An Interview with a NASA Scientist

This charming, entertaining, and honest interview with Gala Wind, PhD, takes us from her childhood in Russia to her job as a Lead Research Scientist at NASA. You’ll learn how she triumphed over the “torture” of an “evil” math teacher, the horror of the “Terminator”, and the challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder, to become the “Original Hacker”, who does science by writing code.

Scientific Minds: What is your current job title and where do you work?

Gala Wind: Lead Research Scientist with Science Systems and Applications, Inc. at the Climate and Radiation Branch of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

SM: Tell us a little bit about your childhood.

GW: I was born in the Soviet Union, in the city of Moscow. I finished high school there. I had a pretty happy childhood. I had friends. I liked my school a lot. When I was in high school I had the most evil math teacher. He was so evil, his nickname was “Darth Victor”. His real name was Victor Stepanovich Ryabov. He tortured us daily with impossible problems and not all of us who started the program finished it. But he taught us to think like scientists. He taught us to think on our own, to be perfectly okay with not only not having the answer key in the back of the book, but not having the book at all. Our senior year he had us write a solutions manual to a brand-new college calculus textbook. Yes, some of the problems had errors in them and could not be solved. We had to figure out how to change such problems so that they could be solved. Darth Victor taught me what it was really like to be a scientist – okay, minus the chess timer and the mountain of homework – but I learned early on not to be afraid of problems that looked impossible. An impossible problem becomes totally possible once you break it up into small pieces. See something that looks totally nasty? Break out the sledgehammer.  

SM: What is your education background? What degree(s) or training did you receive?

GW: I have a BS in Computer Science and a Master Of Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an MS in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, and a PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science from the University of Maryland in College Park. Yeah, way too much school, but I didn’t do it all at once, and I worked at least part-time through my entire education. My last two degrees I got while working full time. Oh and I started the second masters’ degree with zero children and finished my PhD with three. Unless you’re a total genius or something I would not recommend going all the way from high school to college to PhD in one fell swoop and then be just starting your life at 30 years old. That just somehow feels awful.

SM: What inspired you to choose your college major?

GW: Oh boy, that’s a good story, actually, kind of a creepy one.

When I was maybe in second grade or so, my father thought it would be a great idea to show me and my younger sister, who was like 4 years old at the time, the movie “Terminator” and then almost immediately after that “Terminator 2”. Okay, now the only kind of movies I had seen before that had rainbows, unicorns, dancing frogs and singing squirrels. I was absolutely terrified to say the least. Nightmares galore. And to make matters worse, my father, who for some reason always thought I was ten years older than I really was, went into a discussion with me about how all that stuff could be real. Well, my 8 year old brain skipped the “could” part. To make it even worse, Skynet was perfectly real to me. I was drawing princesses being eaten by dragons on the back of mile-long line printer dumps from a supercomputer. The speech of Skynet was printed right on the back of my pictures! My father was a physicist and, like every self-respecting physicist, he was a supercomputer jockey. I eventually figured out that Skynet’s only true enemy was a really evil hacker. I embarked on a mission to become the most evil hacker in the galaxy so that when Skynet rolled into town in August of 1998, I was going to have a sack of malware big enough to take down a dozen Skynets. There was a computer in the house, but I didn’t really play with the computer. I learned to code and hacked the computer like no tomorrow. Needless to say I found the computer science program in college to be quite easy. Soon after coming to Urbana-Champaign, I became a supercomputer jockey myself and stayed that way. I don’t think I’ll ever quit. I get grim satisfaction from telling the big iron what to do.  

SM: What has been your career path since you completed your degree (first degree if more than one)?

GW: I did my first two degrees together. I was always going to cross into science from pure hacking. I was angling for astrophysics, galaxy dynamics in particular. I did four years in that delightful science and found that even though the theory of stellar magnetohydrodynamics is really interesting, you can’t actually test anything. Math too complicated even for the biggest, baddest supercomputer. So every result you calculated didn’t look like a galaxy, but more like an egg exploded in a microwave. Our research group was moving to San Diego, and I had an option to go with them. My last semester in graduate school I was blowing free elective hours and took a satellite meteorology class.  I had never looked at Earth Science data before. I’ve always been looking up, not down. It looked amazing. Satellite Meteorology became my science, and that’s pretty much the story. A research group at NASA Goddard lost their programmer around spring break of my last year of graduate school. That’s kind of the end of it. I’m still there and having a great time.  

SM: Have you made any changes in your original career path? If so, why?

GW: No. Stayed exactly where I landed. Well, my job evolved from a programmer to research scientist, but I do science by writing code, that’s the only way you can get anything really interesting done. I like how applied atmospheric science is. I guess I’m just not that much of a theoretician. I like things I can touch. I like to be able to check if my algorithm is working by looking out the window.

SM: What, if any, additional training have you completed in order to meet the qualifications for your current job?

GW: A few years in, I got talked into officially crossing into atmospheric science, so I did it, on a dare. I wasn’t going to get a PhD, but friends finally got to me, despite my loud protests and a baby stroller in the classroom. So I stapled together some papers I published, and here comes Dr. Wind.

SM: How did you find your current job? What job-hunting resources did you use?

GW: I didn’t use any job hunting resources. If you are a student, the best way to find a job is to get in with a professor or two on a research project or two – if you are angling for science, that is. So I got my first job two weeks into my freshman year. My physics professor made an announcement for a lecture prep assistant. I showed up and interviewed. Of course during the interview the little fact of my being a hacker came up. Instead of lecture prep assistant, I became a research assistant and ended up completing GPS synchronization code for neutrino detectors that a graduate student left without finishing. I coded up that thing, no big deal, like I’ve never written serial port communications before. I came back after the summer break and spent a year building electronics for particle accelerator experiments. I generally like hardware. I built my first radio when I was still in elementary school. I had my eye on getting into the National Center for Supercomputing Applications though – had to keep an eye out for Skynet, you know. So I asked around my computer science professors, and my Numerical Algorithms professor hooked me up with the Astrophysics crew at NCSA. Getting a job out of college was very tough when I was coming out. 9/11 happened right before the main undergraduate hiring event at UIUC. Then the tech crash happened, and all the jobs for people with a computer science background disappeared. I can’t count how many interviews got called off that I already had lined up. I decided to stay on to get my Masters degree. Astrophysics was more than willing to pay. Two years later nothing had changed. There was one job on the UIUC job board: to drive a forklift in Chicago. Not cool. So I went bugging. My Satellite Meteorology professor was on the ground with the NASA Earth Observing System. He was surprised when he saw me in the class because he had never had an engineer in his class before. He set the class an impossible-looking project: to get the two main instruments on the EOS Terra satellite to talk to each other. I went and wrote the 200 lines of code that accomplished that. Maybe he never had an engineer, but he sure needed one. The word got out and the cloud physics research group at NASA Goddard got interested. Come on, who would be crazy enough to turn NASA down, even if there hadn’t been a tech crash and all that?  

SM: Describe a typical day at work.

GW: I come in around 8:30-9am. I have a running log book where I record every day what got done and what still needs doing and where everything is. I look at my notes and about 90% of the time get on with coding, testing, running data. The rest is reviewing science papers or meeting with people.

SM: What parts of your job to you enjoy the most?

GW: I constantly get to do things that hadn’t been done before by anyone, anywhere. I get to work with all sorts of different people, and I get to meet a lot of different people. The best science is not done while thinking deep thoughts locked up in some ivory tower somewhere. The best science is done when different people from different specializations are working together.

SM: What parts of your job do you enjoy the least?

GW: I think that would be writing papers. I stink at writing. I got a D in college composition when I took it my freshman year. I’ve gotten somewhat better over the years, but between writing code and writing papers, I’d always write code. Of course I do write, you have to put your hoofprint on your research so to say, but it is a serious struggle.  

SM: What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

GW: There had been too many, each awesome in its own way. Come on, what sophomore gets to surface-mount 7-layer circuit boards and program FPGAs for particle accelerator experiments? Or what junior gets to torture supercomputers for fun (and profit). For the last ten years I’ve been working with this software system that I wrote, named CHIMAERA. It allows me to take any satellite out there and run cloud physics codes on it. It currently supports 13 different instruments from a single code base and one person can manage it, not a gigantic crew. So our research group can turn around on a dime so to say. As long as we can read the data, we can take over an instrument, and I haven’t found anything I couldn’t manage yet. Working with CHIMAERA, I developed all sorts of working relationships and friendships with all sorts of people, all over the world. So I suppose that’s kind of awesome. 

SM: What career advice do you think high schools and colleges should be giving students?

GW: The science programs in college stink. Nobody knows how to code, and yet the only way you can get anything done is to write code, and not in something fluffy like Python, but in real languages like Fortran and C. Oh wait, they don’t even teach Fortran anymore! I put my money where my mouth is. My two older children who are in 4th and 2nd grade are learning how to code. If they decide to go into science they will be ready. Anyone can learn all the math and physics, cram real hard and memorize the textbook – whatever, that’s not that hard – but no amount of being able to spit formulas out on paper is going to get you to actually get anything done. You need to be able to tell the computer what to do and get it to do what you say with minimum amount of effort. That is how real science gets done. Do I remember how to take every single integral? Of course not, but I know how to get a computer to do it for me.

SM: What is the salary range for people in your career?

GW: Not sure really. I started 15 years ago at $47,000 and I make about double that now. It can definitely go higher, and it can of course be lower as well.

SM: What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome in receiving your degree(s) and pursuing your career path?

GW: Honestly there weren’t many. I just kind of bullied my way through everything not really paying attention to anything or anyone. I just plain and simple don’t really care what anyone else thinks about me. My evil math teacher hated women with a passion, but the only crack he ever made about me was “oh, there goes the next Maria Curie”. I was like, sure I’ll take it, well I’ll make sure to get a nice radiation suit if I decide to mess with radium, but I’ll take it. I’ll take the “Ada Byron” crack as well. I was second in his class, the only girl in his class. I made a perfect target, but calling me a scientist and the Original Hacker was the extent of picking on me. I am my own person, and that’s kind of the end of it. I have been the only female in every job I’ve had and in some of the classes I took in college, but again, everyone just kind of left me alone and didn’t bug me. Now, there was this one absolute jackalope, who shall remain unnamed, but my UIUC friends know who that was. The jackalope headed a research group that did scientific visualization. I was going to do a full MS degree in Computer Science, specializing in scientific visualization. I joined that research group as this person was going to be my thesis advisor. The group was outright Creepy. The conversations during group meetings were way over the “appropriate” line, and I plain and simple did not feel safe just being with those people in the same conference room. I switched to a non-thesis degree, which meant that I could not get a PhD without repeating all the graduate schoolwork again. My grandmother taught me long ago that if something smells funny, don’t walk, run and don’t be thinking about what you look like while running. Better safe than sorry, if you take my meaning. There is always another way, you just have to find it. Of course, later on I got literally shoved into the PhD program, baby stroller in tow and all, so in the end, it didn’t matter.

SM: At the end of the day, what gives you a feeling of satisfaction concerning your job?

GW: I just plain and simple like what I do. Hacking is a hobby and I do it for my job. The job is a hobby. I don’t really care much about the awards lining my walls, I just like doing the science. I like looking at Earth. There is always something cool going on every day. It’s never the same. Nothing is ever the same. It’s impossible to get bored. So here I am 15 years later, still generally having fun.

SM: Since beginning your career, what other science-related job opportunities have you learned about that you find interesting?

GW: Honestly, haven’t been looking very much. I kind of have a one-track mind.

SM: What advice do you have for students considering a career in the sciences?

GW: Get in on research projects as soon as you can in the field that you are angling for. Ask around, there’s always a professor who is looking for someone who is not falling asleep in the back of the class but is actually interested in the subject. Be annoying and persistent.

SM: Do you have any additional comments?

GW: Just a general caveat that I strongly doubt that my experience is in any way typical. I have Autism Spectrum Disorder, which gives me absolute power over the supercomputer, but on the flip side makes social interactions a serious pain in the neck. I tend to come off as generally abrasive and too direct. I can’t read people’s expressions, and I have to force myself to look at the person I’m talking to. So yeah, (kinda) looking at all you fellow ASD people out there. Tell you what though, if I hadn’t been born with my brain wired upside-down and backwards, I don’t know if I would be as good at what I do or enjoy it that much.

The Scientific Minds Career Interview Goals – To highlight someone working in a science-related field so that students may learn the following:

1. There are abundant and diverse career opportunities that are not typically presented to them as science careers.

2. People just like them, with similar backgrounds, are working in these jobs.

3. Careers often take exciting paths that couldn’t have been predicted when choosing a science major or graduating with a specific degree in science. The world of science is ever-changing, and so are jobs that involve science.