August 24, 2016

Q&A with Dr. Maria T. Zuber

Posted by cbunge

mariaDid you know? Women’s Equality Day is August 26th! To celebrate, AGU will be featuring several female scientists on social media throughout the week. We’ll be posting Q&A’s on The Bridge, asking geoscientists about career advice, the work they do, and why it’s important to get involved in science policy. Today’s featured scientist is Dr. Maria T. Zuber. Dr. Maria T. Zuber is the Vice President for Research and E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chair of the National Science Board.

Who or what has inspired you to pursue your research?

Looking up at the night sky from a very young age. Understanding what was up there became an obsession, or a passion, depending on one’s point of view.

Why do you think it’s important to get involved in science policy?

I got involved after the first space mission I worked on, Mars Observer, was lost three days before arriving at Mars. It quickly became apparent that if we sat there and waited for Congress to decide that the exploration of Mars should continue, it was going to be a while.  If you want something worthwhile to happen, you can’t necessarily depend on others to get it done.

What is an obstacle you have had to overcome to get to your current position?

Balancing career and family obligations was the biggest challenge. There’s no playbook for this.

Did you have any important mentors in your career, and how did they impact you?

All of my scientific mentors have been great male scientists who believed in me and gave me chance after chance to contribute. I never had a female mentor until Susan Hockfield came to MIT as President, and she continues to give me advice on all manner of things.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to work in science policy?

Listen to all points of view and look for common ground. In my role advocating for science I talk to a lot of people with whom I fundamentally disagree on most things, but I’ve never had a conversation where we couldn’t find a topic on which our perspectives aligned, and when that happens individuals are always willing to keep the dialogue going. It’s sometimes a lot of work for a little gain but if you want a problem solved you need to do something.

What should be the future priorities for scientific research in the U.S.?

Where do I start?  We need a mix of discovery-driven and applied science. It’s important to address crucial societal issues like health care, energy and the environment, population growth and the competition for resources, and opportunities and challenges of our digital world. We should also be trying to understand the origin and evolution of life, the laws of nature at all scales, and our place on this Earth and in the universe. We need some high-risk, high-return projects, the detection of gravitational waves being a perfect example.

How can the U.S. ensure that it continues to play a leading role in scientific discovery?

The government needs to amplify its investment in basic science.  Curiosity is the foundation for discovery. Most of the time, we don’t know where we’re going to find the answer and a lot of times we don’t even know the question. We’ll never get there if we don’t look in places and in ways we haven’t done before.

What discovery do you hope is made in your lifetime?

The discovery of life beyond Earth.

Do you have a favorite photograph from your career? Why it is important to you?

I’m standing of the top of the gantry of the rocket that launched the dual GRAIL spacecraft. All our good ideas for making measurements to study the interior of the Moon are sitting inside that nose cone. When I launch an experiment to space it’s a very similar feeling to sending our kids off to their first day of school. You hope you gave them what they need to succeed, because once they leave there’s only so much you can do to help them.


Thank you to Dr. Zuber for her time and answers. Be sure to follow her on Twitter @maria_zuber!