I just asked NASA for a quarter million dollars

Part of becoming a scientist is learning how to ask for money. Even the best ideas need time and facilities to do the work, plus the scientist has to eat. My position at SwRI is one of “soft money,” which means that my position is soft unless I can bring in funding. Currently I’m paid as a post-doc, 100% covered by my bosses, but that is supposed to change before I can be promoted and if I want to stay more than a couple years.

The art of asking for money takes a lot of refinement. First you need a good idea. Second, NASA has to be soliciting good ideas. You write a proposal document that fulfills their requirements for ideas, technical management, budget, and formatting. You attach your CV and supporting documents of subcontracts, proof read five times, and submit the document to NASA.

Now the waiting begins. The program to which I submitted is the Mars Data Analysis Program or MDAP. Everyone who submits an MDAP does so on the same day, and we wait until a committee or review panel grades our proposals and then ranks them by  strengths and alignment with NASA’s priorities.

In case you’re wondering, we’ve discovered layered deposits indicative of ancient sedimentation near the rim of Valles Marineris, the continental scale rift valley that could fit the Grand Canyon inside of it end to end hundreds of times over. My proposal aims to characterize these deposits with a suite of instruments and then compare them to other layers seen on Mars.

Why does this cost $260,000 you might ask? Well, only the smallest portion of that goes to my paycheck. The cost is divided over 3 years, and I share that with two of my co-investigators. Each investigator has to pay their institution overhead money, or money that keeps the organization running, pays the light and rent bills, pays our administrators, copiers, publication fees, vacation, and health benefits. Plus more. So, SwRI takes a large sum before any money gets to me. My co-investigators also pay significant quantities to their institutions. Out of the $260,000, I’ll get paid $39,000 spread out over three years, before taxes – if the grant is funded.

Which grants get funded? I’ll find out soon. As I mentioned, NASA puts together review panels to grade and rank the proposals it receives. If yours gets a good score and beats out 80-90% of the other submissions, then you get funded. I’ve never served on a review panel before, but I will get the opportunity soon. Unfortunately, I can’t say more because I’ve agreed to keep it confidential as this effects many people and their livelihoods. I will be able to talk about the experience, however, after it is done.

This is not a post

It is recognition of how seldom I post here.


Life is busy now. Work is good. I bought a mountain bike and use it often. The weather is changing fast and not in a good way.

I’m teaching again, but this time it’s physics labs. In general I like the experience, and working with students is very positive for me. The course is really basic, so most of what I learn is how to be a better teacher.

Looking forward to a camping trip next weekend in Aspen. Should have good fall colors like last year :)


I’m in Paris now after a very productive week in Lyon. With my colleague, we learned a lot about Valles Marineris, Mars, and got together the material we need to write a NASA proposal to continue this work.

Paris is just like I remember it but with more tourists. I’ve never been here in July before. So far I’ve really enjoyed the cheese and revisiting some of my old haunts, like the Seine, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. This afternoon I’m headed out to watch the final stage of the Tour de France. It’s raining, but that won’t stop an intrepid traveler like me 😛  I’ll try to get some good pictures to put up.

Vive le France!

Yep, I made it back. This time I’m in Lyon and then Paris to do work and write proposals. Things are already going well, and I feel like the proposed research has a good chance of being funded. We certainly have a lot to work on, and it’s easy to see how much progress we can make quickly.

I’m really enjoying Lyon. Last time I was here it was winter, so this time it’s great to see a sunny and colorful city so full of life. The parks are adored by the locals, and the late sunsets wash the architecture with an orange glow.

Even though I’ve only been here once, it feels very familiar, natural even. I think a big part of that comes from experience in France and also speaking the language. My French is coming back very quickly, and not once yet has anyone asked me (or offered) to switch to English. This is a big success!  And it gets better every day.

I promise to post pictures, but I have to get some Israel pictures up first. This is a travel blog, so what use is it if trips are overlooked???

Snowy Colorado

I’m in Jerusalem right now. It’s a beautiful city and rich in history / culture. I want to post about that, but I promised myself that I’d get up some photos of Boulder in winter before any other blog posts, so here goes.

As you may imagine, Colorado gets a lot of snow. I’m not a big fan of cold or ice, but I do love being outside. This means I need snow shoes! Around Christmas I traded two homemade pies (pecan and apple) for some snow shoes. I think both parties were happy with the result.

As it turns out, sunny but cold days are really pleasant, especially if you’re moving around. It’s easy to get hot and sweat if you overdress. The sun is your best friend, and this is the primary difference between the sunny cold winters of Colorado and the cloudy cold winters of the north east. Plus we have better beer.

Without further ado, some pictures of snowshoeing in Boulder in winter. As you can see, it’s really pretty.

And a view from the pond next to my apartment.

I did it!

I did it! I completed a semester as professor, or Dr. Smith. Tuesday was my last lecture, and I gave the final exam tonight. These are causes
I finished my first course as a professor. This is cause for celebration! Completion is a great source of happiness. :)

It was a pretty big deal to take on the class and my first time to sit on this side of the podium with no one behind me. If you had asked me 4 months ago how much more work went into being a professor than a teaching assistant, I would have severely underestimated the gap. Now I know, or at least have one data point.

Overall I’d say that things went really well. My students were very good for the most part, with only a couple of slackers. I’m grateful to the rest for dedicating themselves, and I got to watch them learn about Astronomy. Some of my students had some very nice words to day, which I will cherish.

Hooray! I’m done :)

I just bought tickets to Israel!

I’ve got a lot of travel coming up. Most of it is for work, but I’m able to extend each trip with added vacation days. My next trip is to Baltimore for two meetings related to SHARAD and MRO.

The next trip is to Switzerland. I’ll be there to provide radar observations and interpretations over several regions of Mars. Having been to Switzerland several times, and wanting to branch out, I thought it would be nice to visit somewhere new, so I bought tickets to Israel. It’s going to be a short trip, just 3 days and 4 nights, but I get to see somewhere new and explore more of the world. This is going to be great.

If that weren’t enough, as soon as I get back I head off to Idaho for another meeting. Yep! Lots of meetings. I’ll be taking the motorcycle that time, so there will be an added road trip after the meeting. Looking forward to that too.

Lunar Eclipse

There was a lunar eclipse on Saturday morning. I gave my students an opportunity to earn extra credit if they woke up and took a picture for me. I figured it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t do the same. Here are a couple of the eclipse just before totality. It set behind the Flatirons about 5 minutes before being fully engulfed in Earth’s shadow.

Click to enlarge

Things are really good

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. For the last year I’ve had lots of things set me back. Finally, in the last month, I’ve put my life together the way I like. My new apartment is great, I love my jobs, and I’m financially ahead of the game.

For too long was I struggling with a comfortable place to live and managing all of the stuff coming at me. It seems like I can finally breath, finally enjoy myself. Like my mom taught me, hard work pays off. Put your head down and get through it, the other side is rewarding. I’m finally to the point where I can see the rewards.