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Meet Monika Kress

photo of Monika Kress
Professor of Astronomy
San Jose State University

Career Fact Sheet Print Version

Who I am and what I Do
I am a professor of astronomy at San Jose State University. I do research for NASA during the summers. I use computers to figure out how planets form, and what they are made out of.

Areas of expertise:
My area of expertise is physics, which is the study of how things go!

The most important skill for this job isn't actually a skill—it is curiosity. To be a scientist, the one thing you need more than anything else is the natural urge to wonder why things are the way they are: Why is the sky blue? Why is the sun yellow? Why does the moon look different every night, and why is does it always seem to be in a different place? How can you find Mars or Jupiter in the night sky?

Most people are very surprised when I tell them that a very important skill is to be a good communicator. Communication is a two-way street—you have to be really good at learning (listening) and also you have to be a good teacher at the same time. The reason is that science is a team sport, no one really works all by himself or herself in this business. You have to effectively communicate to your colleagues what you've learned, and you have to listen carefully and patiently to others in order to learn from them.

How I first became interested in this profession
When I was a little girl, I would spend a lot of time wondering why things were the way they were. I can remember lying in the grass looking up on a windless day, yet the clouds were moving by, and I wondered whether it was because the earth was turning or if there was wind higher up. (I now know that it's because there can be wind high up when there is no wind near the ground!) I spent an awful lot of time just wondering about things, and I was also very good at math—I tried to figure out quicker ways of doing my math homework! :-)

What helped me prepare for this job
Getting a good education, with lots of science, math, and computers was the biggest help. But I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way; I pushed myself to try new things and to open myself up to new experiences. This helps in all aspects of life—not just in being a scientist!

My role models or inspirations
I didn't really have any role models. I never met any scientists before I went to college. I can remember liking Carl Sagan on his TV show Cosmos.  And I always loved those TV shows about dinosaur hunters—I knew I wanted to do what they did, or something like it.

My education and training -- How I got to this point
I wish I knew! Mostly, it was to hang in there for a very long time, and it wasn't always terribly exciting or fulfilling. But I knew that science was the right place for me, I just had to find my place in it. And my place now is mostly teaching, but also doing research.

My career path
When I was a junior in college (1990), I applied for a summer job to do research in astronomy. I became very interested in the subject, and made some contacts with a person at NASA Ames who later because my Ph.D. thesis advisor. I went to Ames to finish working on my Ph.D.  I did a postdoc there, and another postdoc at the UW in Seattle. I did some part-time teaching at small colleges on and off during that time, and found that I was a really good teacher and I really enjoyed it! I got a professor job at San Jose State University last year and I love it.

What I like best about my job
I like that my job involves working with a lot of people, both students and my research colleagues. I hate sitting in my office alone! It is very rewarding to see the light bulb go on over my students' heads.  Also, I love to travel, and I have been able to go to the most amazing places in this job, including Antarctica, Korea, Poland, Spain, Germany, and all over the US. This summer, I will be going to China for the first time, to attend a conference there and present my research.

What I like least about my job
I do not like that sometimes I feel pressured when my research life encroaches upon my teaching, and vice versa. I find I cannot neglect one over the other, and when I am trying to be all things to all people, I can get very stressed out.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Take every math and science course offered at your school. Major in science in college, but take writing classes also, even if they are not required. Once you get through college, be prepared for a lot of relocating, and I don't mean just down the street. This is not the kind of job where you can live in one place for your entire life. Chances are, you will live in at least three different states at different times during your career, and I know some people who have lived in as many as 7 or 8 different places over the years. Or more. And, an advanced degree in science does not mean you'll be making a ton of money! You will be comfortable but not rich. You have to do it ultimately because it is rewarding and interesting.

Personal information
It hasn't been easy, but I would not have done anything differently. All the hard work, stress, and everything else have totally been worth it!

Last Updated: January 13, 2005


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