The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.
Get to know Kelly
Occupation: Associate Research Scientist
Institution: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and University of Maryland
Focus: Remote sensing of ice shelves and icebergs
Kelly is an Associate Research Scientist with the University of Maryland and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in Geology from Syracuse University, a master’s degree in Geology from the University of Montana, and a Ph.D. in Geophysics from the University of Chicago. She was a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she worked on ICESat laser altimetry data, and she is currently part of the ICESat-2 mission, which launched last Saturday, September 15, working on validation of the elevation data. On the weekends in the winter, Kelly coaches alpine ski racing at Liberty Mountain, in southern Pennsylvania.
You can follow both Kelly's NASA and skiing activity or connect with her on Twitter (@KellyMBrunt).
1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two).
I am a glaciologist (I study ice sheets) and I am part of NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat-2) mission. I am specifically tasked with looking at the ice sheets and validating the satellite elevation data products.
2. When did you first become interested in your field?
I have always preferred the winter. Growing up in Connecticut, my extended family liked to ski together and we often took trips to Vermont. The love of winter and snow (and the cold) led me to work in places like Montana, Alaska, and even Antarctica. Working in these places, and wanting to know more about ice, drove me to go back to school for a Ph.D. in geophysics, with an emphasis in glaciology.
3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
My particular role with NASA allows me to do everything that scientists like to do: I go into the field to collect data, I use cool NASA satellite data to augment my field data, I sometimes develop models to better understand my observations, and I spend time writing it up, to share with the community. My role lets me do it all!
4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
Generally, my day is spent at a computer, developing code to look at and assess satellite data. These days are not very glamourous…
More rarely, I am in the field collecting data that helps validate and interpret the satellite data. These are the days that people most associate with an exciting career in the sciences. Since my research is associated with the ice sheets, this field work is usually in really remote, interesting places, like Greenland or Antarctica.
5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
My advice to students varies based on age and specialty:
I tell STEM undergraduates (and early STEM graduate students) that one of the largest gaps in science education is statistics. We get bogged down in the calculus sequence and we forget about other math directions.
I tell younger STEM students that math can be challenging, but the greatest rewards come from meeting tough challenges. In fact, if you ask any researcher in my building, they will tell you that their most rewarding days come from meeting and beating tough mathematical or computer coding challenges. Further, I tell young STEM students that their math skills are like a muscle; you need to keep working them. Stay strong!
And I tell ALL students that if you want to work for NASA on any of their cool missions, there are SO MANY PATHS THAT YOU CAN TAKE! My path, that includes a research Ph.D., is just one example. The people that surround me include engineers, software specialists, engine mechanics, pilots, science writers, and science visualization experts, to name a few. It really is a diverse community with respect to training backgrounds. However, the common thread is that all of these people are really good at what they do, which is probably the result of people being really happy in their jobs. NASA is a great place to work!
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