Dr. Claudia Alexander

Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Paul, Scientist

Using Bible Lessons at work on the US Rosetta Project It may be hard to imagine using Bible lessons in a science and engineering environment. But there it is. I have a Ph.D. in Space Plasma Physics, yet some of the most useful teachings I've used at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been from the Bible: the teachings of Moses, Elijah, Christ Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John.

Right now I serve as both Project Manager and Project Scientist on the Rosetta Mission. The Rosetta Mission is an international mission that is being led by ESA (the European Space Agency) with NASA participation. The NASA contribution consists of three instruments and the support of scientists who work on non-U.S. instruments.

The spacecraft will visit a comet in the year 2011, and 'escort' it to the sun, taking observations the whole time. The mission is to

  • visit a comet up close for the first time;
  • learn how it evolves as the tail forms;
  • figure out how old it is; and
  • study the chemistry that takes place in its environment for clues about how the sophisticated hydrocarbons, that are part of earth-based life, may have formed in space.

My job is

  • to make sure the instruments that we build are delivered with a certain quality;
  • to manage the support which the Deep Space Network provides to ESA for navigation of the spacecraft itself; and
  • to remind NASA why we are doing the job so that they keep us funded properly.

The job involves vision and leadership. Vision for the project can involve keeping us out of financial trouble as circumstances change and our direction from ESA changes. Leadership means keeping everyone organized, on schedule, and in sync. The project involves putting self and national pride aside and letting another organization, the European Space Agency, make all the decisions. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I work, has flown missions for NASA for over 40 years. We have learned a lot about flying missions in all that time, but we are just passengers on this mission. Being a good follower requires leadership skills of its own.

A lesson that has been very helpful to me in performing this job comes from St. Paul who wrote, "Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth" (I Cor. 13:4-6). I read in Henry Drummond's, The Greatest Thing in the World, that in this text St. Paul is laying out nine components of Love:

  • patience
  • kindness
  • generosity
  • humility
  • courtesy
  • unselfishness
  • good temper
  • guilelessness, and
  • sincerity

These qualities expounded on by Drummond have been indispensable to me in performing at work on the U.S. Rosetta Project! Following are some of his ideas and how I have used them. Let's go over them one by one:

  1. Patience: Love is not in a hurry. It is calm, ready to do its work when the right time comes. It knows that nothing is wrong, but that all will be provided in time. I think about this when people get into a panic over the status of funding on the project, or think that there will not be enough money to go around. There has never, ever, been a time when things did not get resolved, even though it may have seemed to take an agonizingly long time to get there. Thus Love "suffereth long."
  2. Kindness: Love is active. Love is always doing kind things for others. I have often told various parties on the project that I am a supporter of everyone. Management classes often teach you to create "win/win" situations, where there are no losers. Working out and supporting solutions of this kind are acts of love.
  3. Generosity: "Love envieth not" - such a state involves covetousness, detraction. Love does not take away from someone else in order to build you up. In love, there is no competition with others. Thus a sense of generosity takes away a feeling of national competition, or any sort of competition, and provides for genial collaboration."Love envieth not" - such a state involves covetousness, detraction. Love does not take away from someone else in order to build you up. In love, there is no competition with others. Thus a sense of generosity takes away a feeling of national competition, or any sort of competition, and provides for genial collaboration.
  4. Humility: Love silences egotism. It waives self-satisfaction. Thus, love is not "puffed up." So when I go to international meetings, I don't have to vaunt my credentials or status. I don't even have to say a word. Love does its beautiful work without trumpets blaring.
  5. Courtesy: If there is anything appreciated overseas it is common courtesy. Courtesy is said to be love in little things, in being polite, and in being considerate. Thus love cannot "behave itself unseemly."
  6. Unselfishness: I have discovered the importance of not being intellectually self-centered, or parochial in this job. This is, in fact, an act of Love - "Love seeketh not her own."
  7. Good Temper: Love is not "provoked." Sullenness at not getting your own way is no part of love, as defined by St. Paul. A person would never be provoked into a rage because circumstances beyond his control resulted in undesired consequences. We never take offense because a group made a decision which adversely affected the whole. Love doesn't "take offense" at all, no matter what the circumstances.
  8. Guilelessness: It would seem that one way to impress other's with what a great manager you are is to be the smartest one in the room. In an engineering and science environment, cynicism is the attitude of the smart guy. But St. Paul suggests that love "thinketh no evil," imputes no motive, puts the best construction on every action. "Come on," a manager often says; "you can't expect me to believe that!" But in an atmosphere of suspicion and sarcasm, people shrivel up. A more effective atmosphere for promoting congenial collaboration and educated fellowship is to "think evil of no man."
  9. Sincerity: Love rejoices in the Truth, in seeing things as they are. Love accepts only what is real, seeks it, goes after it with a humble and unbiased attitude, and cherishes whatever is found to be true. More than that however, in another direction, "Love rejoiceth not in iniquity." Love involves a self-restraint that refuses to capitalize on other's faults and does not take delight in exposing their weaknesses. This attitude causes a good manager not to be afraid to expose the truth about an engineering weakness or a budget weakness, not to cover-up what others have done, nor punish others for mistakes that have been made.

These universal truths about living love have helped me greatly in implementing the collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA. The future of space flight at NASA will likely involve much more international collaboration. And it is our hope that the way in which we conduct ourselves on this mission will provide a good example for future international space projects.

About Dr. Claudia Alexander

Dr. Claudia Alexander is currently a Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she serves as both Project Manager and Project Scientist of the US Rosetta Project. The Rosetta Project is an international comet mission led by the European Space Agency, with NASA participation. Dr. Alexander represents NASA's interests in Europe. Just as the Rosetta stone was the key to understanding the ancient civilizations and languages, so the Rosetta Mission hopefully will be the key to unlocking the mysteries of the early solar systems. The Rosetta Mission was originally scheduled to launch Jan 12-13, 2003. As of this writing, it is not known whether or not this launch will be postponed.

Dr. Alexander also serves the Galileo Mission to Jupiter as an instrument representative and science coordinator. She recently participated in PBS' "Beyond the Moon" with Walter Cronkite, and is serving as a Co-Investigator and author of the award-winning NASA sponsored, Internet-based, public science learning tool entitled "Windows to the Universe" (http://www.windows.ucar.edu).

Dr. Alexander is an interdisciplinary scientist. She has experience in both space physics and planetary science, including the study of comet nuclei, research on the solar wind, the solar wind interaction with Venus and comets, and study of the thermal history of icy satellites. She is currently at work on a model of the rarefied atmosphere surrounding Jupiter's moon Ganymede. She completed a Ph.D. in 1993 in Space Plasma Physics at the University of Michigan, where she wrote a numerical model for the expansion of gases from a comet nucleus. Upon graduation she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, which she declined to accept a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Dr. Alexander received a Bachelor's Degree in Geophysics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1983 and a Master's Degree in Geophysics and Space Physics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1985.

Dr. Alexander has always been involved in education and science outreach to the public. For many years she assisted with an after-school program for underprivileged children in Oakland, California. She was a co-sponsor and lecturer at the Richmond Youth Academy in Richmond, CA, a Saturday morning supplemental education program organized for underprivileged children by the Richmond Black Firefighters Association. She sponsored an afternoon science program for Detroit-area middle school children while she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, a commitment for which she won the Universities "Woman of the Year" award in 1992.

She has written a dozen children's books titled "Windows to Adventure" and is currently seeking a publisher. She also lectures frequently around the country on the topics of the Galileo Mission and NASA's program of exploration of the solar system.