Piling the Science and Art Higher: Meg Rosenburg joins RealScientists!

MR-DefenseCommiteeThis week we have the privilege of welcoming Dr Meg Rosenburg to the helm of RealScientists.  Meg is a planetary scientist (one of the several hats she wears) and has recently defended her thesis, so we welcome her with extra congratulations!  (See, proof!  Pic of her celebrating with her thesis committee!)

Hi everyone! I received my Ph.D. in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) just a few weeks ago, and my thesis is on surface roughness and impact cratering on the Moon. I’m really looking forward to getting into the science behind these holes in the ground – how are they made? what are they good for? – and I’m sure we’ll have some great discussions over the next week.

Meg embraces the comm’s side of science with a delightful flair, and is a champion for creative outlets in addition to your research.  She writes at True Anomalies, tweets @trueanomalies, is a co-founder of PHDtv and produced the PhD Movie in 2011.  In collaboration with Dr. Laurence Yeung and Nic Perez, Meg recently entered the Ocean 180 Video Challenge, and won second prize at the  “contest aimed at bringing ocean science to middle schoolers in the form of video abstracts”.  For a more complete list of Meg’s brilliant videos, try her web page.  Her scicomm efforts to date are admirable, especially when considered in the context of tackling her PhD simultaneously.

I also had the opportunity to produce The PHD Movie (www.phdmovie.com) in 2011 in collaboration with comic artist Jorge Cham, and I’ve been interested in science communication ever since! In particular, I see the combination of science, history of science, and digital media as a really rich area to pursue, and I’ve been working on several different projects along these lines. I didn’t discover that I had a passion for history of science until the middle of grad school sometime, so I’m enormously grateful that I’ve had the chance to pursue that in parallel with my planetary science work. I hope to talk a little bit about that to, and more generally about staying creative while in grad school and embracing your interests outside of research.

Meg did her undergrad at MIT before moving to Caltech for her graduate studies.  Her academic background is a blend of Arts and Science and presents a good opportunity for a conversation about research area meld-spaces. Meg has kindly taken the time to answer our curator questions, which gives more detail into her background:

Why/How did you end up in science?
I like to figure things out and I was very lucky to have encouraging teachers in high school. I think it didn’t really occur to me that I could be a scientist until kind of late, but I had a physics teacher who let me pursue an independent study after school and that really made a difference to me because it showed me that science was worth spending the extra time on, and that I was capable of doing it.

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
I’ve always been interested in physics because I just really enjoy being able to figure out how things work and applying quantitative information to understand the world. I went to college expecting to major in physics all the way, but I took a geology class my sophomore year and discovered planetary science and geophysics, and that was it. I really love learning about large-scale planetary processes—like impact cratering, plate tectonics, mantle convection, tidal evolution (to name a few)—because they explain so much of what we see today.

Tell us about your work?
I study lunar surface roughness and the statistical signatures left in the topography by the impact cratering process. Using the fantastic elevation dataset recently acquired by the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) as well as a cratered terrain model I developed for forward modeling, I’ve been looking at the power spectral density (PSD) of cratered surfaces under different conditions, especially to determine whether the size distribution of forming craters can be detected in the PSD. That’s useful because it can help provide clues to the impactor populations that formed the craters in the first place and provides a counterpart to crater counting.

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research?
Impact craters are usually portrayed as symbols of destruction and mass extinction (and, to be fair, that’s pretty accurate), but they’re also incredibly useful as a timekeeper for the solar system. Older surfaces have had more time to accumulate craters than younger ones, so comparing the density (number per unit area) of craters in different places has allowed us to work out an entire system of relative ages for different rock units on the Moon and other planetary surfaces. In the case of the Moon, these relative ages can be tied to absolute ages from dating rock samples brought back by Apollo astronauts, so we have a pretty good timeline that goes back to times that are not easily studied on the Earth. Even better, we can use the lunar crater data to help us figure out the timing of events on other planetary surfaces like Mercury, Mars, and the outer planet satellites, for which we have more limited kinds of data, primarily images.

So impact cratering in general gives us a way to keep track of time across the solar system. Traditionally, this has been studied by looking at images of a surface and identifying and counting craters by eye, but when we have high-resolution elevation data like we do for the Moon, then we have another source of information in the three-dimensional topography. That’s especially useful because these two approaches are somewhat complementary, so having both at our disposal is really handy.
Personally, I really love studying the Moon in particular because 1) it’s right there! and 2) it preserves the impact record from pretty early on in solar system formation, whereas Earth is much better at erasing its craters through plate tectonics and weathering, so impact craters are much more rare and harder to find.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
I would never have made it through my Ph.D. without a creative outlet, and for me that extracurricular activity was theater. I’ve always been a really shy person, much better at writing than speaking, and participating in theater as an undergraduate gave me a huge boost in confidence to communicate effectively. It also led to the opportunity to produce The PHD Movie with web comic Jorge Cham in 2011, and that opened up the whole world of science communication. After the movie, I got involved with making short science videos and started a few of my own projects. I’ve entered a couple of student video contests run by science organizations, and I’ve collaborated with mission teams at JPL on their outreach products. These have been really great experiences, and you can see everything on my website: http://www.megrosenburg.com.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
It’s not really a hobby, but other than theater and science communication (mentioned above), I’m really interested in history of science. I started researching the interpretation of impact craters on the Moon a few years ago during grad school and I’m working on getting all that work into a publishable form at the moment. I also think history of science is a really great avenue into science communication because there is so much potential for storytelling, but the kinds of stories I’ve been told in my science classes are often more myth than truth (and the real, more complicated, stories are usually more interesting!). I’d like to find a way to bring the two sides together to communicate science concepts and the historical context in a fun but not fluffy way.

MR-MeSimonHow would you describe your ideal day off?
I have two kinds of ideal days off: one relaxing, one completely the opposite. I really like to travel, and when I travel I like to learn as much as I possibly can, which leads to very long days on my feet at museums and landmarks, but hopefully they end up with a relaxing dinner. When I’m not traveling, my ideal day off at home involves walking my dog, Simon, early in the morning, making pancakes for breakfast with my husband, Jon, and picking up a good book to read in the sunshine. Maybe we’d catch a matinee at the discount movie theater and go out for Thai food afterward. Good food, good company, wine doesn’t hurt – it’s nice to give your brain a break sometimes, and it’s usually necessary every now and then!

Thanks so much for welcoming me to @realscientists! It’s going to be an awesome week!

We can’t wait – Dr Meg Rosenburg, everybody!

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About Sarah (@DrSMMorgan)

I'm a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. I work in the meld space between compulsory education and tertiary scientific research; we develop teaching modules using the real research stories around us in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease field. Engagement is the name of the game - creating opportunities for teachers, students and scientists to interact, and enrich learning on all sides. Scicomm is my passion, though I come from a molecular genetics research background.

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