, I have stepped away from doing research, first to work for Congress, then again at HQ, and I wish there had been more people telling me that that was okay, that getting a tenure-track faculty job wasn’t the only correct path, that I wasn’t “throwing away my science career”. I have no regrets about those decisions, they were the right ones for me, and I love my job. There are lots of ways to be a scientist, and all of them are valid career choices if you end up happy and fulfilled.

Which woman in STEM, dead or alive, do you most admire, and why?

I’m a big fan of Poppy Northcutt – She was the first women engineer to work in mission control and helped to design the return-to-Earth trajectory for Apollo 8. There’s a great picture of her in mission control, fashionably dressed, tousled blond hair, sitting in the midst of a sea of men in short-sleeved white shirts with ties and horn-rimmed glasses – the unofficial uniform of Apollo. One of these things is not like the others, clearly, and yet, everything about her body language and expression says she was right where she belonged, comfortable and confident. It’s hard to be the first, the only, and I love that she didn’t shy away from her “otherness”, didn’t buy herself a white shirt and horn-rimmed glasses.

What advice and encouragement can you offer to girls wanting to enter a career in STEM?

Follow your passion and your curiosity. Science is hard, but if you love it, it’s worth it.

What is your science/tech dream?

Part of me still wants to be an astronaut, or more to the point, I want to visit the Moon, do some field geology, see the Earth rise over the horizon.


If you are, or know, a women in STEM who would be interested in contributing to our Women in STEM blog series, then please email us! We’d love to here your story!