Whitman alumna looks to the stars

Suzanne Rosik Dodd '83

Suzanne Rosik Dodd '83 works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she manages the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Voyager Interstellar Mission, and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) projects.


Both Voyager spacecraft are now outside our solar system. What data do you expect the craft to gather, and what can the two Voyagers tell us about life outside our corner of the galaxy?

The two Voyager spacecraft are the oldest (Voyager 2) and furthest (Voyager 1) man-made objects in space. Launched in 1977, the primary mission of Voyager was the grand tour of the gas giant planets.

Since 1990, the two spacecraft have been flying outward toward the edge of the heliosphere, where the effects of our sun stop and where interstellar space starts. Voyager 1 crossed into interstellar space recently, in August of 2012, on nearly the exact date of its launch 35 years earlier. The data each spacecraft collect now are on the environment of space - what type and how many charged particles are there and what the magnetic field is like, and how is that different from Earth and the other planets. This information helps us learn how the Sun and planets were formed.

Much of the work you do with Spitzer and Voyager is related to extrasolar investigation. What's it really like out there?

Space is actually very empty and what Voyager is now studying is what this emptiness is made of. It's the remnants of exploded stars (supernovae), plasma and dust, and it's from this "stardust" that new stars and planets and life are formed. Because Spitzer measures in infrared wavelengths, it can see through the dust to areas where new stars are being born. So although space is very empty, it is actually very active and changing.

NuSTAR is aimed at understanding black holes, how supernovae create elements and high-speed particle movement. This sounds like really fundamental stuff. What might this tell us about the universe and our own planet?

NuSTAR is using new optics and detector technology to focus high energy X-rays giving 10 times better resolved images than previous missions. It looks at the heart of galaxies and collapsed stars, a.k.a. black holes, where the most energetic particles are emitted. It addresses science questions such as: how were the elements that compose the Sun, Earth and our bodies forged, and how did they disperse throughout the universe?

When you started at Whitman, what did you think you would focus on? Had you always been interested in astrophysics and engineering?

I choose Whitman because it would give me a broad background and expose me to a number of academic and career fields. I thought I wanted to do something in math or science as a career, but I wasn't sure.

So was your path from first year to senior a linear one?

I focused on the math and science classes while also taking courses in history, political science and economics. I knew Whitman had the 3-2 combined engineering program with a few colleges, but at first I wasn't sure that was what I wanted to do. But I really enjoyed my physics and math courses, and I ended up transferring to Caltech after my junior year.

What's your fondest memory of Whitman?

The professors were all very easy to communicate with and very willing to support my questions and provide help. I spent hours in [Nathaniel Shipman Professor of Physics, Emeritus] Dr. [James Gordon] Pengra's office going over the homework and learning about the applications of what we were studying in physics.

How do you see the big picture with regards to the data that your projects and others are collecting? What will that data help us do in 50, 100, 500 years?

Each project is collecting a legacy of data that will be used well into the future to answer questions about the space and stars and planetary systems. It's rewarding to work in a field where the results will be of value for decades to come, and a field that inspires youth to learn more about science.

Rob Manning '80, another Whittie, works in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Do you ever share Whitman stories?

I see Rob often even though we don't work on the same projects. He knows everything there is about landing a spacecraft on Mars or another planet. We sometimes talk about Whitman and Walla Walla and how fortunate we are to have had the experience that led us to careers at JPL!

It seems like there's been a resurgence in interest in NASA projects and space exploration recently. Do you have a sense of why that might be?

I hope that the general public is inspired by our work and finds the results valuable. The human spirit wants to explore, and space is a great place to venture into the unknown and learn new things about what surrounds us and what it is to be human.