A love of magnetic rocks, old machines and space recently led Beck Strauss to a dream job at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The path to that career wasn’t always clear. Yet it’s a perfect fit for someone who has studied everything from the cave formations called stalagmites to lava flowing on the planet Mercury.
Strauss is a planetary geophysicist who studies the magnetic fields of planets and how those fields are recorded in rocks. Electric currents deep within the Earth’s rocky core form a strong magnetic field. (That’s what causes magnets in compass needles to point north.) Understanding how magnetic fields change over time can tell researchers not only about the surface, but also about what’s inside a planet.
At NASA, Strauss is zapping rocks with laser beams to figure out how old they are. This scientist also is developing sensors to detect the moon’s magnetic field.
Like a compass, Strauss has helped guide other researchers too. Strauss identifies as both transgender and non-binary and uses the pronouns “they” and “them.” A transgender person’s identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth. Instead of male or female, non-binary people can feel like they’re both genders, neither or somewhere in the middle.
A few years ago, Strauss began working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. They wanted to join an LGBTQ+ employee club. They figured such a club would help them to make friends and be supported at work. But the club no longer existed. So Strauss formed a new one for employees and ran it for 18 months. The group helped get gender-neutral bathrooms on the campus. And it made NIST more welcoming to a diverse community of scientists.
In this interview, Strauss recalls their experiences and shares advice with Science News for Students. (The interview has been edited for content and readability.)
What inspired you to pursue your career?
Getting to this very specific career has been a long journey. When I was in high school, I wanted to be an English major because I really liked writing and I really liked reading. Then I got to Oberlin College in Ohio and took a couple of English courses. And it turns out I really didn’t like it very much.
But I was taking a class at the time that was a geology class for non-majors. (By that, they mean the class was for people not majoring in geology.) The professor in the class told us how the continents got to where they are today. He described how the Indian subcontinent slammed into the continent of Asia and is continuing to move northward. And this is why the Himalayas are growing.
I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever heard. So I basically agreed to declare a geology major. I signed up for the intro class. It was taught by a professor who, if science hadn’t worked out, could have been a stand-up comedian. I had a fantastic time in that course. So it’s been a series of decisions where I’ve just kept an eye out for the things that I found surprising and exciting.
How did you get where you are today?
During college I did a summer internship in a lab at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis that was studying rock magnetism. I decided to do that internship because I read the description and it sounded cool. After I did that internship, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school.
At the University of Minnesota, where I got my PhD, I was in this rock magnetism research lab. I noticed when I went over to the chemistry department that a lot of the professors had stickers on their doors with a rainbow or triangle that said that they were LGBTQ allies. I started hanging out in the chemistry department more because I felt comfortable and welcomed there. I got to talking with a professor who was also interested in magnetism and [we] ended up deciding to collaborate to do some research on stalagmites.
More recently, at that university, I was in the right place at the right time when someone said, “Hey, I have a project that we need someone to do. Are you interested in looking at Mercury?” And I said, “Absolutely!” because I’ve always thought space is cool. I also noticed that planetary science as a community seemed really excited about diversity and really excited about inclusion.
How do you get your best ideas?
I think my best ideas come from two places. One is that I really like having friends who are not scientists because they have really good questions about the science that I do. Sometimes my friends ask questions that they’re afraid are silly. Or a waste of time. But it turns out they’re getting at things that are actually really incredibly important to the kinds of work that we want to do. If I only ever talked to scientists who do the same thing that I do, I wouldn’t hear all of these cool, weird, exciting ideas that come from all different places.
The other is I actually get a lot of ideas from movies and TV shows. I watch a lot of science-fiction movies and a lot of fantasy movies. And there are a lot of ideas about what a world could look like if it didn’t have the same rules that we have. I think that’s a really fun thing to try to apply real-world science to. It can turn from a silly, fun exercise that you do with your friends into a, “Hey, wait a second! What if we actually…?” kind of question.
What’s one of your biggest successes?
Some of the work that I’ve been the most proud of is the work I did as a postdoctoral researcher. I was at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J. I worked at the Paleomagnetism Lab in 2016 and 2017. (In paleomagnetism, scientists use old rocks, sediments and other materials to study Earth’s magnetic field.) When I started at that lab, it was basically one big empty room and a second room with some old instruments that needed some love. And when I finished at that lab, it had six or seven totally operational research instruments. By the time I was done, they were spitting out data, basically ready for publication.
Part of my job was working on this one machine that’s nearly as old as I am. I had to figure out a way to get it to start working again in a way that would let not just me, but also the students in the lab, run it from a modern computer. I’m really proud of that work. That’s not only because of how many instruments I was able to get running again. But also because this was a lab that was taking students for the first time. With the instruments I worked on, the very first grad student has been able to present her work at a couple of conferences and has been working on papers to publish in journals.
What’s one of your biggest failures, and how did you get past that?
My philosophy as a scientist is that we need failures in order to learn how to succeed. I do a lot of lab research. And I work with a lot of machines. And sometimes I make mistakes.
I broke almost every instrument in my PhD lab at least once. One is called a SQUID magnetometer. SQUID is an acronym that stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, which sounds like it’s from a sci-fi movie. I also exploded a sample in an oven one time. But I helped fix everything that I broke, and that meant I got to learn how the instruments really worked and what was going on inside them.
It can be really frustrating when you break one of these instruments. They’re really complicated and they’re really expensive. And it makes people really nervous. But every single time I would run into a problem like, “Oh, no, I dropped my sample,” or, “I flipped the wrong switch,” it was an opportunity to learn how to get better at doing my job by figuring out how to fix the mistake.
What do you do in your spare time?
I have two main hobbies right now. One hobby is that I make art: I draw and make collages. And I got to show my art in an art show this summer for the very first time, which was really cool. I really like scientific illustration. This is art focused on creating useful depictions of things like acorns and shells and hands and things that you find in the real world.
My other hobby is that in the spring of 2019 I got into weightlifting, which is not a sentence that I ever expected myself to say. But I have a friend who is a chemical engineer. She posted a video on social media of her pulling a truck. She said, “You know, I bet you could pull a truck if you wanted to.” I thought she was kidding. But it turns out she was right. So this past October, I competed in an all-gender competition, and I pulled a pickup truck across the parking lot.
What piece of advice do you wish you had been given when you were younger?
The two pieces of advice that I always give are, number one: It’s OK to make choices about your career based on what feels good. By that I mean things like, it’s OK to decide who you want to collaborate with because they’re fun to work with or because you feel comfortable around them. It’s OK to decide what kind of science you want to do because it lets you go to the places you want to go.
The other one that I would tell myself is: Run toward the things that you are nervous about loving. If you are so excited about something that it scares you, you’re probably still going to be excited about it a decade later.
This Q&A is part of a series exploring the many paths to a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.