ALD22: Dr Claudia J Alexander, Geophysicist and Planetary Scientist

Claudia J Alexander

Dr Claudia J Alexander

Dr Claudia J Alexander was a Canadian-American geophysicist and planetary scientist who worked for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

After getting her PhD in atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, Alexander began working at the USGS studying plate tectonics, then at the Ames Research Center studying Jupiter’s moons. In 1986, she began working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working first as a science coordinator for the plasma instrument on the Galileo spacecraft, before becoming its last mission project manager and overseeing its final plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2003.

It was during her tenure that Galileo discovered Ganymede’s ionosphere, forcing Alexander to completely rethink her models that showed Ganymede was “frozen solid”. She said of the discovery, “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!”

From 2000 until her death, Alexander was in charge of the USA’s contribution to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to study and land on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. She was responsible for the instrumentation that collected data such as temperature, as well as overseeing the spacecraft’s tracking and navigation support, which was provided by NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Alexander had a wide variety of interests, studying comet formations, magnetosphere, solar wind, and the planet Venus. She was also a science fiction writer and published children’s books about science under the name EL Celeste.

In 1993, Alexander was named woman of the year by the Association for Women Geoscientists, and in 2003 she received the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering from Career Communications Group.

In 2015, the Rosetta mission’s team named a gate-like feature on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Alexander, calling it the C Alexander Gate. In 2020, The Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society named a prize for mid-career planetary scientists after her.

Further Reading

ALD22 Podcasts: People Behind The Science, Dr Marie McNeely

People Behind The Science, Dr Marie McNeely

People Behind the Science’s mission is to inspire current and future scientists, share the different paths to a successful career in science, educate the general population on what scientists do, and show the human side of science. In each episode, a different scientist will guide us through their journey by sharing their successes, failures, and passions. We are excited to introduce you to these inspiring academic and industry experts from all fields of science to give you a variety of perspectives on the life and path of a scientist.

Recent episodes: 

  • Dr Joshua Pate: Exploring pain science education and pain management in children.
  • Dr Naomi Tague: Scientific simulations in stream and ecosystem synergies.
  • Dr Susan Krumdieck: Dedicating her energy to engineering solutions to fuel our future.
  • Dr Lee Cronin: Chemistry is key: Studying self assembly and the origins of life.
  • Dr Emily Darling: Conducting research to conserve coral reefs.

You can:

Visit their website:
Follow on Twitter: @PBtScience @PhDMarie

ALD22: Dr Evelyn Gray, STEM Outreach Co-Ordinator

Evelyn Gray

This post was contributed by Chloe Rodgers and is an extract from her Highland Women in STEM project. 

Dr Evelyn Gray

Dr Evelyn Gray is STEM Projects Coordinator & Inverness Science Festival Coordinator at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She studied her BSc in Human Biology at Aberdeen University, and her PhD in Orthopaedic Surgery at Edinburgh University.

Gray was impressed by many of the good female role models at her university, who she felt displayed strength and tenacity. They supported her development, urged her to consider different opportunities and provided a ready ear when she needed it. She was taken under the wing of a female professor in anatomy, and inspired by the confidence of Dr Euphemia McGoogan, the head of cytology. She also found that other PhD students were supportive (such as Dame Sue Black).

After her studies, Gray took a lectureship in Dubai, where she had the opportunity to develop a general biological/science course for all students to take, no matter their area of study. The work was demanding, but gave her much needed experience in lecturing, science engagement and coaching. It opened her eyes to the cross curricular nature of science education, and made her consider new methods to relate the coursework to students’ own experiences. However, taking this lectureship meant that she missed out on research opportunities, and found it hard to reestablish herself in this area.

When asked what words of encouragement she could give to other women in STEM, Gray said:

“The one thing living in the Middle East and, to some extent, the Highlands, is that there are lots of opportunities for women. In these areas the job market is very open to anyone who has the skills set, or is willing to persevere, learn and develop the appropriate skills. Be open to a perpetual learning pathway. It may seem daunting, the idea of getting a degree or even studying for a PhD to be told you must keep learning. That is what life is about: a continuous learning experience, implementing that in your work life opens you up to so many future opportunities and you never know, you might find a new passion.”

You can follow her work on Twitter: @UHISTEM

Was there any particular individual who inspired you to do what you do?
I was fortunate at university to have many good role models, without any conscious bias I now realise many were strong willed women. The female professor of anatomy who took me under her wing, the PhD students (Dame Sue Black) that shared her office with me and encouraged my interest in bones, the head of cytology (Dr Euphemia McGoogan) whose confidence demonstrated inspired me to expand my horizons. All supported me in my development as a young student and as an early researcher, urging me to consider different opportunities and providing a ready ear when I needed it. Sometimes it is not about the answers but your own questions.

What advice do you have for other women to be successful in a STEM career?
My advice applies to anyone with a desire to be successful in a STEM career. Be open to the opportunities around you, do not assume become blinkered and only see one path to achieve your desire. In this modern age there are numerous routes to any career. Think about what interests you on the journey, choose your passion and follow it. A successful career should be in one you love, working in a subject you are enthusiastic about is not toil but a set of enjoyable experiences. There may be some negatives, but the positives will outweigh these. My advice is to stick with the heart’s desire, paying some attention to what the head says. Life is more enjoyable that way.

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made?
Best career choice – a lectureship in Dubai. This offered an opportunity to develop a general biological/science course that all students, no matter their area of study, had to study for one semester. This was demanding but developed my lecturing, science engagement and coaching skills. Designing a course aimed at students from across the faculties was challenging but opened my eyes to the cross curricular nature of science education, covering the subject matter whilst attempting to relate a proportion of the course work to the students own interests and experiences.

What’s the worst career decision you’ve ever made?
Moving to Dubai! Whilst I loved the challenge of the lectureship this took me out of the research world. After a break of 8 years I found it impossible to move back into this field. I remained in science engagement but feel that a career break for whatever reason in research makes it very difficult to re-establish oneself. I did enjoy my career in the Middle East but on reflection would have preferred to combine a research career with an opportunity to lecture, moving into lecturing and course development and out academic research was the worst career decision I have made.

What words of encouragement could you give to other women in STEM?
The one thing living in the Middle East and to some extent the Highlands is that there are lots of opportunities for women. In these areas the job market is very open to anyone who has the skills set, or are willing to persevere, learn and develop the appropriate skills. Be open to a perpetual learning pathway, it may seem daunting, the idea of getting a degree or even studying for a PhD to be told you must keep learning. That is what life is about, a continuous learning experience, implementing that in your work life opens you up to so many future opportunities and you never know you might find a new passion.

ALD22 Books: Maryam’s Magic, Megan Reid and Aaliya Jaleel

Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, Megan Reid and Aaliya Jaleel

As a little girl, Maryam Mirzakhani was spellbound by stories. She loved reading in Tehran’s crowded bookstores, and at home she’d spend hours crafting her own tales on giant rolls of paper.

Maryam loved school, especially her classes in reading and writing. But she did not like maths. Numbers were nowhere near as interesting as the bold, adventurous characters she found in books. Until Maryam unexpectedly discovered a new genre of storytelling: In geometry, numbers became shapes, each with its own fascinating personality – making every equation a brilliant story waiting to be told.

As an adult, Maryam became a professor, inventing new formulas to solve some of math’s most complicated puzzles. And she made history by becoming the first woman – and the first Iranian – to win the Fields Medal, mathematics’ highest award.

Maryam’s Magic is the true story of a girl whose creativity and love of stories helped her – and the world – to see math in a new and inspiring way.

Order the book on here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

After receiving her MA in English Literature, Megan acquired and edited several bestselling and award-winning books as an editor at Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone and Emily Bestler Books imprints before joining FX Networks as a development and literary executive.

A graduate of Northern Arizona University and The Ohio State University, her writing has been featured on Elle, Refinery29, BuzzFeed, LitHub, and FastCompany. She published her first picture book biography, Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl in 2020, and has followed it with $9 Therapy: Semi-Capitalist Solutions to Your Emotional Problems and Who Did It First? 50 Icons, Luminaries and Legends Who Revolutionized the World.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @meg_r
Instagram: @meg_er/

About the Illustrator

Aaliya Jaleel is a Sri-Lankan American illustrator, designer and visual development artist.

Some of her past works include the books Amazing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Inspire Us All, Under My Hijab and Muslim Girls Rise. She has also worked on projects with Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House. In addition to being an illustrator, Aaliya works as a storyboard artist at Wild Canary, including the Disney Junior show Mira, Royal Detective.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @aaliyamj
Instagram: @aaliyamj

ALD22: Bertha Parker Pallan, Archaeologist

Bertha Parker Pallan

Bertha Parker Pallan

Bertha Yeawas “Birdie” Parker Pallan was the first female Native American archaeologist.

Parker Pallan was born in 1907 to Beulah Tahamont, an Abenaki actress, and Arthur C Parker, an archaeologist and anthropologist who belonged to the Seneca tribe. It is said that she was born in a tent at one of her father’s digs. Although she accompanied her father to excavations, her early introduction to archaeology ended when her parents divorced in 1914.

After being rescued from an abusive marriage by her uncle, Mark Raymond Harrington, she joined him at an archaeological dig that he was directing at Mesa House in Nevada. He hired her as a cook and expedition secretary, and she rapidly learnt excavation techniques. In 1929, she discovered the pueblo site of Scorpion Hill, which she excavated and documented on her own. Her finds were displayed at the Southwest Museum, now the Autry Museum of the American West.

The following year, she worked at the Gypsum Cave excavation, located in the desert outside Las Vegas, although she became ill after exposure to large amounts of cave guano. Parker Pallan’s work involved cleaning, repairing and cataloguing finds, but in her spare time she explored the caves. Because of her petite stature, she was able to squeeze through small gaps into caves that were inaccessible to the rest of the team.

In one of these caves, she discovered 10,000 year old human tools alongside the skull of an extinct giant ground sloth, Nothrotherium shastense. This was the earliest record of human habitation in North America at the time, and was described as “the most outstanding anthropological find ever made in the United States.” It was also a find that attracted further institutional support for the expedition.

From 1931 to 1941, Parker Pallan worked for the Southwest Museum as an assistant in archaeology and ethnology, publishing a number of papers based on her research. She was also able to document the culture, traditions, history, and folklore of a number of Indigenous peoples, including the Maidu, Paiute, Pomo, and the Yurok tribes.

Her third marriage, to actor Iron Eyes Cody, led her to co-host a TV program on Native American history and folklore, as well as act and work as a consultant on Indigenous representation in Hollywood, advocating for and supporting Indigenous actors.

In 2020, the Society for American Archaeology created a scholarship in her name. The Bertha Parker Cody Award for Native American Women is awarded to Native American, Native Alaskans, and Hawaiian women who are undergraduate or graduate students in the fields of archaeology or museum studies.

Further Reading