Women of Influence: NASA astrophysicist Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge

Colleen Wilson Hodge
[Photo Credit: NASA]

Alabama has been home to many pioneers in many different industries, but after several new astronomic discoveries, long-time Huntsville resident and NASA astrophysicist Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge has set herself apart in a big way.

Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge
Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge [Photo courtesy of NASA]

From an early age, Wilson-Hodge had a love for astronomy and space few could match. In the sixth grade, she took an overnight field trip to the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., where she toured NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“I think that was the first time I realized I could actually work for NASA as a grownup,” she said.

In college she became a NASA co-op student, alternating between classes and working for NASA she met Dr. Gerald Fishman, who was managing the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) at the time. She caught his excitement for the project, and began studying gamma ray bursts in 1989.

Wilson-Hodge graduated with a Master’s degree in Physics from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1996, and immediately began studying for her Ph. D. in Astrophysics, which she obtained in 1999.

In 1999 Wilson-Hodge discovered a special type of pulsar called an X-ray pulsar, which led her to the finding of two new stars. X-ray pulsars emit X-rays and gamma-rays and are powered by accretion, stars gobbling up material from a companion star.

“For just a little while, the universe is putting on a show that only I, and members of the gamma-ray team know about,” Wilson-Hodge told the Marshall Space Flight Center.

She continued to work on the BATSE project until 2000, when the monitor was de-orbited. Wilson-Hodge continued working at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and made another discovery in 2011, when she and her team revealed unexpected changes in X-ray emission from the Crab Nebula.

“For 40 years, most astronomers regarded the Crab as a standard candle,” she told UAH. “Now, for the first time, we’re clearly seeing how much our candle flickers.”

FERMI telescope
The Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, formerly Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, a major NASA mission dedicated to observations of high-energy gamma ray. [Photo courtesy of NASA]

In August of 2017, Wilson-Hodge and the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team gave the world its first detection of light from the same source as gravitational waves, which according to NASA are “ripples in space and time.”

“This new way of learning about the universe is kind of like gaining a new sense. It’s as if we’ve been watching the news for all of human history, but the T.V. has been on mute, now with gravitational wave detectors, we’re finally able to turn on the sound,” said Wilson-Hodge’s associate Tyson Littenberg.

“When we built GBM and launched it on Fermi in 2008, we designed it to detect gamma-ray bursts well,” Wilson-Hodge told NASA. “Back then, it was only slated to fly for five years. Today, GBM is at the forefront of an entirely new type of science, ushering in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy.”

Her findings won her, and the GBM team the 2018 Bruno Rossi Prize, the top prize in high-energy astronomy.

Wilson-Hodge is a extremely “bright star,” in the world of scientific discoveries, and was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some of Alabama Today’s questions about her life, work and influences:

How have other women influenced your success?

Several women in my life have had a positive influence. The first is my Mom, Carol Wilson, who always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, even if they were out of the ordinary. She has always believed in me and celebrated my successes, and still does!

Another was Ms. Sutherland, my high school speech and drama teacher. She taught me much about public speaking that I still use today. I hear her voice in my head sometimes when I’m preparing talks. Early in my career at NASA, I worked with mostly men. One woman did have a big impact on me though. Her name is Dr. Jean Swank. She was the project scientist for the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a satellite that I used quite a bit of data from in my PhD Dissertation. She is an excellent scientist and an extremely capable leader and she is a quiet person like me. She was my first in person example of someone like me leading a space experiment, something that I always wanted to do, and she was a mentor to me.

More recently Dr. Linda Sparke from NASA HQ spent a year leading the project that I now lead. She is also an excellent scientist and leader and an extremely good reader of people. She was leading a project where she wasn’t the expert in the specific science area, so she led collaboratively, getting the inputs she needed from the experts on the team to make decisions. She wasn’t afraid to say she didn’t know, but knew where to go to get the information. She was a great mentor to me as I became the principal investigator of the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor.

What shaped your desire to work with NASA, specifically high energy astrophysics?

I was fascinated by the Voyager images coming back from Jupiter and later Saturn when I was a child. I would clip the photos out of the newspaper and collect them. In the third grade, I told my classmates I wanted to be an astrophysicist, partially because I liked the big word and partially because I was interested in space.

In the sixth grade, my school from Athens, TN, took an overnight field trip to the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., where we toured NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. I think that was the first time I realized I could actually work for NASA as a grownup!

When I was in college, initially at University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, I was hired as a cooperative education student at NASA MSFC. Initially I wasn’t working in astrophysics at all, and I thought my interest was to go into radio astronomy. While I was at MSFC, I walked down the hall to the Astrophysics Division and met Dr. Gerald Fishman who led the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) which was to be launched on the Compton Gamma ray Observatory (launched in 1991). It was designed to study gamma-ray bursts, which were discovered in 1976, in my lifetime! I thought that was really cool that there were astrophysical objects that people had known about for less than my lifetime. I worked on BATSE from 1989 until it was deorbited in 2000. I’ve been in the same group here at MSFC ever since. The group has changed around me as people have retired or left and new people have joined. Now I am in charge!

What has been your favorite area of service, and what is your favorite thing about that position?

I have had several favorite areas that I’ve worked in, but I’ll highlight one that is different from other things I’ve mentioned. From 2012-2014, I was part of a project called High Energy Replicated Optics to Explore the Sun (HEROES). This was a balloon flight mission that flew a hard X-ray telescope up above most of the Earth’s atmosphere for about a day. I was responsible for the astrophysics science for the mission and for testing and operating the detectors.

I loved the hands on part of that project, the time in the lab, and the time out at the balloon facility in New Mexico. We had to solve any problems that arose ourselves. I really enjoyed figuring out new things and inventing solutions and data analysis approaches. I think many of my favorite things in my career map to that same thing, figuring out something new, either how a new astrophysical object behaves or how to analyze new data or how to build an instrument to get the data we need. I loved puzzles as a child and apparently I still do!

Have you read any books that have shaped your perspective on life?

Some of my favorite books as a child were a Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and a Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle. I didn’t realize until I saw the recent movie how important Dr. Katherine Murray was to me, as she demonstrated how be both a scientist and a mom. I felt like her character was minimized in the recent movie and that really bothered me, because I realize that she had been a bit of a role model to me growing up. Meg was also an important character to me, because like her, I was intelligent, but often felt like I didn’t fit in because of it. I loved the definition of the tesseract in the book and the idea of folding space and time in order to travel.

What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue work within the space or science technology industries?

I think it is extremely important to know how to work as part of a team, because science is not achieved by individuals. It takes a team! The recent Bruno Rossi Prize would not have been possible without the contributions of my team of 20+ people who are spread out between Huntsville, Ala., Maryland, New Mexico, Germany, Italy, and Ireland. Everyone had an important role, from those who wrote the papers to those who kept normal operations going while the papers were being written. I am honored to lead them.

I would also advise young women to find a mentor and a sponsor/promoter if at all possible. These may not be the same person. A mentor helps to show a person the ropes and to give some career direction, while a sponsor/promoter is someone who is ready to bring up a person’s work to others who may not know about it, and who can recommend a person for new opportunities. It is important to seek out these people as early as possible in one’s career. These relationships take effort on both sides. If a young woman is an introvert, like me, she may feel overwhelmed in networking events or conferences where there seems to be a need to circulate and talk to many people. What has worked for me is to set goals for these meetings to talk to some fairly small number of new people. It takes a lot of my energy but I can find a balance where I can broaden my network but not feel too drained.

How do you spend your (rare) free time?

Colleen Wilson-Hodge
[Photo Credit: Colleen Wilson-Hodge on Facebook]

I am an ultra runner. Last September I finished my first 100 mile race, A Race For The Ages in Manchester, TN. I’ve run 27 races of marathon distance or longer. My happy place is running trails with my friends! I’m married with two kids, so I love to spend time enjoying the outdoors with my family. We have done several backpack trips in the Grand Canyon and love to hike and ski. My kids amaze me and I love to watch them grow as people and as individuals. Work-life balance is important to me. I think everyone needs time away from work to relax and recharge.

For her endless pursuit of astronomical discoveries, her willingness to share with the world her findings in universe and its wonders, and for doing it here, in the Yellowhammer state, Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge is undeniably an Alabama woman of Influence.