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Career Profile

Claudia Alexander

Space Physicist

Claudia Alexander is a space plasma physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. She received a BA degree in Geophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, a master's degree in Geophysics and Space Physics from UCLA, and a PhD degree in Space Physics from the University of Michigan. She does research on comets, on other solid icy bodies in the solar system, and on the atmospheres of the Earth and other planets. She also works for the Plasma Wave instrument of the Galileo Spacecraft, which will enter orbit around Jupiter in December, 1995. A plasma is a high-temperature ionized gas, which in some circumstances behaves like a fluid. Space plasma physics is an important subdiscipline of geophysics because the outer atmospheres of all the planets are plasmas, as well as the sun itself. Solar plasma interacts with the Earth's magnetosphere to form the Earth's aurora as well as other effects.

Claudia was scared of physics at first. She became interested in planetary science just after high school, when she had a summer job at NASA/Ames Research Center. She was hired to work in engineering, but used to sneak off to the science building whenever she could. Eventually she transferred to the science section. She found that doing the work that was required was fun; it was easier than she thought, and she was successful at it. There is no one way to become a planetary scientist, but Claudia majored in geophysics in college because she thought it was the best way to study the Earth and the other planets, combining the study of calculus, physics, and chemistry.

Now Claudia creates theoretical models on the computer to study all sorts of subjects including the the evolution of comets, the warm ocean problem of the early Eocene interval of Earth's history, the climate implications of the proliferation of polar mesospheric clouds (probably caused by human activity), the streaming of the solar wind in space, the magnetosphere of Jupiter, and an upcoming study of the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Knowledge of math, physics, and chemistry gives you the ability to work on a variety of subjects and to adapt easily, useful skills in any job market. She also has had the opportunity to travel to many places, including London, Graz, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, and Hawaii. She gets to stay long enough to really meet the people that live there, and to get to know the place.

For recreation, Claudia enjoys equestrian activities and is looking forward to buying her own horse someday soon. She skis, cycles, and plays tennis for outdoor activities, and knits and sews for indoor quiet times. She is involved in church and community organizations as well, and is often found in local classrooms teaching things she has learned on the job to middle school and high school students.