Dr. Jessica Gaskin wins 2020 Alumni of Achievement award for College of Science

Jessica Gaskin

UAH Alumna Dr. Jessica Gaskin

Courtesy of Jessica Gaskin

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, announced that Dr. Jessica A. Gaskin has won the 2020 Alumni of Achievement Award for the College of Science. Dr. Gaskin earned her doctorate with UAH in astrophysics in 2004 and has been with NASA for more than 20 years as a contractor, postdoctoral researcher, federal career intern and civil servant.

Currently working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), she has been a Research Astrophysicist with the X-Ray Astronomy Group since 2005 and has been selected for over a dozen NASA and industry awards.

Dr. Gaskin has been a member of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), Associate Editor for the Journal of Astronomical Instrumentation (JAI), Guest Editor for the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Organizer for Scientific Balloon Technologies Workshop and Chair for the Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO) high-energy Proposal Review Panel, among many others. She has also authored or co-authored over 90 publications with an emphasis on x-ray astrophysics and instrumentation.

Formerly from Texas, the UAH alumna is living a dream that has long been a part of her family experience and has called to her since early childhood.

“I was always very interested in exploration, whether it be of space or the oceans,” she says. “It has always been intriguing to me to try to do or see things no one had ever done or seen before. My mom has a degree in geology and actually worked with some of the Moon rocks from the Apollo mission, and my dad had a bachelor’s of science degree in astronomy and a master’s of science in geophysics.”

Obtaining her Ph.D. at UAH proved to be an easy choice for someone aiming to craft a career in astrophysics.

“I knew that UAH had a unique relationship with NASA, because they allowed you to work with NASA researchers for your Ph.D.,” she explains. “That was a huge part of my coming here since I’ve always wanted to work at NASA. I’ve actually been a part of almost every NASA program. I was a Teaching Assistant for a bit when I first came to UAH, but quickly became a Grad Student Research Fellow (GSRF). I knew I could work at NASA while I got my degree.”

Dr. Gaskin has worked on numerous NASA Projects over the course of her professional life, including leading multiple large to small projects across the fields of x-ray and gamma ray high-energy astrophysics and planetary science.

Asked what she finds satisfying about supporting an important project, she finds it intriguing to examine the pros and cons of working on a mission from conception to completion as compared to working on a specific part of a larger mission, such as technological development.

“Some missions can be completed within a couple of years, while other missions can take around 20 years from concept to implementation,” she says. “Working on both types of missions allows me the immediate satisfaction of making a difference, and the satisfaction that I have contributed to the future. Another advantage of working on technology developments is that these are often useful across science disciplines, including those outside of astronomy. A new high-energy detector system can be used on astrophysical missions and also potentially for medical applications, for example.”

Dr. Gaskin has been the Principal Investigator (PI) for the development of a Mars miniaturized - Scanning Electron Microscope since 2015, where she oversees every aspect of the development from conception to fabrication. The microscope will seek biological samples on the red planet.

“I’m also fortunate to have been Principal Investigator for balloon payloads that have flown to 132,000 feet to make observations. On these missions, you can design the payload, fly it and analyze the science all within a few years,” she says. “Most recently, I have had an opportunity to work on the Lynx mission concept development. The Lynx X-ray Observatory is a concept for a Flagship mission that would take many years (over a decade) to come to fruition.”

Dr. Gaskin has been the NASA HQ Appointed Study Scientist for Lynx since 2016. The Lynx X-ray Observatory concept was submitted for consideration to the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal. If prioritized, Lynx would provide unprecedented insight into a range of high-energy astronomical phenomena, such as the very first super-massive black holes, the drivers of galaxy evolution, and the energetic side of stellar evolution.

Asked how she manages to juggle so many daunting responsibilities with a busy homelife as a wife and mother brings a joyful sigh.

“It’s so hard! It takes a lot of work, for sure, and I am always striving to achieve a better work-life balance. It helps to have a great husband who is always there when I can’t be and vice versa. Both our jobs are integral parts of our lives, so there is no clear distinction at times.”

In addition to all her other duties, she also mentors future scientists in her role as a Committee Member for the UAH Department of Physics.

“I am a committee member for UAH Department of Physics students but also advise and mentor undergraduates and graduate students in other capacities as well,” she says. “I also give public talks around the country on X-ray Astronomy and at local schools. I take this very seriously! It is important that we nurture the next generation of researchers and scientists and provide them with insight into what they need to succeed.”

What advice would she give to young students, especially women, who see her as a role model?

“Anything is possible! You make your own future. Students are often very intimidated when having to choose a single major or degree. ‘How do I know that is what I want to do? How can I make that decision for the rest of my life?’ But I say choosing a major or getting a degree or having a certain internship, whatever path you take, nothing is ever wrong! The experiences you have make you who you are; they give you a set of tools, a uniqueness that provides you with the insights that no one else will have. Choosing a path is never bad in the long run. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration.”