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LIMA Quest Challenge
Spring 2008 NASA Quest Challenge!

Meet: Thomas Wagner, Ph.D.

Tom Wagner in front of iglooProgram Director
Antarctic Earth Sciences
National Science Foundation

Who I am and what I do:
I’m the Program Director for Antarctic Earth Sciences at the National Science Foundation, which means that I help figure out what kind of research will be done in Antarctica. Earth science in Antarctica is a broad subject, and includes everything from dinosaurs to volcanoes to what will happen to the glaciers if the earth’s temperature rises,

Some characteristics you need in my job:

  • You have to like science and scientists.
  • You have to like to read a lot, because you need to learn about the latest research developments all over the world to see how they apply to Antarctica
  • You have to like to help people. I talk to scientists about the work that they want to do, and then I have to talk to the pilots to make sure we can get them into the remotest corners of Antarctica safely.
  • You have to open to new ideas, and be willing to wrong. It’s not possible to be an expert in all things, so I spend a lot of time listening to other people.

How I first became interested in this profession:
I always wanted to be a scientist, but it wasn’t until college that I realized that Earth science was my favorite subject. While I enjoy most sciences and lab work, I also liked the idea of doing work outside and exploring new places. I started out thinking of physics and computer science as career choices, but by my sophomore year of college I knew that Earth science was for me. It has everything—from chemistry to physics to biology to natural disasters!

My Career Journey:
I got my bachelor’s degree from State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton in Geology. Doing some field work in my junior year in the western US, I realized that volcanoes were my favorite subject, so I went to graduate school at MIT to get a PhD. We did experiments to recreate the conditions in the deep earth that create magma at places like Hawaii and the volcanoes of California. We also studied how the moon formed, which is a wild story in itself and involves the moon being a giant molten ball of magma.

After finishing my dissertation, I realized that I really wanted to do something to help people, so I moved to Papua New Guinea and taught volcanology at the national university. They have a lot of volcanoes! Along the way I did consulting work for foreign aid, biodiversity, and environmental projects.

After six years in New Guinea, the Program Director job at NSF for volcanology opened up. Some of my friends thought it would be a good job for me, and recommended that I apply, so I did.

After being in that job for about a year and a half, the job for Antarctic Earth Sciences opened up. I was attracted to it because it covers so many areas of geology, and I would get to go to Antarctica a lot, which is quite a change from living in the jungles of New Guinea!

What I like best about my job:
Going to Antarctica every year!

What I like least about my job:
It can be difficult to pick which projects to support, because there are so many good ones. And, of course, the people that don’t get picked can be disappointed.

Advice to kids/students pursuing careers in this area:
First, get into something! Whatever you like! When you get detailed knowledge about one thing, it helps in other ways. For example, I like bikes, so I used to take them apart and fix them--well not always fix them... In graduate school, even though I was a geologist, the experiments that I did involved a lot of wrench-turning, so my bike experience helped me.

Say you’re into video games—that’s fine, but take it beyond just playing. Learn how they are made. Learn to program or write game stories and learn about game theory or find out about the physics models they use. A lot of the visualization tools used in games will eventually be used in science.

As to picking a career, pick something that involves activities that you like to do. Everyone worries that they need to pick something that they love now and will love forever. That’s true only for very few people. Most people have multiple interests, and their interests change throughout their lives! So, start by picking something that includes a few of the things you're interested in. Otherwise you wind up doing nothing, and that’s sad.

But don’t be afraid if what you pick is hard or seems like it will have some boring, hard work to get to the exciting stuff. If it was easy, it would be boring too! Ever play an easy video game? How long did you play it for? There is a lot of studying that goes into being a scientist and it can be easy to lose sight of your ultimate goal—exploring! That’s what scientists are, when you get right down to it. They’re explorers, looking over the edge of the known into the unknown to understand how the universe works!

My role models or inspirations:
When I was a kid, I always liked Thomas Edison, because he worked on so many different things. But I also always try to remember his quote:

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

I’m also always surprised when I read about any very successful person, even famous entertainers. We tend to think that they just got lucky or fell into it, but it’s not true. Most of them have been acting or singing since childhood. Like Britney Spears.

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NASA Official: Liza Coe
Last Updated: May 2005
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