Meet our Students

Curious about what life as a grad student in our group is like? Here are some interviews with students: Tracy, Emily, George, and Laura.


An Interview with Tracy Becker

Describe your line of work in planetary science in non-technical terms.

I study Saturn’s rings. Most of my friends recognize that that in itself is pretty cool. When I describe the planetary science field in general, I say that we study everything there is to know about planets: geology, atmospheres, rings, planet formation, exoplanets, and more. And the point, which is what people usually care about, is to explore the basic questions of how our solar system formed and how our planet evolved to its current state. Saturn’s rings resemble the conditions of the early solar system, so studying the rings improves our understanding of our solar system and the systems now being discovered around other stars.


What made you decide on UCF for grad school?

My advisors at one of my REU internships told me about the planetary sciences program at UCF. I already knew I wanted to focus on solar system objects in graduate school and many of the planetary professors at UCF are highly respected in their fields. I also liked that the planetary sciences group at UCF is relatively new and I could have more of an impact as the program developed. Living in warm Orlando is also a plus!


Talk about your best experience so far.

I really like being a part of the Robinson Observatory, where we host private Scouts events and public observing nights. At these events I have the opportunity to talk to the public and particularly to kids about astronomy, show them how to use the telescopes, and hopefully encourage their interest in science.


What about Orlando itself — what’s best about living here?

Disney World and the weather. I am originally from NJ, so I appreciate the very mild winters and long summers. Being so close to a big tourist destination has also proven to have its advantages. In addition to being able to visit the parks, friends and family always want to come visit. So even though I am far, I get to see a lot of people from home more often than I think I would have if I had gone to graduate school elsewhere.


How about life as a grad student — what adjustments have you had to make?

I have not given up anything concrete, but I have readjusted my priorities when it comes to “free time”. Classes and research are very time-demanding, but I think everyone adjusts. So while I have less personal time than in the past, I haven’t given up anything, I just participate in some activities less often than I once did. That being said, I still make time to hang out with friends and have fun. I will be a graduate student for a long time, so it is important to me that I enjoy that time as well!


What are you plans for after graduate school?

I have found, through the outreach I have done and as my position as a Teaching Assistant, that I really enjoy teaching. I hope to follow the academia track and ultimately end up with a research/teaching position at a university where I can continue to do research and also teach astronomy courses. I also love to travel, so I would like to work for some time at an observatory or university outside of the U.S.


Do you have some insight about what it takes to succeed in grad school?

Self-motivation and diligence. If you have made it through your undergraduate career then you know how to pass difficult classes and exams, but research is a bit different. You don’t have the constant hard deadlines like you do with homework assignments, so you really need to be independent and self-motivated to work towards the more long-term goal of writing a paper or presenting work at a conference. It is a lot of hard work, so you really need to be interested in what you are doing to be successful.


Is there some advice you can pass on specifically to new graduate students?

I would recommend being diligent and efficient in your work for classes and research. I learned quickly that in a graduate course it is important to avoid procrastination when it comes to homework or studying for exams. The more efficient you are, the more free time you will have. Diligence will prevent you from falling behind in your research and lessen the stress of deadlines for a presentation or paper. I would also encourage you to listen to and trust your advisor because he or she is there to support and push you to be an excellent scientist.



An Interview with Emily Kramer

Describe your line of work in non-technical terms.

In short, I study comets. My current project involves using data from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Since the images were taken with an infrared imaging camera, the dust tails and trails that are near many comets were readily detected. I use dynamical models to constrain the sizes and ages of the dust particles that comprise the tails and trails. This allows us to get a better understanding of the structure of comets, which in turn can give us information about their formation mechanism.


Of all of the possible grad schools why did you choose UCF?

When I was an undergraduate at MIT, I asked my professors about the top PhD programs in Planetary Sciences and Astronomy. That list included UCF along with several other top schools. I had the opportunity to attend a Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Orlando that year, and got to know the program better at that time. When I visited the school again after I had been accepted to the program, I was impressed by the quality of the professors, the friendliness of the students and the beautiful, sunny campus. Even though the Planetary Sciences program was still fairly new at that point, I could tell that it would help me achieve my goal of becoming a professional scientist. 


Talk about your best experience so far.

This spring, I had the opportunity to do an internship with a group at JPL using data from the WISE spacecraft. I spent three months living in Pasadena, CA, closely working with the group. Even though the formal internship is over, I have continued to work with the group. I spent another 5 weeks in Pasadena this summer, and plan to return this spring. This opportunity has allowed me to gain valuable research experience, and make more contacts within the planetary sciences community.

What about living in Orlando has surprised you the most?

I have been pleasantly surprised by how nature oriented Orlando is. I grew up hiking, camping, and backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And I am amazed at all the nature trails, reserves and places to explore. Just recently I saw manatees swimming in a beautiful blue river. Every weekend I try to explore some place new, and have an amazing new experience. There’s just so much to see and do here.


What are you plans for after graduate school?

I hope to continue the work I’ve been doing with the group at JPL as a postdoctoral fellow. After that, I’d like to have a professorship at a research university, so I can share my love of astronomy with others while continuing to add to our understanding of the Solar System.


You said you like to share your love of astronomy. Are you involved with any public outreach?

Yes! During the academic year, we host weekly open house nights at the observatory on campus to give the students of UCF and the general public a chance to experience the wonder that is looking through a telescope. I can’t make it every week due to my busy schedule, but I try to go as often as possible because I love seeing the look on a person’s face when they look through a telescope for the first time. We also occasionally host Scout troop to help them earn their astronomy related badges. I was a Girl Scout when I was younger, so I am excited to be able to help inspire young girls about astronomy (and science in general!) as I experienced when I was young.


Is there some advice you can pass on specifically to new graduate students?

Treat graduate school as a full-time job. That is, schedule time to work, and make sure you are working during those scheduled times. But then give yourself some time off, or else you will burn out and forget why you are doing this. You may have to work more during the weeks when you have many exams or papers or proposals due, but if you can keep yourself on a schedule, you can usually avoid spending every week in a panic.



An Interview with George Hatcher

Describe your line of work in non-technical terms.

Luckily this field has a very straightfoward title: planetary science is quite simply the science of planets. We aim to answer questions pertaining to planets, moons and solar systems, such as how they form, what they’re made of, and how they behave, evolve, and interact. It is a multidisciplinary field that grew out of astronomy and earth science; for centuries we could only be sure that our star had planets and the only one we could study directly was Earth. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that we could study the planets in our solar system with visiting spacecraft; until then we had to rely on Earth-based telescopes. The advent of space probes (like Voyager), sample return missions (like Apollo), and the discovery of the first planet orbiting another star in the early nineties (thanks to ever-advancing technology) mark the birth and expansion of planetary science. Planets are massive and complicated systems, so it’s understandable that planetary science draws upon astronomy, orbital mechanics, geology, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, hydrology, and biology, just to name a few.


What made you decide on UCF for grad school?

I work for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, and was awarded a fellowship to pursue a graduate degree at a nearby university. UCF is one of the closest major universities to KSC, and as chance would have it, boasts one of the top planetary science programs in the world. I came to NASA with a masters in aerospace engineering, but once here I had access to KSC’s continuing education program. That was my first exposure to planetary science, and I’ve been excited about it ever since.


Talk about your best experience so far.

By far my favorite part of this degree is having my mind blown on a daily basis by the physical underpinnings of planets and by the discoveries that are being made every day about how they work. The professors at UCF are globally-recognized experts, so I find it incredible that they are so kind and accessible and that they never tire of my endless questions.


You mentioned the interdisciplinary nature of planetary science; what other discipline would you like to merge with?

As a matter of fact I do plan to merge planetary science with aerospace engineering upon my return to full-time work for NASA. I hope to be a liaison between the planetary scientists whose research depends upon space probes and the rocket engineers tasked with accelerating those payloads safely into space.


What about Orlando itself — what’s best about living here?

The weather, hands down. It’s amazing to have so many days of sunshine in a year, and to never have to deal with snow.


How about life as a grad student — what adjustments have you had to make?

Grad school involves a lot of sacrifice and demands excellent time management. Working part time for NASA while being a full time student and a new father means that free time is not something I enjoy. The sacrifice is worth it, though, because I love what I’m learning.


What are you plans for after graduate school?

I would like to take vacation. I’m also looking forward to working only 40 hours a week, having weekends that aren’t dominated by homework and research, taking care of all my home improvement projects that have been on hold since I went back to school, and spending more time with family and friends. Ultimately I hope that this degree makes me more attractive to NASA’s astronaut program.


Do you have advice about what it takes to succeed in grad school?

Perseverance. The workload is daunting and the subject material can be dense and very difficult to understand. It is very easy to get discouraged or overwhelmed. I rely heavily on the support of family, friends, coworkers and peers for help and encouragement. There’s no coasting through a PhD on innate intelligence. I rely on hard work and dogged determination, just as I did for my previous graduate degree.


Is there some advice you can pass on to new graduate students?

Introduce yourself to your professors and your fellow students as soon as you possibly can. I would not have made it past the first semester without study groups and help from my instructors and peers.


An Interview with Laura Seward

Describe your line of work in planetary science in non-technical terms.

I am an experimental planetary scientist. In a laboratory I conduct slow, gentle impacts and create my own mini-craters in order to better understand planet formation and planetary dust dynamics. On rare occasions we conduct this experiments in the microgravity conditions of parabolic aircraft, a.k.a, the vomit comet.


What brought you to UCF for your graduate studies?

I was fascinated by the research of Dr. Joshua Colwell and was fortunately enough to be accepted to work in his lab for my doctoral program.


What’s been your best experience so far?

Aside from floating around in “zero g” conditions, I had the pleasure of organizing a community outreach event that brought together planetary science students and professors with the surrounding community to promote planetary science research and funding. The national Planetary Exploration Bake Sale was a fun publicity stunt that connected what we do at the university with the bigger picture of planetary science research around the country and displaying this research to the general public in a fun way.


If you were able to merge another discipline with yours, what would that be and why?

I have a strong interest in space policy and strive to use my knowledge of planetary science to contribute to the greater discussion of space science and exploration funding and direction. I was honored to represent the American Astronomical Society in several office visits in Washington, D.C. and I am working to increase my involvement in local politics.


What do you most enjoy about the area?

Originally from Pennsylvania, I am now a complete convert to the warmth and beauty of central Florida! I live near the beach and enjoy walking along the shore at any time of the year. The weather and wildlife of the area combined with the activity of NASA nearby makes this a perfect location for me.


Is there anything that you’ve had to “give up” as a graduate student?

Many of my friends and former classmates make much more money in typical 9-to-5 jobs in their fields, but that is a minor sacrifice. Graduate school has provided me far more opportunities than it has asked in sacrifices.


What are your plans for after graduate school?

I intend to pursue a career in the government or private space industry. I am particularly interested in the emerging “newspace” sector and the partnerships between these commercial enterprises, NASA, and the military space programs. A space policy position that didn’t require me to move would be ideal.


What trait do you find most necessary to succeed in graduate school?

Perseverance is key! The ability to endure times of challenge or even stagnation is the most important trait that a graduate student can have. With that comes the need for maturity and independence to accomplish self-directed tasks and the drive to work on a project for years.


Do you have any advice that you would give to a new graduate student in your program?

Study with your classmates as much as possible; working together is the only way to survive some of the toughest classes. Develop good time management skills. Don’t let someone else tell you what you can or can’t do. Follow your passions and don’t be afraid to chart your own path.