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Vicky Hamilton

Vicky Hamilton
Hawaii, USA

What is your title and what do you do?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) at the University of Hawai'i; in addition to teaching and advising Master's and Ph.D. students, I am also actively involved in research about the composition of Mars.  I use data from the Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer (MGS TES), and the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) in my work.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

I did not know that I wanted to be a scientist until I was in college, although I was always interested in the planets.  I started out being a psychology major; the kind of psychology I wanted to do was going to require me to get a Ph.D., but I wasn't sure that was what I wanted to do, so I went into geology instead.  The funny thing is that I ended up getting a Ph.D. anyway.

What inspired you to enter the field of science, particularly geology?

I was able to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California one summer, interpreting data returned by the Magellan mission to Venus.  I loved knowing that I was one of the few people on this world who had the opportunity to study another world with a new data set.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I responded to a job advertisement in a scientific journal/newspaper.  I knew of HIGP by reputation, and wanted to work in an academic environment.

Did you have a mentor or did any individual inspire you to become who you are today?

Many people have been mentors throughout my life, and particularly with respect to becoming a planetary scientist.  My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I enjoyed doing.  In college, my advisor Margi Rusmore and my JPL mentors, Ellen Stofan and Jeff Plaut, supported and encouraged my interest in planetary science.  My graduate advisor at Arizona State University, Phil Christensen, was a tremendous inspiration because of all he has managed to accomplish and the way that he shares those accomplishments with his employees and students.

What are the most rewarding aspects of being a scientist?

Making new discoveries is the best part of this job.  Seeing things that no one else has seen.

What are the most difficult aspects about a career in your field?

This isn't an 8 am-5 pm job.  It takes many more than 40 hours per week to do everything that needs to be done.  It can also be difficult to stay organized sometimes -- there are usually a lot of different projects that all need attention; it can be quite a task to keep everything under control.  However, for all that, the payoffs are enormous; this job is fascinating, liberating, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Do you find that your colleagues treat you with the same respect they do others in your field who have more experience or "stature"?

Usually, yes.  Although experience is certainly valuable in this field, young scientists can and do have good ideas and most people respect that.  In some arenas, however, the perception of "experience" can and does outweigh "youth".

Does your casual appearance ever cause people to make erroneous assumptions about your qualifications?

Most everyone in this field dresses casually, so I don't think that I've encountered this from anyone in my field.  Other than at professional conferences, I only dress differently if I'm going to speak to non-scientists and want to look a little more professional (and look like I take them seriously).

Do you feel you are competing with your fiancé since you are in the same field?

No.  He and I do different things, and sometimes we collaborate, which is really fun.

Do you foresee having to make any changes in either of your careers when you choose to "settle down"?

I'm sure that if we choose to start a family, it will require some changes.  I don't think that they are substantially different than the accommodations that any couple would have to make though.

Why did you move to Hawaii?  Was it difficult to make the move?  Did this put your personal life on hold?

We moved to Hawai'i because we were offered these jobs.  In fact, it allowed us to be in the same place after several years of living in separate states.  We certainly plan to stay here for the long term.

Why would you encourage others to pursue a degree in geology?  What type of work might they be able to do as geologists?

I would encourage anyone with a love of nature, astronomy, etc. to consider a degree in geology.  Although I am a planetary geologist, there are many geologists who study fascinating things on Earth, such as meteorites, volcanoes, earthquakes, how mountain ranges are formed, how rivers and streams work, etc.

Are you still involved with Mars exploration?

Yes. I am still affiliated with the TES and THEMIS instruments, and work actively with the data returned from those missions.  I hope to be involved with a landed mission to Mars in 2009.

Do you have any particular words of encouragement for students reading this interview?

Although geology and planetary science are fascinating to me, they're not right for everyone.  When you're thinking about what you want to do for a living when you grow up, make sure it's something you enjoy, because you're going to be doing it for a long time.  You can probably turn anything into a career!

Can you share a quote that inspires you?

I'm a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President of the United States.  He spoke and wrote many elegant words during his life, but I think these three quotes are particularly appropriate:

"I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you can not fail, if you resolutely determine, that you will not."

"Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."

"A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.  It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems.  And not only so.  It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones."

- 7 September 2003


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Last Updated:
7 September 2003

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