Bright Minds: Debra Buczkowski, planetary science

When Debra Buczkowski was 7, in 1976, NASA's Viking space probes were landing on Mars and sending images of the red planet back to Earth as part of their $1 billion mission.

"I realized that no matter where I went on this planet, I couldn't pick up anything in those photos," the New York native says, recalling how that mesmerized her.


Her early appreciation for the wonders of astronomy led to a career mapping structures on other rocky bodies like Earth, such as Mercury and Mars, as opposed to the gas giants, like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, she says.

As a planetary geologist in APL's Space Department, she studies the surface and interiors of planets, asteroids, moons, comets and more.


"Planetary scientists determine what processes have affected planetary bodies, how their surfaces and interiors were altered, and what this means for the history of the solar system," she explains. "This helps us understand how the various planetary bodies are the same and how they are different, which in the end helps us understand more about our own planet."

Buczkowski, who is 43, earned a bachelor's degree in astronomy from Boston University in 1992, and from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she earned a master's degree in geology in 2002 and a doctorate in geosciences in 2005.

While there have always been important women scientists -- who for many hundreds of years published their research as men or had men publish it for them, she notes -- the field of geology tends to attract a strong female component.

Buczkowski likes the real-world applications of geology because "you don't just plug information into an equation and an answer comes out."

And while she hasn't faced any professional challenges, hiking in volcanic fields and deserts -- like Iceland, Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park, and Death Valley in the Mojave Desert -- can be what Buczkowski calls "dirty work."

She and her husband, Steve, an atmospheric physicist, live in Columbia and are the parents of a 12-year-old daughter. Debra says that science and math reign supreme in her family's home, which she refers to as "a Barbie-free house."

"Girls shouldn't be afraid to try," she advises, promoting a learn-by-doing philosophy. "It's a self-confidence thing for some, and the answer to that is to apply for everything. Seek summer positions and APL internships. Keep applying until you get somewhere."

As a former preschool teacher, Buczkowski knows firsthand that boys and girls are equally interested from a young age in finding out how things work, which is what the sciences are all about. But she believes there is not enough science being taught in elementary schools, where math often is a daily subject but science is not.


"We need science education that makes kids say, 'Cool! I want to know how that works,' " says Buczkowski, who speaks at APL's outreach events.

With a dearth of science classes in early years, a tendency to dislike math, and peer pressure kicking in, the combination can prove fatal for some girls, she posits.

"Societal brainwashing begins in middle school when girls can get the idea that boys won't like you if you're smarter than they are," she says. "Then they begin weaning themselves away from any interest they had in math or science.

"They wonder, 'Why do I need algebra?' The answer is it teaches the concept of backtracking to figure things out," she says. "You're training your brain to use logic and take leaps."

Girls who stick with STEM subjects through high school should seek out colleges that "teach the way they learn," she says. "Why fight it? Why struggle? You can't change the way you learn, and there are different attitudes about learning available in different parts of the country."