Dr. Claudia Alexander – Planetary Scientist

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Davitia James! Follow her on Twitter here:

Basic information 

Name: Claudia Joan Alexander 

Born: May 30, 1959 Vancouver, Canada

Died: July 11, 2015 California, USA, aged 56

Education:

B.Sc in Geophysics from University of California Berkeley

M.Sc University of California Los Angeles

Ph.D University of Michigan 

Main affiliation:

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Major achievements:

  • The last project lead of NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter
  • Represented the US during the multi-nation Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
  • Award winning children’s author 

Quote

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer 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.”

Early life 

Claudia Joan Alexander was born to Gaynelle and Harold Alexander in Vancouver, Canada on 30th May 1959. Her family moved shortly after and she was raised in Santa Clara, California. Claudia was always fond of stories. Her imagined worlds were a refuge from the isolation of being the only black girl at her school when she was growing up. She originally wanted to pursue a career in journalism but her parents refused to pay for what they considered a useless degree. She obliged and started a degree in engineering, but discovered her passion for planetary science during an internship at the NASA Ames Research Center where she would duck away from the engineering department to see where the science happened. 

[1, 2, 3]

Education and Career 

She graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in geophysics in 1983. After this she earned her master’s, also in geophysics, in 1985. She obtained her Ph.D. in Plasma Physics from the University of Michigan in 1993 and became one of the first 30 African American women to earn a doctorate in that field. 

After graduating from Michigan, she went to work with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Once at JPL, she joined the Galileo mission team, working on the plasma wave instrument. She later became a project manager and contributed to this mission until 2003 when she led the team that plunged the orbiter through Jupiter’s atmosphere at the end of its life. 

[1, 2, 3, 4]

Career highlights

Dr. Alexander is best known for her extended work on the Galileo mission. The goal of the project was to study Jupiter in detail and learn more about its moons. There were many major discoveries over the 14-year project duration including a possible liquid water ocean below the surface of the moon Europa, and a magnetic field around the moon Ganymede. Seeing evidence for a surface bound exosphere (a very, very thin kind of atmosphere) around Ganymede disproved a lot of Claudia’s previous work and general beliefs about that moon’s formation and current processes. It was one of her favourite moments.  

[1, 2, 3, 5]

Claudia also contributed to the Rosetta mission launched by the European Space Agency in 2004. The Rosetta mission orbited and successfully landed on a comet (the first to do so!) named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the general neighbourhood of Jupiter. She worked as a project manager and scientist on this mission at the same time.   

Video of Alexander explaining a recent finding of the Rosetta mission

She was also approached to work on the Cassini mission to Saturn due to her particular skill set and experience with Galileo and Rosetta. Alexander was a great leader, with strong interpersonal skills which she said made her well suited to her many international responsibilities. [5, 6]

Writing Career and encouraging children in STEM

At some point, Alexander found her way back to the world-building she enjoyed as a child and created time in her hectic schedule to write and publish multiple books. As an author, she wrote science fiction and steampunk, mainly geared towards children. She was interested in reaching children at the age where they lose interest in science, particularly girls and minoritized groups. She felt that steampunk was a good way to captivate and engage this audience since it was easier to “see” the science (that is, see the gears turning in a Victorian device). 

Video of Alexander talking about teaching STEM to children, dressed the part to talk about her steampunk book

Claudia was very passionate about public outreach. In videos and podcasts, the excitement in her voice is clear as she discusses the goals and implications of various missions. She strongly believed that science is a group effort, and that we could get better outcomes by having a broader range of backgrounds and ideas. 

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Death and legacy

Claudia Alexander passed away on July 11, 2015 in California after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 56 years old. Her legacy continues at various institutions and on the target comet of the Rosetta mission, a testament to her impact on the planetary science community. 

The Claudia Alexander Scholarship at the University of Michigan was created to support undergraduates studying climate, space science and engineering. The American Astronomical Society, Division for Planetary Sciences established a prize in her name to celebrate the achievements of mid-level (at least 8 years since their final degree) planetary scientists. 

The Rosetta mission team named a feature on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet after Claudia. It is a gap shaped like a “U” between two pillars on the lower lobe of the comet. It has been named the C. Alexander Gate. An apt tribute to someone who left spaces open for other black women behind her.

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The C. Alexander Gate on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Author’s note

Of course, I am inspired by how hard Claudia Alexander worked and how exceptional she was at her job, but I am mainly moved by how highly everyone spoke of her and their reflections on personal and professional interactions with her. She was not just a brilliant scientist and trailblazer in her field, but by all accounts, a great person who deeply cared about others. Despite her work commitments and long hours exploring the universe, she was also an engaged community member, sports enthusiast, a sci-fi lover, and recreational horse rider. She was more than just her work. 

Sometimes it’s easy to focus on and celebrate only science – which can be a double-edged sword knowing that black women often need to work several times as hard as colleagues to be recognized at all. But we are full human beings outside of what we produce. Science isn’t just being locked away in a lab all day and night. Science is a team sport. That requires working well with others, encouraging new players and taking care of yourself off the field. 

References

  1. NASA – In Memoriam: Claudia Alexander https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/1140/claudia-alexander-1959-2015/
  2. LA Times – Claudia Alexander Obituary https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-0719-claudia-alexander-20150718-story.html
  3. American Physical Society Biography of Claudia Alexander https://www.aps.org/careers/physicists/profiles/calexander.cfm
  4. African American Women in Physics – The Physicists http://aawip.com/aawip-members/ 
  5. Interview with Claudia Alexander – 51 Women in Planetary Science https://womeninplanetaryscience.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/claudia-alexander-be-prepared-to-be-flexible-in-your-career/ 
  6. Interview with NASA Rosetta scientist Claudia Alexander https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcbWvbIQ8oc 
  7. Interview with Claudia Alexander | Wisconsin Public Radio https://www.wpr.org/people/claudia-alexander
  8. The Compelling Nature of Locomotion | Dr. Claudia Alexander | TEDxColumbiaCollegeChicago
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxzkw0EYHIw 
  9. Books by Claudia Alexander https://aalbc.com/authors/author.php?author_name=Claudia+Alexander 
  10. Claudia Alexander Prize Will Honor Mid-Career Planetary Scientists – http://spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=56490
  11. https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA19838

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