#8 A NASA research scientists geology career pathway Transcript



Hi, Kira, thank you for joining me. I’m so excited to hear about your job, but also your journey to figure out your purpose and your path. I know you, I want to just quick intro. Your south Korean came to the U S for college a little over 10 years ago in 2009. And here you are still educated in working in the U S tell us a little bit about your current.


Yeah, thanks Lisa for inviting me. My name is Tyra. Like Lisa said, I’m a NASA postdoctoral fellow and I’m currently based at jet propulsion lab. I’m an earth scientist there. And so right now, my research focuses on understanding water and especially groundwater sustainability. We use satellite data and different computer tools like numerical models to better understand how groundwater depletion impacts our society.


So that’s my current job. Before that I studied geology in college. And then I also went to grad school where I focused on hydrogeology, which is the study of water and its interaction with other earth processes. And that’s how I ended up here. That’s great. So the JPL location is in California, correct?


That’s in Pasadena, California. Okay. And I know not everybody might know that. So fascinating. When I first met you on clubhouse of all places, you’re talking about being an earth scientist and NASA, and those are two things that in somebody’s brain don’t seem to fit together because we think. So we want to bring this to teens and those who work with teens and their parents, so they can better understand careers and pathways.


So talk to us about how earth science fits into the work that NASA is doing and what that looks like. So there’s actually a lot of similarities or overlap in terms of research that happens in space and happens for. Specifically at NASA, we use about the same, or if not more funding for earth sciences versus space.


When you think of NASA, we’re always thinking about looking out to space from earth, but we also look to earth from space. So we leverage that vantage point of space to understand what’s going on on earth. And you can see things holistically because you have that unique vantage point and a lot of these as a geologist, but what’s really exciting is the processes that I studied on.


Or also applicable to other planets, other planetary sciences. And for example, we just had a Mars Rover landing, a perseverance right landing. And one of the creators that they chose was because of these hydrologic features and they saw okay, for this creator, it seems like there were these hydrologic processes with deltas that those are the same things that we observe on earth.


And because we know what’s going on earth and why these geologic formations look that way. With the influence of water, we’re then able to take pictures and see on Mars. Oh, we see something similar on earth. Maybe that’s also a sign of water. So there’s a big connection in terms of earth sciences and space or planetary sciences.


There’s also a parallel in terms of, we have really unique environments on earth, like hydrothermal vents, or deep ocean research. All of these very extreme climate or extreme settings can also translate really well into space. Yeah, there’s a lot of parallel. There’s a lot of research for our scientists as well.


I’m also very new to this space. I was always more of an earth kid. I was never, I’m a very, I’m a safety not. And so it’s scares me, like the concept that you can’t breathe out there scares me. But every day, being around my friends at NASA JPL, I learned more and I learned a lot and yeah. So are scientists.


There’s a lot of our scientists that work for. As fascinating. So when you say there’s as much or more funding, we hear people chatter all the time about, oh, the funding for NASA and we’re always thinking space. So that’s crazy for us to even conceive that as far as number of employees would, does NASA have just as many earth sciences or non-space roles?


I think that depends on the center. At least for JPL, I could speak to our center. We actually have more engineers than scientists. Scientists in just like all sciences, like planetary astrobiology, earth sciences, et cetera. So we have many engineers on lab. I think Goddard has a bigger science crew in terms of the number of employees.


I’m not entirely sure, but in terms of available opportunities and the amount of research effort that’s going on. For financial support and funding. Yeah. There’s as heavy of an emphasis on understanding earth. People always like to say, oh, why are we sending things to space? If we have all these problems on earth and we are actively all trying on all fronts to understand our universe.


So I think that’s a great thing. Yeah. That’s fascinating. In a few minutes. I want to back all the way up the HIRA in high school and what you’re saying. Cause we want to share your journey that before I get there. So you go to college and you’re studying geology. When you were at that point, you probably didn’t look way far ahead and think like I’m going to work for NASA someday.


And maybe even back then you were like me and you thought NASA was all. Yeah, right? Yeah. The 20 year old who knew. So talk to us a little bit about you’re in your undergrad, studying geology. What are the careers that if you looked at your peers, that they were considering, was everybody going to go on to grad school?


Where did your peers from undergrad land? What are the different jobs that we might see somebody with an undergrad in geology going in. With geology. Think of it really broadly that open source has so many different earth science careers. And non our science curious for that matter. So with a degree in geology, which is just the study of earth and its processes, you could land something, you could one pursue research and go to grad school, which is what I did.


And within that, there are subdivisions. We could talk about that, but, and then a lot of my friends, cause I went to school in Texas, they went into oil and gas and energy industry. And people often like to associate like really negative things with. Well in gas companies because of this carbon emission.


But the fact of the matter is we still need a lot more talent to make these energy processes better. There’s also the regulatory side of oil and gas. And so a lot of my friends stepped into a career that way. And then the other part is consulting. So we have a lot of environmental problems and environmental issues that need experts to come in and look at the data and give advice to companies or other people trying to do business there.


So we have environmental consultant. You could go into with the geology degree, a little bit different. Um, you can also go into gem ology. So that’s actually my other hobby. Oh fun. You know what? We talk a lot in our program about like passions, not every passion has to define your purpose. We have a lot of passions, right?


So we have to choose a purpose, but we’ve got a lot of passions that can exist too. So some of your peers then took Jamal’s energy, passion, and turn it actually into their purpose where your purpose ended up being researched science, but you still have this passion. Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s a beautiful way that you put it for Jumanji, which is just a study of gems and jewelry design.


So it’s a broadly defined field, but geology. The study of how these minerals are created and formed. And so on the science side, you learn, okay, how are emeralds formed or how are diamonds forms? What pressure and temperature condition does the earth come together to create this mineral or this rock? So we studied this in class and then Jamal is you would be taking that and taking it a little bit more further into specific for jewelry or fine luxury art things like.


Geology is another career check. And I actually have passed a month from my cohort who is working for Gemological Institute of America. Yeah. So she really took that path and I’m really proud of her. I’m jealous that she gets to look up pretty things all day variously. Yeah. Pretty expensive. So I think those are some of the career paths that my friends took.


And of course there are other things I think you could do. You could be a scientific writer. If you wanted to go more into outreach, it’s always helpful to have a scientific background and then go into maybe the outreach portion. I personally thought I was going to go to law school after this, after a geology degree, I say that to my students all the time for law school, you could get any anytime good degree and you need to do well in your undergrad program.


Keep your grades up. Do well on the L sat and build a nice resume and the doors open to anybody. I don’t think that I’ve ever thought of somebody who had an interest in geology thought that perhaps they haven’t gone to law school. So tell us why you thought you would go to law school and then what changed?


Yeah. So maybe we can back up to high school. Yeah. Okay. When I went to high school, I went in not really having a direction. And so I want to encourage the high schoolers who feel like they don’t know what they want to do for college or school or career. Like it’s okay. Because. Like that too, is this side it’s so hard.


Not only is it the pressure to decide, but like it’s timeline driven, right? Like high school is going to end. We can’t put it off. It’s not all I can do that later. Like it’s coming. And so you have to give it some attention and it’s okay to not know. Yeah, where you wants to go or where you’re going. That was certainly me.


So I went to a foreign language, high school in Korea, and the way the Korean education system is built, it separates you into either the humanity. Quote-unquote major or a stem. So I guess a humanities track or a stem track. And so the courses that you take in high school is already starting to divert, depending on which emphasis you have.


Things were a little bit different for me because I was in the foreign language, high school, and I was an English major. And so the predominant push was for me to get into college in an English speaking country and not in Korea. So I was already prepping myself to go abroad for college, but all the courses that it’s so or humanities related.


So it was like econ economics, a lot of literature history, a lot of my friends. Wanted to be diplomats or political figures lawyers. And so I was very influenced by that. And all the courses that I was taking was aligned with that kind of humanity. So I never thought about science. Actually. I was actually quite bad at science and math, NASA research scientists as science and math.


I love your story. I was really bad. The story I told was that when I first entered high school, my first math score was like, oh, I think it was like 30 something. It was like out of a hundred. So. And what was worse. It was a recap of all of the middle school material, like our first midterm. And I was like, oh, wow.


I really didn’t study for this one. Like, where was I during middle school? Huh? I know it was, I was like, wow, I really didn’t. I wasn’t too serious about my studies in high school, honestly. And I got a little bit more serious than. I have too many passions that I want to go explore and have fun. And I, and then I finally come back.


I’m like, oh no, there’s a test tomorrow, but you can still make it. You make it work. And then you learn what works for you. You learn to be more efficient. The second test, which was our final, our semester final for the math exam. I got a hundred because I was like, oh, I can’t have these scores. I really need to, yeah.


I really need to be intentional about this. I’m not a math prodigy. So I actually need to I’m someone who needs to put in time at work and I got a hundred and then the teacher called me. Like, how does this happen? He thought I cheated on the exam. Well, I’m the only person who got a hundred. Like, I can’t remember if it was like the only one in the classroom or I, it was just around me.


Like, no one around who was sitting around me at the time had gotten them. Where did that come from? Cause if you had cheated, I don’t know, a hundred or it’s, I’m very lucky. And I told him, like, I really studied hard and we had like a heart to heart chat. And since then, like throughout all three years of my high school, he really looked out for.


I always went to his office hours. I would ask him questions. So he understood that math wasn’t intuitive for me, but I would work hard and I would, I would Excel in class because I put in the time, same thing with chemistry. I was bad at chemistry, but then the teacher really took me under his wing and made sure, okay, like this is how you should study for it and coached me in that way.


Because for intentional, I say this to high schoolers, a lot of times like you can do it and you might just need to be more intentional. Time is our greatest resource it’s non-renewable so sometimes we just have to devote the time. So it sounds like your intentionality really paid off. It really did. It really did just coming to the fact that, oh, okay.


I’m not, this is not something that clicks fast for me. Other people might be excelling at it, but for me, I needed to actually go to their office hours, go talk to them, spend outside time out outside of school, but I could see. Little by little incremental changes. And so that really encouraged me, but the whole time, I didn’t really care because.


I thought I was going to go be a lawyer. I was in like literature classes and econ and law and government. And funny enough, I don’t think I retained a lot of that either. I think I was always, maybe meant for science. So I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I was really drawn to this issue of human rights and two things that I really wanted to explore more was human rights, law and environmental.


And I couldn’t choose, but I just figured I’ll after I go to school on F after I finished law school, I get to choose what I like. And so I was always interested in that aspect. And then senior year of high school, my government and law teachers that there’s this attorney that is looking for an intern.


Would you like to go work with her for a little bit, just to see what goes on in the law firm? And so I said, yeah, that sounds great. And I started interning and it was very different from what I imagined. I think everyone thinks that. Dramatic court scene in a movie where they deliver the final, like your honor and right, great.


But a lot of the daily tasks of a lawyer is a lot of phone calls, a lot of meetings, a lot of reading and a lot of writing and very stressful, right. In terms of semantics, like you have to be very exact with your words. And so I was in charge of looking over the typos. I’ve seen what they do, learning about these things.


And I realized maybe this is not for me. Maybe I’m not very good at. I love that you basically did job shadowing, which part of my framework for helping guide teens and young adults is first of all know yourself, but once we defined myself meaning like my values, my academic profile, I actually can do math.


My motivations, my passions, my behavioral strengths, things like that. Then we have to know careers. And I always say we have to be intentional around creating experiences instead of just hearing about, or like you said, Oh, that drama in the courtroom. If I’m looking at a student who says, I think I might want to be an attorney and they say, I absolutely hate English.


I’m like, whoa, we need to have a conversation. Yeah. You to go to a law firm, job shadow interview attorneys. That, oh gosh, this is such a great example of what we tell students they need to do. Let’s get in front of people to see it. And so when you thought an action, you’re like, whoa. Yeah. And I think it’s great to have coaches like you then like open opportunities for these job shadowing things that happen.


So I’ve been in. Certainly the beneficiary of very generous people who gave up their time and space. So I could see these things now, too, which we love. Like I tell teens all the time and like people who love their jobs are more than happy to talk about. Yeah. Let’s figure out if it would be. Fit, like just as we even give in our program, like framework for email templates to do the app can be hard, but yes, you’ve benefited.


You’re giving back, but yes, you’ve benefited. You’re giving back. So you decide law’s not probably going to be for me. Is that when you chose geology? I still had it in the back of my mind. I just thought, okay. Maybe if I actually did the schooling, I would change my mind or maybe I was going back and forth.


And then the attorney actually suggested, she said, you said you wanted to do environmental law. So why don’t you get a science degree and then go to law school and then we’ll see if you have the same mind frame mindset by then. Oh, that’s not about idea. And she said, it’ll set you apart because everyone is in the humanities, gets a degree in English or history and then goes to law school most often.


And that’s when I realized a lot of these environmental issues are contextualized in human rights. So we want people to have clean access, to clean water, clean air, but it’s not always the case. So environmental issues are very like human rights driven. And so I said, okay, that sounds like a great idea.


So I did take the L sat and everything. I took it in high school. Because I was also looking at law schools in England and they have a actual law degree for undergrad, and it’s not like the U S where you have to get your bachelor’s and go so long. So I did take the Elsa and that’s when I was like, okay, this is also something I have to put work in kind of like math and science.


So it seems like studying as an intuitive or like second nature to me, but I took the LSS, I got acclimated to the system and then I decided, okay, I will try this law thing, but with a science degree. So that’s when I went into geology and I really liked. I didn’t expect to fall in love with it, but I did.


I was really good at it. It’s a very applied science. I will say that, which means you have to have a little bit of everything in your toolbox. That’s kind of like how I am as a person. You have to be a good artist to understand. The things that you see in the fields, you have to have spatial thinking 3d.


That was also something I had to work at. I feel like if a teenager’s listening to you right now and they go, I’m awful at drawing. Yeah. Do you feel like they can become adept at it enough? Like they can practice. To be a natural artist, but know that you’re going to use some of those skills. Yeah. Yeah. If you’re an artist, that’s a big plus, but if you’re not it’s okay.


I’ve had some of my friends draw. I am not going to name names, but some of them, I looked at them. I’m like, what is this? But as long as you’re capturing the big characteristics, like this is the scale, like this is a scale at which I’m drawing. These are the characteristics that stood out. So as long as you’re a good note taker in that, and obviously as you move forward in your career, you’re going to be using those less and less.


Be more reliant on high Telic software programs that will do the drawing for you. But as long as you can get the idea and make sure give you certain. No, but it’s a plus, but now it’s okay. So yeah, and then I went to UT for geology and that’s when I realized I’m really good at it. Again had really good mentors that said, oh, para you are actually pretty good at this.


You should stay in the. So then you’re finishing grad school. So you land at NASA with this postdoc fellowship. Yeah. But what were other options then of those that you were in your grad program with? Where did people go after? Yeah. So I’ve changed a lot. I thought I was just going to do a masters. The reason I did a master’s was because I wasn’t ready to go into real like adult job.


And he was like, I feel like I need to learn more. I don’t know what to do yet. So let me just make more time for myself. And I said, I went to grad school, decided that maybe I’ll just finish my. If you get a master’s and at the master’s level, again, you could go into a consulting job. I had friends who went into like scientific recruiting.


Yeah. So companies will need expert scientists to, to spot the talent in other people when there’s a big research lab or some kind of consulting. And so they’ve gone into that position as well. They’ve gone into regulatory positions through government. And then if you go into a PhD, that also means you have a very like specific expertise.


Skillset. Oftentimes, if you’re in the academic track, then you’ll go into post-doctoral research and then you could go be a university professor. So that’s, that’s the academic track. Or you could go into a research lab and do research for your job where there’s a certain project that you’re associated with and you could propose certain things.


Oh, I’ve thought about this. And I think this is something that we need to figure out. I could see a way for it to make it work. So you’re doing experiments and do these big thought experiments, right? Get proposals. So if you go into a research institution, that’s what I’m decided. I wanted to do more research I’m at JPL, which is like full-time research facility.


And it’s not like a university setting, but we are partnered with Caltech, California Institute of technology. So not partner is part of Caltech. It’s a weird structure because it’s both NASA and Caltech. I also have a chance to work with students and interns through. So the Caltech students, even undergrad, are they involved and even undergraduate students?


I have had interns that were in undergrad that were post undergrad, some grad students also, I worked with like master’s level PhD level. Yeah. So it’s a really wide spectrum. Did you do research during your undergrad? I did. And I think part of that was what really helped me understand that I could do research for a living and it was, you know, now I sound like a overachiever.


I wanted to do everything and like shadow to everybody. But part of it was practical. Like I needed a job during college. I wanted to help support myself. And so I, I did research and that’s when I realized a lot of my skills sets that. Maybe not useful in real life. Like I’m really good with chopsticks, right.


Or I’m really agile with my hands. But those things were valuable when you’re doing these biological experiments or chemical experiments where it’s like quickly change things and wash 300 vials in an hour. Like things like that, that you do with your hands. That was maybe not useful in just studying.


We’re useful. And I was like, this is so fun. You create a system for yourself in the lab and you’re running multiple experiments at once. And that was really, yes, you needed a job and you need to make some money in your undergrad, but it was almost like the ultimate job shadow test. Drive it. Before you had to commit to that, what would you say?


Like when you think of being a research scientist, what would you say? Like here are some key qualities of people that I think would enjoy and thrive in that. Yeah, I would say intellectual curiosity for one. You want to figure it out and it’s okay if that Wayne’s at times, I always think I’m not as curious as I should be.


I have this less affair kind of attitude sometimes when experiments fail. Oh, earth is Silgan. Thing, whether I figure it out or not. So it becomes a little bit of a hurdle, but I still want to know and want to learn. So having that intellectual curiosity and drive really helps shape it. And then it’s one of those jobs that can take on both people who are a Jack of all trades and also people who are skilled experts at one very narrow thing.


So there’s a lot of different cavities. There’s room for everybody. So if you’re the Jack of all trades person, kind of like I am where I love all of these different hobbies, you can still figure out how to make all that work in a research setting, because there are so many aspects related to it. You have to be a good communicator and a good writer helps to be a good artist when you’re making these graphs and figures.


It helps to be a good storyteller to write these proposals. But if you’re very technically advanced in one narrow thing, Too, because then you’re going to be this brilliant person who’s driving a lot of the technical effort in a research setting. So that is one. And then I guess, lastly, good time management skills, which you eventually develop.


I think just going through life, that’s something that I always struggle with as well, but that helps as well, just because our work is so punctuated by either semesters or deadlines. So trying to be on top of that. And I was joking with my other colleagues the other day. I was always this planner and I was, I’m always punctual, but I started to miss deadlines and we’re saying, oh, now you’re finally a professional researcher with all of the


she’s finally dropping balls at me. She’s like actually a professional research.


I think research in general, whether it’s earth science or anything. It’s a very broad field. It’s very fun because you get to come up with your own questions and then you get to drive them. You also get to collaborate with a lot of people having that humility that you’re not always going to know every answer or every part of the answer.


So asking people, how do you think we should figure this out? That part is really fun for me. Good care. Like the collaboration part is huge. Sometimes I think when I’m talking to teens, I hear them say they feel like they would be isolated in the lab by themselves. No, I think it’s collaborative. And so you’re super collaborative, but it’s probably not constant interaction though either.


And I think that’s the beauty of it. Even if you don’t know everything, there’s someone who knows it. And that’s the fun part, right? Oh, I’m going to ask myself. Whoever and call them and say, Hey, you want to work with me, but there’s times where you have to sit down and just write your paper or write of your proposal.


So it can have that loan time as well. Or if you’re brainstorming, sometimes that’s done in a group setting. Sometimes people best brainstorm when they’re alone, they’re out in nature or wherever they get their inspiration from. That was truly like an ambivert job. It’s not your raging extroverts who want all people all the time.


It’s not that, but it’s also not, you’re not flying solo. Yeah. You can make it whatever you want it to be. If you want it to just be in the extroverted side. Do more collaborative efforts and only go out and build bridges and be social, and then maybe leave the other sides to other people who are more introverted.


Like you could do that. You can make it anything that you want to fit for everyone. It fits a wide variety of people. Yeah. Yeah. Maybe that’s not the best advice when we’re trying to target, trying to target. I think it’s good for. Students to hear that these preconceived ideas that we have, I just like the drama of the courtroom are not always correct.


I love that we can hear this. And so really they could talk to probably five different research scientists. You’re going to find one who is that raging extrovert. Who’s going to be collaborating and engaging with people all the time. You’re going to see everybody on that contentious. I always think of, we do have a personality assessment that we use as just data point on personality, but I think of everything on the line of a container.


And so on the social energy continuum, there really would be a place for everybody when it comes to research. Yeah. Yeah. I agree. Cool. Any parting words for our teens and specifically our girls in stem, you and I, our Instagram friends and the best place where people could find you by the way. Yeah, or they can email me.


I could give you a couple of email addresses as well for you to link maybe to the, I will do that for, yes. I forget your Instagram username or to science war to science. I love it. So with that, what she warned us on. Let’s give some parting advice to girls about stem, women and stem. You’ll always have that hashtag on your Instagram.


I love it. It’s a big passion of mine, specifically, geology, where there’s a lot of physical activity involved. You have to be really fit to do a lot of these field courses. It could be challenging for people that are not. Which was me growing up also with like heavy lifting in the field that you have to do.


It could be really challenging for women who are maybe not as strong, but I think it’s great that we have this cultural shift of we’re seeing more strong women and like fit women. And it’s not no longer this like dainty ideal. Especially strong in east Asian culture where I was growing up, but it’s changing rapidly and everyone’s very collaborative.


Everyone’s very inclusive. And so even if you have, let’s say certain physical limitations or disabilities, like we’re always helping each other on the field and it’s a collaborative effort. I love that. So don’t be afraid. To try these things and go for it. And I think having girls and women in Sam bring a certain aspect that was missing before.


Like for example, I, like I was mentioning before, I think women tend to be more multifaceted in terms of their hobbies. And so we have engineering women that are not just into that engineering culture of like computers and games and anime. They also bring other aspects like, oh, they could be. Great dancers.


And they made like rugby and there’s a variety of hobbies. They have, they also bring into this very traditionally unilateral COVID. Mm there’s studies on this and on social science where we’re seeing that shift kind of in terms of that demographic in stem, because more women are going in. And so I would say don’t be afraid.


Also the preconceived notion that scientists are always in a white lab coat in the lab, like when you were mentioning doing all these. Part of my passion for my Instagram page is bringing that to the forefront and saying, oh, well actually sometimes, but not always, you know, being a woman in stem, like sometimes I am in a hard, hot out in the beach covered in mud, you know, and like a S you know, those safety, high visibility,


like, I could look like a construction worker in the morning and then. In the middle of the day, I might be in that like lab coat with experiments, gloves and everything, safety glasses in the lab. But then over the week I may be at a outreach event or a conference and I might be dressed in business casual, or as I’m trying to show these multifaceted aspects of science and me as a person, as a woman in science.


Yeah. I would be happy to chat with anybody if they need it. My website is Kira kim.com. So usually if my, even if my email changes, I have my website up and running and they can link me through that. Wonderful. You a huge blessing to us today. Thank you for your time. We’ve taught us a lot. I’ve learned a ton.


Thank you for your generosity. Thank you be so this was really fun. I hope this helps them by. Well, one last thing, I guess I tried law one more time, actually. Yeah. So I was like, maybe I just need to do a different type of law. And so my other passion was music. And so I did get a degree in music and undergrad, and I took courses in copyright law.


So like music, copyright law, and that was what would really solidify. I can’t do it.


I’m going to still have a big, I’m always interested in like the legal procedure and like reading the fine print. So I’m that person who reads the fine print just for fun and sees, oh, how did they say it? But I could never do it for a job. So I have a lot of respect for lawyers and especially one of the most misunderstood.


Jobs, which makes me think I need to get a lawyer to interviews. I would love to see that interview too, so great. I will let you know again. You’re so generous. Thank you.