Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


CLaSP students attend Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference

Posted: February 27, 2018

CLaSP students attend Women in Planetary Science and Exploration conference Emily Judd (l), Stephanie Hamilton (c), Camilla Harris (r)

This past weekend, Climate & Space Graduate Student Research Assistant Emily Judd and Doctoral Candidate Camilla Harris, attended the Women in Planetary Science and Exploration​ (WPSE) conference in Toronto, Canada. 
We caught up with them to get their take on the conference. Here's what they had to say: 

Can you give us an overview of WPSE? 

Emily: WPSE isn't a stand-alone organization. Rather it was a conference put together just for this specific interest group. Some of the goals of the organizers as I see them were to bring together women and other minority groups that work in planetary sciences and engineering, promoting their work, and growing the community.

Camilla: The organizing committee members came from universities and organizations both public and private across Canada and the United States.


What made you want to attend the conference, and what were your impressions?

Emily: Camilla and I saw an announcement for the conference in the Planetary Exploration Newsletter that we both subscribe to, and we wanted to get a group from CLaSP to attend. I was immediately interested in finding out more, and after looking at the website to see the keynote speakers and the program, I thought it looked like a great opportunity to learn more about planetary science in areas that are not as commonly studied here in CLaSP (Martian geology, meteorite minerology, exoplanets, for example) and to meet with other women in the field.

The conference had several sections based on topic. We started out with education and outreach efforts, covered intersectional issues with women of color and non-binary people, and discussed effective science communication methods. All of these discussions were in addition to the technical talks on meteorites, the terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and beyond. We also had a research poster session and heard from a local 8-year-old girl who made a model Canadarm. I personally think that the conference was extremely helpful. With my background in aerospace engineering, I'm relatively new to the planetary sciences, so I was able to learn a lot from the speakers about the field as a whole. Since I also conduct STEM outreach events with campus organizations and on my own, it was also worthwhile to hear new ideas and techniques from the presenters. I also thoroughly enjoyed just getting to meet and talk with so many new people that I likely would not have met at other conferences, either due to the location of the conference in Canada or the specific conference research focuses. In addition, I really appreciated hearing from conference attendees on the panels for underrepresented communities with women in STEM, such as women of color. As I am a white female, I was able to realize how I could use my privilege to help make STEM, and the space industry specifically, more inclusive for everyone, especially those that identify with several minority groups.

I think the biggest take-away from the conference is the sense of community that was generated. All the attendees that I talked to were extremely supportive and encouraging, even if we had only just met or interacted via Twitter. Of course, I already knew that women can accomplish amazing things in science, but at the conference, I saw the evidence and heard of the plans that these women had for not only driving advancements in the field but also for changing the way science is done to include more people, bringing all the diversity and creativity to light. That was truly inspiring.

Camilla: I would reiterate that there was a strong atmosphere of solidarity among the attendees specifically due to the panels and keynote lectures. The scientific talks and poster session highlighted the technical prowess of the attendees and engendered a sense of scientific community; the panels and keynotes served a separate purpose. Explicitly naming the challenges faced by women and under-represented minorities in planetary science, describing where they come from, why they happen, and how to eliminate or combat them, that was very emboldening to everyone in the audience as they looked back at their experiences and felt they were not so alone. As the weekend progressed the camaraderie and empowerment measurably increased. You could hear it in the Q&A sessions and in the panels too since most of the panelists were also attendees.


What was your role in the conference scientific program? 

Emily: I presented a poster about some of the work I've been doing with the Global Ionosphere-Thermosphere Model (GITM) with my advisor, [CLaSP] Prof. Aaron Ridley. We have been investigating how varying certain planetary characteristics changes the structures and dynamics of the upper atmosphere. For this poster, I looked at changing the rotation rate of Earth, running simulations for a 6-hour day up to a 96-hour day. We saw some very intriguing results! For the extreme case of a 6-hour day, the Coriolis force is dominating, causing more of a band structure centered near the equation for density and temperature. For the slower rotation rates, the structure becomes increasingly dependent on time-of-day, and the Appleton Anomaly appears. The poster presented these preliminary results, and I am working to understand them in more detail now.

Camilla: I gave a talk about the research I’ve been doing with my advisor, [CLaSP] Prof. Xianzhe Jia, on the space environment around Europa. Specifically, how do ions from Jupiter’s magnetosphere reach Europa’s surface? The answer depends on how energetic these magnetospheric ions are. We have treated the relatively low-energy ions with multi-fluid magnetohydrodynamics (MF-MHD), and we find that the path these ions flow through to Europa’s surface is complicated by the electromagnetic interaction between Europa’s ionosphere and Jupiter’s magnetospheric plasma. With MF-MHD we have modeled the interaction, and we can use these simulations to discover the roles of different ions as they flow around the moon and measure the distribution of magnetospheric plasma flux to Europa’s surface. These results are important for understanding how the thermal magnetospheric plasma interacts with Europa’s surface, generating neutral O2 which ultimately feeds back into the generation of the exosphere.

There was a lot of activity related to the conference on Twitter, which I think can be a bit scary for scientists sometimes; what if you misspeak, or are misheard, and someone tweets it, and then everyone thinks you said a wrong thing? Disaster!! I think you can’t really avoid this. You can ask folks to not tweet about your talk without talking to you first, but there’s no guarantee they’ll comply. But you can at least participate in the conversation by tweeting your own short summary.  


This was the inaugural year for the WPSE conference. How do you think it went? Will you attend next year? 

Emily: The conference ran very smoothly for being in its first year. I would certainly like to attend again next year! It would be great to have a larger group from CLaSP, and Michigan in general, attend. Stephanie Hamilton, a student from the U-M LSA Physics Department also presented. 

Camilla: I think I learned a lot about speaking. We spent some time talking about science communication, how to convey the important results and how to judge the appropriate level of detail for your audience. I am usually extremely nervous about speaking, especially to strangers, but with these points in mind it was a lot easier for me to focus on my results and the broad strokes of our methods, and not worry about conveying the details.

I would love to attend next year; I think outer planets research is often less visible at meetings in general, and space plasma physics even less so in the context of planetary science. So, if I can keep going, I’m hopeful that I can invite undergrads and younger grad students into the field, especially as Europa becomes more and more relevant over the next few years in step with NASA’s Europa Clipper mission.


Can you speak to the importance of women-focused scientific organizations and events? 

Emily: I cannot speak for all women on this issue, but for me, I think it is very important to encourage women in STEM through targeted events and organizations, working toward an inclusive and representative workforce. Because of this, I have participated in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) since I was a freshman and I volunteer for events to promote STEM for young girls, because belonging to a community of female role models that can provide mentorship can help women join, excel, and lead in STEM. I believe that by enabling all people to follow their dreams, we can achieve more scientific discoveries, utilizing the diverse backgrounds and perspectives that each person has to offer. 

Camilla: I touched on this earlier, but no matter how many colleagues and mentors tell you that you deserve to be here, you belong in your field, that will never be as powerful as being shown that you do. The way I see it, there’s two approaches to show this.

The more obvious approach is to be introduced to female role models who have been where you are, who have faced the same challenges, and either overcome them or adjusted their position within the scientific community to better meet their needs. The less obvious, equally necessary, and perhaps harder to accomplish approach is building a support network of peers and mentors to help navigate your particular challenges. You need the first to make young women understand what they’re aiming for and why it’s attainable. You need the second to help them get there. Meetings like WPSE tackle both approaches.

These must be interpreted on intersections of race, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and sexual identity as well as gender. In U-M terms, these meetings need to be inclusive as well as diverse in order to resonate with all women in science. WPSE accomplished that by inviting keynote speakers from all walks of life, and by creating a scientific environment that they were encouraged to bring these life experiences to.


What else would you like to say?

Emily: Check out #WPSE2018 on Twitter for more conference thoughts and interesting facts from various talks. The conference will be hosted at Arizona State University next year. You can buy a conference t-shirt, and the proceeds will go toward funding student travel grants for next year.