A Conversation with NASA Physical Scientist Carrie 'Rye' Volpert '13 on National Space Day

A Conversation with NASA Physical Scientist Carrie 'Rye' Volpert '13 on National Space Day

Physical Scientist CARRIE 'RYE' VOLPERT ’13 

Detector Systems Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
PhD Philosophy, Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Maryland 
M.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Maryland
B.S. Physics, University of Chicago 

“I left Irwin’s with a lot of interests. Maybe too many,” laughed Carrie 'Rye' Volpert ’13, a K-12 lifer. “The job of college was to narrow it down.” What she knew for certain was that she wanted to understand the world as it is; to figure things out to her satisfaction. Today, Carrie 'Rye' is Physical Scientist in the Detector Systems Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a major U.S. laboratory for developing and operating unmanned scientific spacecraft. The center manages many of NASA's Earth observation, astronomy, planetary science and astrophysics missions. We caught up with Carrie about her education, passion for learning, connections to AIS, flying in the stratosphere, and yes, aliens. 


A favorite AIS memory? In third grade, we observed the moon and recorded its phases in a moon diary. I loved it.

Did you like going to a girls school? I did! Other than friends, there were few distractions. It felt like the primary function of Agnes Irwin was learning, and I like learning.

Favorite classes? Studio Art. I still have some of my art, like this piece on my wall.

What is it called? It doesn’t have a title.

Can you title it now? Sure. It’s now called “The Traveler.”

Other classes you enjoyed? History classes were my favorite at Irwin’s – world history, U.S. History, European History. I also liked writing.

Favorite activities at Agnes Irwin? I was generally bored but widely interested, so I did whatever my best friend, Anne [Scattergood ’13], did. We are still close. I rowed, was into photography, and was a member of a bunch of clubs – debate, chess, model UN – each for one year only. 


How did you decide on the University of Chicago? The questions on the application were vague and open-ended. I liked that creative, inquisitive vibe.

Do you remember the application question you answered? Yes. It was “Where’s Waldo?”

How did you answer? I ignored the prompt. Instead, I wrote about five times that I almost got hurt while being curious.

What classes did you initially take? Studio arts, philosophy, physics and biology.

You must be terrifically smart. I would say that I am more ambitious than smart. These areas of study were avenues where people seemed to have answers – for example, either they offered deep philosophical ideas about how society works, or a complete understanding of how the brain works.

You majored in physics with a specialization in astrophysics. Yes. Physics seemed to have the most convincing explanations to me.

Do you feel like you understand how the world works now? No. I was naive. Now I know even physics cannot explain everything. 


Tell us about your time as an astrophysics PhD candidate. I am an experimentalist. There is a difference between studying something and interacting with it. If you want to study a distant star or galaxy, you can’t really go there. So capturing it in a way that it can be studied involves experimental astronomy – it is like a combination of astronomy and photography. 

Will you share you example? I am working on building infrared micro-spectrometers. A spectrometer separates light that comes through a telescope by wavelength instead of spatial location, allowing us to identify what generated the light. At infrared wavelengths, we observe the ‘cold’ universe: the dust and clouds of dense gas from which stars first form.

I was afraid I might get lost at this point in the interview. Yes, unfortunately the language is daunting. This instrument I’m building will fly in a stratospheric balloon about the size of a football stadium. The telescope scans the sky and records data with the spectrometer, creating a map. Can you remote control it from Earth? It turns out that balloons are really hard to control [laughing]. We can control the telescope and the hardware, but for the balloon itself we can only control when it comes down.

What is the coolest thing your work has allowed you to experience? Flying in the stratosphere, which is 10,000 feet higher than commercial airplanes on a specialized NASA aircraft. There is a window along the side of the aircraft that fully opens to allow a telescope to scan the sky during flight. If you’re familiar with aerodynamics or fluid dynamics …? Um, no. Well, you can intuit how crazy flying an aircraft like that would be. Thankfully that was someone else’s job. 


Most of us have seen the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) images in the news. Amazing, isn’t it? JWST is pushing the edges of our field. It is providing the most detailed images at these wavelengths that we have ever seen of distant galaxies and deepened our understanding of exoplanets, galaxies, star formation, and more. The way we live in our modern world is now really dependent on space technology.

Are there many women in your field? In physics, about twenty percent, and maybe as many as thirty percent for astronomy. But the higher you go, the women thin out.

Is biology the root cause for the gender gap? I think biology only enters the conversation because we as a society haven’t yet decided to prioritize equitable expectations about the burden of having and raising children. Women's bodies themselves in no way exclude them from excelling in science, and the idea itself is baffling.


Asking for our Lower School students … aliens? UFOs? Statistically, in my mind, I think alien life probably exists. Maybe, or maybe not, in a way that we would recognize. I don’t know if we will ever really get the answer. I think the human race would have to live much longer to have a good shot.

Are the UFOs in the news real? More likely, they are products of U.S. or foreign defense and spycraft projects. There is a history of that.

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