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Physics alumna tells how she became a NASA scientist

| Dr. Susan Lederer

What is space debris? In some instances, like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock's Gravity, it's the stuff of movies. You know the story — rock hits astronaut, astronaut flies off into the endlessness of space, until saved by her commander. Well, there's quite a bit more to the story than the Hollywood verions of space debris.

The study and tracking of orbital debris caused by collisions of asteroids and other bodies in space is some of the key science behind international space programs, since as we saw in Gravity, that debris can have a huge impact on every mission in space, as well as satellite activity.

As it turns out, one of our Blugold alumni happens to be a leading researcher in this area, having dedicated an illustrious career to observing these small bodies and calculating their paths and potential impact with other bodies and spacecraft.

When Susan Lederer began her Blugold physics degree in the late 1980's, she had some of the same big dreams common to many 18 year-olds. Why not, right? Working for NASA is the pinnacle of work in astronomy and physics, so of course that was a dream. The difference for Susan, however, is that the dream came true, and she now serves as a space scientist at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Dr. Lederer has shared with us her reflections on her path to that career and her time as a Blugold. Hear in her own words about what it takes to reach the peak of the field of astronomy and physics, and how her degree and experiences at UW-Eau Claire, the dedicated faculty here, helped set her on her way.

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"Someday I want to work for NASA.” It’s a dream of so many people. NASA does BIG things with BIG visions and makes the impossible possible. Who wouldn’t want to work for NASA? But … how do you get from the dream, to making that dream a reality?

For me, that path began at UWEC in the physics department. As a freshman, I told my advisor, Prof. Tom Lockhart, that someday I would work for NASA. He said: “Great — let’s start with a plan for how to get you there.” He laid out 4 years of math and physics classes I’d need to get me from UWEC’s physics and math departments, to prepare me for graduate school, leading to one day working for NASA. Did he really think I’d make it there one day? Perhaps yes, perhaps no — but it was drive, determination, MANY long days and nights studying with a team of fellow physics students in Phillips Hall, and ultimately the support of a suite of physics professors at UWEC that led me to realize that dream.

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Testing in the NASA Nuetral Buoyancy Lab, Susan Lederer and Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield, famous for his YouTube video of David Bowie cover from space.

Prof. Bob Elliott saw me gazing at the stars in the Phillips planetarium at every opportunity during my first astronomy class and opened up the universe to me when he offered me a student assistantship first in the planetarium, and then at Hobbs Observatory. Soon after, Prof. Paul Thomas took me under his wing and gave me my first astronomy research project, which led in turn to an NSF REU summer research internship at Cornell (not familiar with those? GO! Ask your professors — they can guide you!). Then Prof. Bill Smethells gave me my first job teaching astronomy as a TA for the 200-level astronomy class. Each possibility let me experience, for the first time, pieces of where my own career would one day lead. I still marvel that this one small school gave me so much insight, so many hands-on experiences.

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Dr. Lederer at the Scottish Space School, where she has given many talks to students interested in careers in space science.

After finishing a BS in Physics and Mathematics (why have one major when two prepares you even more for graduate school? I thought), I went on to complete a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics after loads of nights on telescopes at Lowell Observatory. In grad school, luck stayed with me (ok, let’s be real – I proactively seized every possible option out there!) when I was chosen as one of 24 students from 21 countries to attend the Vatican Observatory Summer school for a month in Italy, taught by a team of 4 expert in Comets, Asteroids and Meteorites, 3 of whom would be grad school and then post-doc advisors and mentors. 13 years later, I would teach for that same summer school as a visiting Physics Professor myself. And where did my future post-doc advisor, Dr. Faith Vilas, work? You guessed it — for NASA. More drive, more perseverance, writing a proposal for a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship working at NASA Johnson Space Center paid off! But the story doesn’t end there.

After my post-doc, and six years of teaching and research as a professor of Physics at California State U. SB, I boldly applied for a research position in the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA Johnson Space Center.  And guess what? Yep — I got the job!

Is it as great as they say? Absolutely. I’ve played a major roles as PI for building a 1.3-meter visible telescope on Ascension Island, been key in establishing the NASA contract for the 3.8-meter UKIRT infrared Telescope, and am the NASA research PI for that project (including many trips to Hawaii for observing), and have worked for a decade in NASA’s Experimental Impact Lab, shooting minerals you find in comets and asteroids to understand their collisions over the history of the solar system. I’ve traveled all over the world for meetings, to use very big telescopes, and to give inspirational science talks with astronauts and cosmonauts. I even got the meet the Pope AND an Apollo astronaut. If that isn’t the stuff of dreams, I’m not quite sure what is! And it all started thanks to the incredible opportunities and foundation in science made possible by the UWEC physics department.