Science of Earth Systems
“My biggest challenge at Cornell was figuring out what I wanted to do,” says Ellen Cohen, now a policy analyst for NASA. She began as a chemistry major, and in fact was so involved with Alpha Chi Sigma, the professional chemistry fraternity, that she was elected president one year and house manager another.
But Cohen says she quickly realized that a laboratory environment wasn’t for her. “I wanted to be out in the field working on issues that affected people’s everyday lives,” she says. Dropping a chemistry class left her with an opening in her schedule which she filled with an astronomy class taught by Steven Squyres. That decision changed her life and, ultimately, brought her to NASA.
EC Goes to Mars
Squyres is the scientific Principle Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers Project, and is involved with many other NASA projects. Cohen began working with Squyres, helping with geological analysis of the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, working on planning related to the Cassini mission, and, eventually, contributing to education and public outreach for the Rover project.
“The only all nighter I pulled in college was for the Rovers,” says Cohen, who served as student geologist for the Rover team. Her participation ended up being immortalized in an unusual way. One of the students carved the initials of the team members on the back of the geological sample they used as a calibration target for the Rovers—and it ended up being sent to Mars. “That was the coolest thing that happened to me at Cornell,” she says with a grin.
Meant for the Stars
Cohen eventually changed her major to the Science of Earth Systems, a new program offered by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She liked its interdisciplinary nature. “It was a very pioneering area,” Cohen explains. “People are only now starting to realize the value of this interdisciplinary way of looking at the earth.”
When Cohen received a Masters degree from Columbia University in Earth System Science, Policy, and Management, she didn’t expect to find a job very quickly. But her experience with Squyres brought her personal attention from the federal government’s Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program, which places people who’ve just earned advanced degrees into government positions. When she attended the PMF job fair, she found the NASA representatives excited to see her. “They said, ‘We saw your resume and put a bunch of stars next to your name because we wanted to talk to you.’ They actually had a copy of my resume in their bag.” And they immediately hired her for NASA.
All in the Family
The space program is something of a family business. Cohen’s paternal grandfather worked for Grumman Aerospace as an engineer during Apollo, and he used to tell her stories about the missions. During his final hospitalization, Cohen brought him photographs taken by the Rovers. “I don’t know if anyone’s ever decorated their hospital room with Mars before,” she says, laughing.
Cohen recently spent fifteen months as a NASA Congressional Fellow on Capital Hill, working as a technical expert for Senator Joseph Lieberman. She helped draft the original five hundred page climate change legislation, and spent time working on issues such as habitat preservation, endangered species, and other environmental topics. The work was demanding and the hours long.
Mission of Discovery
Usually Cohen works at NASA headquarters, where the top-level decisions get made; day-to-day mission work is done elsewhere, Cohen explains. The facility, a multi-story, block-long building, is full of conference “pods” and quiet cubicles. As a policy analyst, Cohen helps to manage the interactions between NASA scientists and engineers and the rest of the Federal government, facilitating communication as well as working on budgets and audits. In between all the work, she somehow found time to get a second Masters degree in Systems Engineering through George Washington University.
Both of Cohen’s parents as well as her sister attended Cornell, though Cohen considered other schools as well. Her father joked that she made her decision by weighing all the course catalogs from the schools she was considering, and then attended the school with the heaviest catalog. Cohen put the Cornell catalog to good use, taking so many classes that she had enough credits to graduate a year early, although she stayed the full four years so that she could take courses like cooking in the Hotel School--and watch a fourth season of Cornell hockey. “I took five or six classes a semester just because there were so many that interested me,” she says. NASA clearly recognized Cohen’s inquisitive mind as a kindred spirit, and it put her on the perfect trajectory for NASA’s own mission of discovery.