Down to Earth With: Maria Zuber

Maria Zuber. Credit: Donna M. Coveney/MIT Maria Zuber. Credit: Donna M. Coveney/MIT

By Brian Fisher Johnson

In 2011, a pair of orbiters will launch for the moon, making some of the most exact measurements yet of our satellite. Luckily for the orbiters, they’ll have Maria Zuber at the helm. A geophysicist at MIT, Zuber was recently named one of “America’s Best Leaders” last year by U.S. News & World Report for her role in establishing women in high-level science. The moon orbiters alone will make her one of the first women to lead a NASA robotic space mission. Recently, Zuber talked with EARTH reporter Brian Fisher Johnson about the mission, leadership and saving the economy.

BFJ: You testified before Congress that funding for science and technology research and education should be a major priority in an economic recovery package. How can Congress justify that?

MZ: Simply. [Laughs] The argument that I and another colleague made was that it’s extremely important to make an immediate infusion of resources into the economy now to stimulate spending, to allow borrowing and to create jobs. To compensate for the lost jobs, you have to create new markets for jobs, and that requires innovation, and that requires science and technology. 

BFJ: Given the economy, how do you explain the relevance of your $400 million moon orbiter project?

MZ: My experience is that most people consider NASA’s robotic space program to be a good investment for America because there’s scientific discovery involved and there’s research involved that increases our knowledge of the universe. But if you wanted to think more practically about it: We’re basically putting two spacecraft in orbit around the moon and measuring how the velocity between them changes, and we’re doing it at just a handful of microns per second. A person in the street might not be interested, per se, in the gravity of the moon, but anybody can understand that the skill that goes into making a measurement that well — that’s developing a technology. I used the example with Congress that there were some fundamental studies of quantum mechanics that went into the technology that we used in iPods. [Laughs] You don’t always know what the most promising area is to study. Surprises emerge and you want to be ready to capitalize on them.

BFJ: What will your 2011 orbiter team be looking for?

MZ: This mission is to measure gravity. There are all sorts of other spacecraft that are going to the moon now — from India, Japan, China, the United States — so there are all these surface observations from the moon. But if you want to try to understand how the surface got that way … to reconstruct the history of the moon, you need to know about the outside and inside of the moon. So we’re going to use our knowledge of mapping the interior structure of the moon, and then combine that with all the other data that all these other missions are getting to complete the puzzle.

BFJ: Have you ever experienced bias against women in your work?

MZ: Actually, I never had a problem. I’ve had a lot of people who have mentored me and supported me — they’ve all been men — but there were a lot of people who just gave me the benefit of the doubt. Once a man or a woman establishes him- or herself as being capable, you get respect and credit for what you can do. 

BFJ: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to a woman trying to make her way in science?

MZ: What I always tell women is that there’s no substitute for just taking care of business and getting it done. If you want to be respected, you just have to work really hard, and just get it done so that you can’t be ignored. And so I guess that’s the way that I’ve done it.

BFJ: What makes good scientific leadership? 

MZ: Well, you never lose by giving other people credit. [Laughs] I’ve always worked with large teams of people, and lots of the papers that I’m most known for I’m not even the first author on. But people know what I can do now. I’ve been very successful because I’ve worked with other scientists who shot at my ideas and made me think harder and better. So I think that an important part of leadership is really recognizing what everyone can contribute and highlighting it. 

BFJ: If you could have one scientist in history on your 2011 team, who would it be and why?

MZ: I don’t know if this person would count as a scientist, but Benjamin Franklin. At MIT, I’m surrounded by all sorts of people who are really good at physics and mathematics and that kind of stuff, so what you’re looking for is someone who can look at what you have and see something in it that no one else sees. 

Brian Fisher Johnson

Johnson is a contributer to EARTH Magazine.

Monday, March 23, 2009 - 06:00