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Meet Jim Kasting

photo of Jim Kasting
Professor, Penn State University and
Co-chair of NASA's TPFC Science and Technology Definition Team
NASA Ames Research Center

Career Fact Sheet Print Version

Who I am and what I Do
I am a professor at Penn State University, but my job for NASA right now is as the co-chair of NASA's TPFC Science and Technology Definition Team. TPFC is the Coronagraphic version of NASA's Terrestrial Planet finder mission. This is one of two missions that NASA hopes to send space-based telescopes to look for Earth-sized planets around other stars.  The Coronagraph will look in the invisible and near infrared light using a big 8 x 3.5 meter mirror.

Areas of expertise:
The skills that I have, that have allowed me to make some progress in this area include training in math, physics, and chemistry and a little bit of biology and geology.  So I would say to young people, you need to study your mathematics and also be sure to take some physics and chemistry as you go along in school.

How I first became interested in this profession
I became interested in this while growing up in Huntsville, Alabama. I just happened to grow up in one of the big space centers in the US. My father was working for General Electric, which was subcontracting for NASA. This was back during the time when the US space program was first getting going with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft.  Many of the engines for these spacecraft were developed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, so I think I knew from a very early age that I was interested in space, and I wanted to do something related it.

What helped me prepare for this job
What helps to prepare you is to work hard on your academic studies. I've been involved in this field for long time now.  I got my Ph.D. at Michigan and did two post docs, one at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one at NASA Ames Research Center. I worked in the space science division at NASA Ames for about five more years and then I came to Penn State.  So if you go into academics or space research, you can expect to spend many years learning what's useful to the discipline. 

My role models or inspirations
That's an easy one for me.  I was fortunate to have of several different academic mentors.  One of the first ones was my Ph.D. Academic advisor at Michigan, Tom Donahue.  He was the planetary scientist who was very involved in the Pioneer Venus mission and also later in the Galileo mission to Jupiter.  Also, Jim Walker inspired me, who wrote a book on the evolution of the atmosphere more than 25 years ago.  Then I worked with Jim Pollack at NASA Ames, who was a very well-respected planetary scientist. He was Carl Sagan's first graduate student. Both Jim and Carl have passed away now, which is unfortunate. The other person who's been a real mentor to me is Dick Holland of Harvard, who has worked for many years on questions such as the rise of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere.  So I've been fortunate to learn from some very good scientists.

My education and training
I received my undergraduate the degree at Harvard University in chemistry and physics and I did graduate work in atmospheric sciences at University of Michigan. I did a two-year post doc at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Then I did 2 more years of post doc at NASA Ames in the Bay Area, the 5 years in the Space Science division at Ames, and 16 and half years at Penn State in the department of Geo Sciences. 

My career path
My career path was the standard one for academics. I was interested in research early on and I've stuck with it.

What I like best about my job
That's a good question. There are things I really like about my job.  I like it when I have enough time to work hard on a research project.  I like it when have a good student or post doc I'm working with because I really enjoy collaborating. I also enjoy it when I've got a good class on a subject that I like to teach.  This semester is Spring '05. It is one of my favorite semesters, because I have a graduate-level class in Astrobiology with 10 students from all sorts of different disciplines. I have another class in Numerical Modeling with about eight or 10 students where I get to work one-on-one with them on programming.

What I like least about my job
That's also an easy question and I think I would have the same answer that many professors would have:  We've got too many things that we would like to do, and there's not enough time to do all of them as well as one would like.  If you're a professor, you're trying to research, you're trying to teach classes in the same time you're trying to perform some kind of service for other organizations such as editing journals. I don't do that, but I'm also working for NASA right now. I've got at least three different bosses, and it's hard to do everything well.  You always have to make compromises.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
My advice would to be to work hard as an undergraduate. Get yourself a good technical background, but also don't just restrict yourself to getting a technical background. Some of the courses that have been the most useful to me were English and Speech, because if you're a successful scientist you'll end up giving talks.  Learning how to give talks is a plus. Also, if you're any kind of practicing scientist, you have to write up your research in research papers, and people will read those more if you write them well. So, learning to read and write will become very important.

Personal information
Well I like to stay in shape. I run some and swim, work on my exercise bike, elliptical trainer and lift a few weights.  I enjoy tennis.  I have a wife and three wonderful boys, with two in college now. We have two cats that help us appreciate the relationship between cats and humans, which is an unusual one. So I think I have a pretty standard life.

Last Updated: March 2, 2005


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