"When the moment comes when you’re absolutely desperate, and you’re pretty sure you’re never going to be able to do what you’ve always wanted to do, don't worry—you’re right on schedule."
The MIT-educated astrophysicist is helping to explore some of science’s deepest wonders: how the universe came into being, whether there is life on other planets, and the origins of humankind. She’s doing it with technology that's challenging even the previous limits of explorations into space and time, and she’s doing it all with a tangible excitement, a genuine humility, and an altruistic spirit. Dr. Kathy Flanagan, head of the Mission Office for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST, scheduled for launch in 2013, will study everything from the first galaxies formed by the Big Bang, to the formation of other solar systems capable of supporting life. She's spent time in Africa teaching math and physics in the Peace Corps, and she still makes it a priority to mentor and encourage young students and high school physics teachers—all while balancing a busy schedule doing research like observing how black holes manipulate space, time and matter, or exploring the nature of the enigmatic dark energy that’s pulling the universe apart. MB: How did you become interested in physics, astronomy, and teaching? KF: "How I got to this point is kind of a meandering path. But I’ve discovered that many women who go into science don’t take a traditional route. "Growing up, I was very interested in science, partially because of my older brother; it formed a basis for having something in common...my older brother would otherwise ignore me except for the fact that we could talk about science! "By the time I was in middle school, I started imagining the kinds of things I would do with my life. I remember taking notes in my journal and thinking to myself, ‘I would like to be an astronomer or a physicist. And I’d also like to go to Africa.’ Sure enough, I wound up doing, in some form or another, pretty much everything I wanted to do. "I got a bachelor’s degree in physics at MIT, then joined the Peace Corps in Africa; when I was a kid listening to Kennedy, you either wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer or an astronaut, and so Peace Corps was always something that had been a dream of mine. "But I also realized once I got my bachelors degree that I didn’t know the mechanisms of how graduate school worked—things like how it was paid for or whether I needed to go straight into graduate school after my bachelor’s. My family hadn’t done PhDs. We hadn’t done graduate school. So there was a little sense that I was going into uncharted territory." MB: Was it difficult charting this territory as a woman? KF: “It has had its occasional difficulties, and socially it had its difficulties too—don’t discount the fact that having an easy social environment helps a lot. "I had one professor who would start every lecture with, ‘Well boys…’ "I’m sure he was unconscious of it on his part, but I was a little sensitive to it at the time. He probably has no idea that he used to start his lectures that way. "In practical terms, it was a bit of a hindrance when I would go into my junior physics lab—a classroom of 30 people (nearly all of them men)—and everybody had to team up in pairs. It was a little like picking sides for volleyball. I don’t know if it was intimidation or what, but I always got picked last!
"I had one professor who would start every lecture with, ‘Well, boys…’
"I think they were just intimidated to actually go up and talk to the one woman in the room, but at the time I thought ‘nobody wants me.’ "It wasn’t easy to find groups. People didn’t seem to converse easily. At the end of the day, for whatever reason, it tended to be pretty difficult to have working relationships with some people. That may have been everyone’s experience –or just mine—but it’s certainly the way it seemed to me, and I thought some of it was related to gender. I joined the women's crew team because it was probably the best place for me to go to interact with such a big group of women. "The good news is, if you want to impact that, someone like me is living proof that this is a door that women are allowed to walk through." MB: What has given you such a strong desire to devote so much time to public outreach? KF: "Thinking back, it’s not so surprising that this old Peace Corps volunteer has a component her that makes her think she should be giving back to the world. "My students that I taught in Africa had very little prospect of ever going to college, very little prospect of ever having any material wealth in life. But the intangible riches of learning are something that anybody can appreciate. Here, when I go out and talk to my junior high school students and high school students, what I really want to share with them are the riches of this treasure that I think belongs to them. "I have to admit, I am privileged to be able to work on some of the greatest missions of our century. On some of the NASA roadmap strategies I worked on, we were looking at going back to the very Big Bang, or seeing to the very edge of the event horizon of a black hole—trying to understand the fundamental physics of the universe. We’re now looking at dark energy—DARK ENERGY! It’s a concept that didn't even exist 10 years ago! Truthfully, it’s the public that has supported all this, and so the public deserves to share in the riches of it. "And so the real reason I do it isn’t sociological or anything else. It’s simply to share and to open a door."
"I have to admit, I am privileged to be able to work on some of the greatest missions of our century."
MB: What kind of advice to you give to your high school students? KF: "The first piece of advice I would give to anyone is, 'find out what you love, and do it.' Then share that joy of what you love with the people around you. "The second thing I've learned it that when the moment comes where you’re absolutely desperate, and you’re pretty sure you’re never going to be able to do what you’ve always wanted to do—you’re right on schedule. It’s going to happen, and you’ll remember it just like I remember those days when I thought I was never going to have my PhD. And I remember when I was never going to be able to do space science. Those days are going to happen…pencil them in. "If you feel inadequate, you’re also right on schedule. I struggle with that feeling every day...but I prefer to deal with it after I’m done with work for the day. "It helps if you just broaden your context. It’s bigger than you, it's bigger than your institution and it's bigger than your mission.
"If you feel inadequate, you’re also right on schedule. I struggle with that feeling every day...but I prefer to deal with it after I’m done with work for the day."
"Day to day, we get tired, but at the end of the day you have to take a much longer view of how hard this day was or how hard this week was or even how hard this mission was. Think bigger than that." MB: Spoken like someone who's truly seen how small our universe is! How is the JWST helping you to peer around the universe? KF: "One of the things that JWST is designed to do is to look at the most distant objects you can see. The idea is that the farther these object are away, the longer ago their light was emitted. So if you see a very distant object, the light that comes to the telescope is actually light that was emitted billions of years ago! And so what you’re actually seeing is an object as it was billions of years ago—an object that may have been emitting light shortly after the Big Bang. "If you want to see the earliest objects in the universe, first of all you need to realize that they’re going to be faint, because they’re so distant. So you need to have a big telescope with a big mirror to collect the light. The mirror on JWST is 21 feet in diameter. "The second thing you need to realize is that the objects furthest away are moving so fast that their light isn't even visible to the human eye...it's infrared. "So if I wish to look at the very first galaxies, I know that I need a big mirror, and an observatory that can see infrared light. So the science you’re after drives the design. Once you know what science you want to do, you can define the instrument that you need to do it. "One of the most interesting areas of research that the JWST will help us to perform is to look at the origin of life. Using the light that is shining through a distant planet’s atmosphere, we can actually start to diagnose the atmosphere of the planet. But not only could we diagnose the atmosphere with the JWST, we could also look for an atmosphere that is potentially carrying signatures of life!"
Exciting news just came for Dr. Flanagan and the rest of the JWST team on July 10, 2008: NASA formally approved the JWST project to move into "Phase C," the final design and fabrication phase, which means the operations phase—or, the "fun part," as NASA aficionados refer to it—is closer than ever. For more ScientificBlogging interviews of Women In Science, click here.