Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Carolyn Porco: Leader of the Cassini Imaging Team

Carolyn Porco received her PhD from CalTech in 1983 from the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, then joined the faculty of the University of Arizona and was made a member of the Voyager Imaging Team. In 1990 she was selected as the Imaging Team leader for the Cassini-Huygens mission, which is ongoing, and Director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS (CICLOPS). She is also currently a Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In 1991 Porco talked to Natalie Angier at the New York Times for an article about the lack of women in scientific leadership positions:

"Scientists can be like schoolyard toughs," said Dr. Caroline Porco, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has been appointed head of NASA's Cassini spacecraft mission, scheduled to fly past Saturn in the early 21st century. "I grew up as the only girl with four brothers, but still I wasn't prepared for what I encountered at Stanford when I went there in 1974, as a graduate student. You'd present your results, and somebody would say, 'How did you get here? Why are you wasting my time? If you had half a brain you could have done that calculation.' "

What is more, said Dr. Porco, if she had had the inclination to respond in kind, "the guys would probably say, 'She's a pushy bitch.' "
And Porco does apparently have a reputation for aggressiveness (at least according to this 2004 article).
Peter Goldreich, who directed Porco's doctoral studies at Caltech, said she always had a "nose for discovery" and learned early on that, in a large enterprise such as the Voyager missions "men would tend to be much more aggressive than women" in speaking up at meetings. "She became much more determined to succeed and assert herself," he said.

Goldreich said Porco is not a good politician. "She tends to have a rocky relationship with quite a few people, even on the team," he said. "On the other hand, she gets things done. ... She's quite a presence."

"Carolyn defends the imaging team," said Andrew Ingersoll, a planetary scientist at Caltech. "She defends her instrument. You have to be a little abrasive."

Jonathan Lunine, a University of Arizona planetary scientist who was at Caltech as a graduate student with Porco, recalled that she managed to get access to Voyager data at a time when it was not widely available. "She was in a very intense and stressful position," he said, with "people who were more senior than her who really wanted their chance" at the data first. "Many grad students would fold up and go away," Lunine said.
I don't know if Porco is really "abrasive" or whether her assertiveness is interpreted negatively because she is woman*. In any case, she appears to be quite successful in her career, and does a lot of public presentations about her work. This is a talk she gave at TED in 2007 about landing on Titan and the ice jets of Enceladus:

And her work is her life**. As she told Wired News:
WN: What do you do in your free time that has least to do with astrophysics?

Porco: (Laughs) What free time? My work is my life. If I had more free time I would have learned to play the piano by now.

I did play the guitar and sing; I was in a band called The Estrogens: three females and one very brave guy. But really, Cassini has been so inspiring, I get so much fulfillment from that. I do wish I could go on vacation, though.
At least when she goes to work she knows the scenery will be gorgeous.

More Carolyn Porco Links:
* see, for example, Science Daily on "People Accept Anger in Men, But Women Seen As Less Competent" and Female Science Professor's Post about "Aggressive Women"

** It seems like many of the scientists I've profiled are single-mindedly focused on their science. I don't know if it's really true that the most high profile scientists don't have lives outside of their work, if it's partially a cultural issue - scientists feel like they are expected to say that they have few other significant interests, or it's a reporting issue - profiles of scientists are written with the assumption that stereotype is true. All of those factors may come into play.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting blog.Keep posting...

Anonymous said...

It must have been an amazing moment to watch the successful landing on Mars, especially if you had spent the better part of your career learning the skills and math needed to ace it. Truly wonderful.

But a part of me wonders if the woman scientist doesn't feel like something's missing at times. Am I talking about wearing bikinis or having 3 kids? Hell no.

I'm talking about how most times you're glad you became a scientist... but other times you wish you had simply become a ninja instead.

Alexi Frest said...

I'm always glad to hear or read about female scientists, authors or politicians. There are so many women we can respect for their brains and achievements, and I - being a woman myself - am proud of them all.

jayjay said...

very intresting!! love it!!

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High Power Rocketry said...

Great idea for a blog : )

llllll said...

What an inspiring blog! It's refreshing to see such an enriched site that both educates and entertains. I can see the enthusiasm in the words! I will be forwarding this on to many women (and men)!!

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Peggy K said...

inner scientist: I've always wanted to be a ninja.