Claudia Joan Alexander, PhD, geophysicist, planetary scientist
(born 30 May 1959 in Vancouver, BC; died 11 July 2015 in Arcadia, California)
Written by Dr. Diana Benz, WGC director
While we learn about the Leading Ladies of today, it is also important to remember the Leading Ladies of our past: the women who defied gender roles and blazed the trail leaving behind impressive legacies for us to remember and strive to uphold.
In honour of Breast Cancer Awareness, we remember a formidable Canadian-born geophysicist and planetary scientist who passed away in 2015 after a 10-year long battle with breast cancer. Dr. Claudia Joan Alexander was a highly respected scientist and was described by her colleagues as eloquent and impassioned, warm and generous and a beloved scientist, teacher, author, and role model (NASA: In Memoriam). Claudia was one of the first 20 African Americans to graduate with a PhD in the field of astronomy-physics; named “U-M Woman of the Year in Human Relations”; earned the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science Alumni Merit Award in 2002; and was awarded the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering by Career Communications Group, Inc. in 2003. In 2007, the Claudia Alexander Scholarship was set up by her uncle, Jiles Williams, at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. Claudia was an active member in the American Geophysical Union and served as chair of the diversity subcommittee. In 2015, in honor of her passing, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission named a gate-like feature on the mission’s target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after her: C. Alexander Gate.
“In the annals of history the athletes and musicians fade, but the ones who make fundamental improvements in humankind’s way of life, and in their understanding of the Universe, live on in their discoveries.” ~Dr. Claudia Alexander NASA: In Memoriam
How did you decide on pursuing degree in geoscience? Did you know about geoscience before you entered university?
Originally, Claudia was interested in writing and wanted to pursue a career in journalism. Since both her parents were engineers and paying for her post-secondary education, she was convinced to study something “useful”. In high school, Claudia did a summer internship with the engineering department at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Ames Research Centre. Claudia, however, had different ideas as she found she had no interest in engineering and found herself spending more time in the planetary science department. With the help of her boss, she was placed with a scientist, Dr. Ray T. Reynolds, in the Space Science Division.
“I found it was a lot more fun to think about the flow of water in a river than water in the city sewer, so I went into earth-science and got a bachelor’s in geophysics at UC-Berkeley.” (APS physics profile).
How did you land your first position? (Through networking, applying to an ad, etc)
Claudia’s first job was with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) where she studied plate tectonics. Her first position after graduate school was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1986 where she worked on many different missions and developed her expertise in studying comets and understanding solar wind.
“My [highschool] internship showed I was capable of doing the job at NASA, and that was important as a minority. I showed that I could do the job very well, and I had good success doing what was technically required.” (APS physics profile).
Can you briefly describe your career progression and how it has been handled in your company?
After working at the USGS, Claudia moved to the Ames Research Center to observe Jovian moons before landing a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1986. Dr. Alexander initially worked as a science coordinator for the plasma wave instrument on the Galileo spacecraft before earning the rank of project manager during the mission’s final phase. The Galileo mission discovered 21 new moons of Jupiter and a “surface bound exosphere” on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. Dr. Alexander remained project manager until the mission’s conclusion in 2013 when Galileo dove into Jupiter’s atmosphere. After Galileo, Dr. Alexander became a project scientist, representing NASA, on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission: a detailed study of a comet as well as the first mission to orbit and land on a comet. On the Rosetta mission, she as responsible for $35 million worth of instruments, the collection of data from three separate instruments as well as overseeing the support for tracking and navigation from NASA’s Deep Space Network.
When asked about her favourite moment in her career:
“We were watching the first data come down from the Galileo mission's first encounter with Jupiter's moon Ganymede, and the data clearly showed the presence of some sort of ionosphere (a very thin atmosphere, which we now call a "surface bound exosphere") in the region. When I saw this evidence, I burst out saying "I don't believe it!" (I had, up until that time, done a lot of modeling work to prove that the moon was frozen solid.) The presence of a little bit of atmosphere meant that we needed to re-think our past assumptions concerning Ganymede as an undisturbed, pristine and inactive moon. It was an exciting moment to experience something that changed my whole way of thinking. I've never been so happy to be wrong before!” NASA: In Memoriam
If you had to do it again, would you?
[We think she would! Her love of discovering the unknown is evident in her work. We are very glad she did pursue geology and pave the way for future women in the field.]
When asked about her personal connection with space:
“It wasn't exactly a connection with outer space, but at the age of 5 or 6, the film ‘Fantasia’ opened an imaginative pathway of wonder for me about worlds other than Earth—primitive worlds—and how huge geologic forces can impact life forms there.” NASA: In Memoriam
What are the three best things about your job/career?
[We think the three best things about her career would have been what had brought her to the geosciences in the first place: academic study, the discovery of the unknown and the wonder of space.]
“I feel like a modern-day explorer; the last frontier is space.” NASA: In Memoriam
Do you see, in either your work space or the industry in general, the place of women becoming more main stream, about the same as when you started, or worse?
[We think that she did see the place of women and women of colour becoming more mainstream. She was an avid mentor for young people, particularly young girls of colour, to encourage interest in STEM fields.]
What advice would you give young women starting a career in geoscience?
When asked about the advice she would give to someone who wants to take the same career path:
“When deciding on your career you should be aware of the balance of work, personal satisfaction and financial rewards. In the early days of my career I would compare notes with an attorney friend of mine, and I found that each of us were working the same long hours, but she was making about three times as much money as me! Loving your work can sometimes be as important as how much money you make. As a woman it is really tough to make the balance of family time and science work successfully. You have to decide if you want to spend most of your time working at the expense of family time! Having the right partner is an important part of deciding on that balance.” NASA: In Memoriam
Why/How is diversity important to you? Thoughts on what should be focused on or how to improve diversity within geoscience?
Dr. Alexander was an advocate for women and minorities in the STEM fields and an enthusiastic science communicator. We think her TEDx talk at Columbia College Chicago in 2015 says it all: The Compelling Nature of Locomotion.
What motivates you and keeps you busy outside of geophysics?
When asked what she likes to do for fun:
“I love to go horseback riding, and I write science fiction. One of my short stories got selected for publication by Dr. Fantastique's Books—it's a steampunk adaptation of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (set to be released in May 2012) called Leo's Mechanical Queen, part of a Shakespeare anthology that will go by the title: The Omnibus of Dr. Bill Shakes and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter. I'm so excited! Also, I released my personal website, finally, and hope to meet people in my Scientist's Caf? (forum) to talk about science, books, movies, and art in the news - and matters of multicultural interest.” NASA: In Memoriam
Please consider donating:
Alexander, C. (2015). The Compelling Nature of Locomotion. Tedx Talks Columbia College Chicago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxzkw0EYHIw
Claudia Alexander (1959-2015). In Memoriam. NASA Science Solar System Exploration. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/1140/claudia-alexander-1959-2015/
Claudia Alexander, Geophysics – NASA Project Scientist. APS Physics. https://www.aps.org/careers/physicists/profiles/calexander.cfm
Euronews Knowledge Interview with Dr. Claudia Alexander: https://youtu.be/QcbWvbIQ8oc
About the Author:
Dr. Diana Benz has over 20 years of experience working in the mineral exploration industry searching for diamonds and metals in a range of roles: from heavy minerals lab technician to till sampler, rig geologist, project manager and business owner. She has a Bachelor of Science in General Biology, a Master of Science in Earth Sciences researching diamond indicator mineral geochemistry and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies researching geochemical multivariate statistical analysis techniques for use in interpreting biogeochemical data for mineral exploration. Diana has conducted field work in Canada (BC, NWT, YT and ON) as well as in Greenland. She has also been involved, remotely through a BC-based office, on mineral exploration projects located in South America, Africa, Eurasia, Australia and the Middle East. Currently, Diana is the owner of Takom Exploration Ltd., a small geological and environmental consulting firm focused on metal exploration in BC and the Yukon.