Astrobiologist, Arizona State UniversitySvetlana Shkolyar


Coffee shop drink of choice? Mocha coffee!

Where did you train for your career? I’m still in training!

My background is in physics (Bachelor of Science degree) from the University of North Florida. I then pursued science journalism (Master of Arts), because I also love to write about science, at the University of Florida. Then I decided to go back into science with another Master (of Science) from University of North Dakota. I am currently getting my PhD at Arizona State University.

What qualities or skills or important for this career? For any science, writing and communication is always important. No one will know about, care about, or fund your science if you can’t communicate to them why it’s important.

People think science is all about being good in math and memorizing facts about obscure chemicals and stars. That’s not science! Science is a method. It requires the ability to be organized and methodical and open-minded, to try new things when an experiment fails. It requires the skills to learn and analyze the literature in my field and speak the language of science.

Being persistent and asking questions is also crucial. My advisor is super busy, so when he can’t help me, I need to consult someone else. I can’t be afraid to do that.

What has surprised you about your career? Is it like you imagined it would be? I am surprised all the time. Experiments usually don’t go as planned, so I am constantly learning new things about my samples and my techniques.

I am also surprised when the public is very interested in my work and gives me great feedback. Science is often stereotyped as a difficult field, but the public loves talking about life in the universe with me!

What types of people do you interact with at your job? I work in a cubicle with other graduate students and post-graduate students (postdocs) in astrobiology, so we interact a lot and ask each other for help.

I meet with my advisor and others in my lab usually every week or every other week.

Other than that, when I need help on a detailed question, I email experts who are often not even in my university. Email is a fast way to get answers. I meet these experts at workshops and conferences.

Who are YOUR role models? Carl Sagan was a great scientist and even greater communicator. He made science interesting and poetic for the general public with his books and TV show Cosmos. I think it is admirable to not only be a brilliant scientist, but to advocate it so poetically to the public. I hope to be a good science communicator like him.

Read more about her career! AstrobiologistResearcher

Bio: Svetlana started down her path in science through her love of reading. She was exposed to many books as a child and enjoyed reading about the mysterious and the unknown. In fourth grade, she was introduced to the Goosebumps series. Although the books were not really scientific, they sparked her interest in the unknown. That interest eventually developed into an interest in science later on in middle and high school.

Svetlana’s research as an astrobiologist is experimental. She analyzes Mars-like rocks from Earth to look for old fossil life in them using a laser. However, she only gets to use that instrument for a few weeks a year. The rest of her time is spent analyzing her data and writing it up in papers and proposals to get more funding to continue her work. Her work may help with building better Mars rovers! She loves that she can tell people, “One day, lasers will look for life on Mars,” and knowing that she’s helping to make the lasers better!

Outside of work, Svetlana likes to experiment with food recipes. She also enjoys salsa dancing! She is on a Latin dance team that performs shows around town, so she spends time practicing her moves. Also, working in science means that she gets to travel a lot! She takes advantage of her time off in new cities by travelling and exploring.