Is this the right decision at this time? by Dr. Elizabeth Hoy


Find Liz's bio on her NASA webpage here: https://science.gsfc.nasa.gov/sed/bio/elizabeth.hoy


Making soil moisture measurements in conjunction with the NASA ABoVE campaign outside of Fairbanks, Alaska

As I sit to write this my two kids are just getting home from their after school activities, and my husband and parents (with whom we live) are helping get them ready for bed so I can catch up on some work… My name is Dr. Elizabeth Hoy, but please, call me Liz. I grew up always interested in the environment, arranging park cleanups with whomever I could enlist by showing up at a local park with trash bags and garden gloves. However, never did I envision that last year I would have the opportunity to fly around on a NASA aircraft to help make measurements in the Arctic – a region of the Earth warming three times faster than the rest of the world. My current career trajectory began fifteen years ago when I took a remote sensing class at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geography (now the Department of Geographical Sciences). My teacher from that class became my graduate advisor, and right after graduation in the summer of 2005, I started fieldwork in interior Alaska studying wildland fire dynamics and their importance in the regional and global carbon cycle. I stayed at the University of Maryland to complete both my Masters (in 2007) and my PhD (in 2014). All of this graduate work centered around the study of wildland fire in interior Alaska, with my PhD being an investigation of frequently reburning fire events, and how this type of fire changes carbon emissions and forest regrowth trajectories seen in this region.


While completing my PhD, I began working at the NASA Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office (CCEO) at Goddard Space Flight Center (where I work currently as a contractor with Global Science & Technology, Inc.). The CCEO is a coordination office for NASA’s CCE research focus area. What this really means is that there are many science teams that we support and help in their collaboration activities, as well as provide information to the general public about the research activities that NASA funds in this area. We are a diverse group of individuals including database managers, web developers, social and environmental scientists, and seasoned logistic support personnel. I currently support the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a large-scale study of environmental change investigating Arctic and boreal regions in North America, with over 100 NASA-funded and Affiliated Projects. Using satellite and airborne remote sensing, and coordinated fieldwork, the science team is working on a number of synthesis efforts in addition to their own funded research. As a Senior Support Scientist, I assist in many aspects of the campaign coordination and planning, and have learned quite a bit along the way. I interact with principal investigators, make maps, develop web services, assist in creating high performance computing and data management systems, archive data products for our researchers, and last summer had the opportunity to be the science coordinator for a series of flights conducted by a NASA aircraft helping to measure soil moisture and vegetation dynamics using radar. As the coordinator, I flew with the aircraft and assisted with fieldwork around our science targets in Alaska and Canada.


My career trajectory has been somewhat different than most. I married while still an undergraduate student, and thus felt the two-body problem early on. Staying at my same institution for graduate school allowed my husband to continue work without the need for either of us to relocate. While working on my PhD we lived abroad for a year, which I would recommend to anyone who is able to do so – the perspective of being immersed in another culture can be eye opening. Later, while still working on my PhD we decided to start our family, taking the mantra that “life will evolve around the children.” My kids are now 9 and 6. I defended my dissertation proposal while pregnant with my son; my daughter was just under a year when I turned in my completed dissertation. As a 3-month old, our son came along on fieldwork in Alaska. I don’t think my husband fully comprehended what that would look like when he signed up to go as our son’s caretaker for the trip – we stayed in tents and dry cabins for weeks. I was still nursing my son, so my husband would warm pumped milk on a small camp stove during the day while I was out in the field measuring organic soil layer depth. Having our children while in graduate school did indeed make research more difficult. There was less time to work late at the office to make new discoveries, and more brainpower was devoted to making sure the children were cared for – but each new day with children has been a discovery in and of its own. We moved in with my parents, which has added new layers of both complexity and stability to our lives.

Along the Dalton Highway in Alaska with my three-month-old son and husband for fieldwork.

At each step along the way of my career path, I have asked myself, “Is this the right decision at this time?” and “What will be the long-term consequences of this decision?” Striking out on any path is challenging. For me, making the decision to move into support science was difficult since this area does not allow the same level of research to which I had grown accustomed during my graduate work. However, this path allows me more time and flexibility to be with my family during their young years (for example, I am not a full 40 hours a week employee). I work with a supportive group of men and women who all give their best. Being a part of such a large field campaign is very fulfilling for me, and enabling the achievement of the ABoVE campaign’s science goals and individual research projects is very meaningful work. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I try to live each day balancing the needs of family and work, and find a little time to take the dog for a walk in the evening.

September 2019: With the flight crew on the NASA ABoVE deployment of the L-Band radar instrument. I'm wearing pink, second from the right.

More information about ABoVE: https://above.nasa.gov/

Last updated January 2020

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