Physics alumna Christina Richey has built a successful career in the competitive, and mostly-male, field of planetary science.

""
Christina Richey in a cave

Growing up in East Liverpool, Ohio, Christina Richey didn't know very many astrophysicists. In her small working-class town on the Ohio River right where Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio meet, she had few models of what a research career could look like. “It was the Appalachia,” she says.

She liked science, so she majored in physics at nearby Wheeling Jesuit University, graduating in 2004. But it didn’t have the broad science platform of a larger institution. “It was a great school, but it was a small school, and it had limited research opportunities,” she explains. “I found out about the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at UAB my junior year, and so I came to Birmingham and I just fell in love with UAB and the Physics department.”

The REU program, funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Associate Dean and Professor of Physics Dr. Yogesh Vohra, provides a 10-week, hands-on research experience for undergraduate students. During the program, participants work in the labs of some of UAB’s best scientists to conduct research that will contribute to the work already being conducted in the labs.

Launchpad: UAB Physics

During the REU program, Richey worked with former UAB Physics professor Dr. Perry Gerakines—who is now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center—to study ice in the outer solar system. “I was doing graduate-level research for an entire summer,” she says. After seeing what the field of astrophysics could offer and knowing she wanted to continue her research, Richey applied to several schools with astronomy programs. But she ultimately decided that UAB was where she wanted to be. “I knew it was what I needed,” she says.

Richey made the decision to pursue a master's and doctoral degree in physics rather than specialize in planetary science or astronomy.

And that was in large part because of the relationships and guidance she received from faculty members in the Department of Physics. “A physics degree is flexible and applicable to a number of fields,” she says. “I knew I would be hirable in planetary science, but if that didn’t work out, I could find any number of other jobs with my degree.”

She says the relationships she built in the department helped her plan her next steps through graduate school and into her career.

“The general community in the Physics department was just fantastic; everyone was really supportive,” she says. “Right from the beginning of my graduate work, I knew I would do well; it was just the right environment. Dr. [Ryoichi] Kawai was a huge influence on me, and so was Dr. [Renato] Camata, who had a big service aspect to his worldview, and that was so important to me coming from a Jesuit school.”

As Richey worked through her graduate program, she also came to realize that, just as she didn’t want to limit her degree to astronomy, she also didn’t want to limit her career to laboratory research. “I never wanted to be a tenured professor,” she says. “I was really into project management, government relations, business modeling—all kinds of things that weren’t traditionally ‘physics.’ I had an advisor who really supported my desire to have a non-traditional career, and I am so glad I didn’t have that boxed-in reality that so many graduate students have.”

UAB Physics faculty members empowered Richey to follow her interests even while working on advanced science. “Dr. David Hilton was another huge influence on my career,” she says. “He was arriving at UAB right when I was finishing my Ph.D. and was very supportive of me from the beginning. I always knew my career path wouldn’t be the same as other people. With faculty help, I was networking at conferences and even taking a business class when it interested me. Dr. Camata said, ‘I feel like you’ll be a senator one day,’ and that really summed up my broad interests. I was not a traditional physics student and UAB really let me pursue the path that was right for me.”

Early Orbit: Program Officer, NASA Planetary Science Division

After completing her Ph.D., Richey began an 18-month post-doc at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she concentrated on astrophysics, specifically how water adheres to dust grains in space, and how that informs our understanding of stars and how they form. “I noticed even then how I wanted to be out of the lab a lot,” she says. “I worked on education and public outreach programs for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the next Hubble and will launch next year. I was the president of the post-doc association. I started blogging; I just got involved in so many things in addition to my research.”

She got so involved, in fact, that she almost missed her window to find a job with NASA, a dream she had held since her first year in graduate school. “I had told my advisor at UAB that I wanted to be at headquarters in 20 years, but when a funding situation almost shortened my post-doc position, I realized the job opportunities were becoming really slim, really quick. I had missed all of the Congressional deadlines, and I just went to my car and cried. But the next day, I started looking at contractors working with NASA, and I ended up as a contract program officer with Smart Data Solutions, and then with Arctic Slope. Basically, I went from thinking I was going to be unemployed to jumping ahead about 20 years in my career.”

As a contractor, Richey worked at NASA headquarters for five years and ran programs that distributed grant funding to Principal Investigators at universities across the country. “I wasn’t on the review panel, but I was the person who gathered and organized those panels of experts,” she says. “I was the person the community contacted—the one who handled the administration and business management.”

Richey says she loved the work, but after five years serving as a Deputy Program Scientist and a Deputy Science Advisor for Research and Analysis (R&A) she says, “There was no place up for me to go, and I wanted to try something different.”

planets and stars in space.

Current Mission: Senior Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In February 2018, Richey took a position as a Research Technologist and Scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. There, she helps prepare grant proposals, an internal process that is painstaking and multi-layered. “I bring an important perspective to the team as a former contractor at HQ,” she says.

She’s also a Project Staff Scientist on the Europa “Clipper” Mission, which will send a powerful spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa sometime in the early 2020s to collect data and do extensive research. “Europa is the second-most-likely candidate site for life in our solar system after Earth,” she explains. “It’s covered in an icy shell that’s a few kilometers thick over what planetary scientists think is a liquid ocean. Back at UAB, I worked on ice, and during my post-doc, I worked with a federal relations group trying to get a mission to Europa funded. Add to that my mission experience from HQ…I am responsible for coordinating different groups and different science, so this is a perfect fit for me.”

Richey says the Clipper will travel in intricate orbits in the Jupiter system, but the orbits have to be carefully calculated since Jupiter’s magnetic particles rain down on everything around it, and would do damage to the Clipper. “It will have to come close to Europa to collect data and then kick back out further into the Jupiter system,” she says.

Rocket Fuel: Advocacy for Women

Throughout her academic and professional career, Richey has championed the cause of female scientists in a field that has been notorious for harassment and abuse. “I don’t have a degree in a social science, but over the years I have become something of an expert on this topic, particularly harassment in STEM workplaces," she says. “After an incident when I was a post-doc, I remember really having to think, ‘Is it worth losing my job over this?’ I was so powerless back then, and also so fed up. But I just decided to get up at a women’s lunch—we were always relegated to the women’s lunch—and start a community discussion on the topic in planetary science. I felt like I was screaming into the void then, and occasionally still do. But we’re making progress.”

Over the years Richey has served as the Chair of the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2015-2017 and was co-Chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences’ Subcommittee on Professional Climate and Culture. She was also a contributor on the Women in Astronomy blog.

She also helped run a survey and study with three other social scientists and astronomers, including anthropologist Dr. Kate Clancy at the University of Illinois, to explore how hostile the work environment was in planetary science and astrophysics. “Not surprisingly it’s bad, really bad. 39 percent of respondents said they were verbally harassed, and 25 percent said they felt unsafe in the workplace because of their gender.” Her work led to a Career Service Award from the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) (“I can say I’ve won the same award as Carl Sagan,” she says proudly), which Richey says she accepted only if the DPS would agree to let her make a presentation on the prize stage. DPS agreed, but then the story about harassment charges leveled against renowned University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy broke in national media. The Marcy story exposed more of the harassment in the field of astronomy and planetary science than any single ‘harassment 101’ speech by Richey would.

“So, I ended up getting very personal with the crowd, in addition to showing the data”, she says. “A lot of men just didn’t know these things were happening around them. People only knew about a few instances anecdotally, that’s why the study data was so important. It’s hard to ignore when you start to realize these numbers are the same people sitting in the room with you.”

christina richeyToday, as the country continues to grapple with these issues after the #MeToo movement exploded into the cultural consciousness, Richey says she’s encouraged.

“We’re making progress. We have to allow the system to fill with diversity. We have to welcome these young people into the sciences who are coming in with their eyes open. They’re less tolerant than we were; they’re getting proper harassment and bystander training. And that’s occurring more now because more women are in positions of power. Too many times I’m the only woman in a room, or my black colleague is the only non-white person in the room. But that game is changing now and it needs to continue to improve.”

Even the Hidden Figures movie about black women working as mathematical “computers” at NASA during the Apollo missions of the 1960s helped make an impact. “It was important because it made the conversation about women and gender inequity popular. I saw one of my heroes in Katherine Johnson on the stage at the Academy Awards and cried at realizing just how big that moment was for my field, and for women of color in STEM.” she says.

Richey, who received a Trailblazing Alumni Award from the College in 2016 and a Rising Star Award from the National Alumni Society in 2017, loves UAB and sees only potential for her alma mater. “I see a world of opportunity for UAB. It is the capital of the economy for Alabama and its research is world-class. My hope for UAB is that it would embrace its opportunities and run with it.”

She also has hopes for her colleagues in planetary science as they continue to advocate for safe and supportive work environments for their peers. “If there’s an opportunity for us to be the standard of excellence in this, why wouldn’t we?”

  • Letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

    While we have any number of outstanding male faculty members, students, and alumni who deserve recognition and are included, by and large this issue is about the women of the College of Arts and Sciences.

    posted a while back 555 views
  • Events

    Catch up with some of the big events sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, from Homecoming to an exhibit at AEIVA.

    posted a while back 509 views
  • Building a Legacy

    When UAB broke ground on the new Arts & Sciences Building in September 2017, the excitement was palpable. “There is no doubt that this new building will provide our campus community with a state-of-the-art facility in which they can work and learn,” said Dean Palazzo.

    posted a while back 636 views
  • AEIVA Receives Significant Gift of Works by David Levinthal

    The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) Permanent Art Collection has received a generous donation of a number of works by David Levinthal, one of the most prolific and acclaimed photographers of his generation.

    posted a while back 631 views
  • A Legacy of Love

    Jeannie Feldman has established both an award and a scholarship in the Department of History to honor her late husband, Dr. Glenn A. Feldman.

    posted a while back 746 views
  • Capturing Success

    Palo Alto Networks' Cyber Competition for High School Students.

    posted a while back 613 views
  • Paying it Forward

    Alumna Dr. Ana Maria Crawford has created an endowed scholarship to be used to support deserving students based on merit and financial need.

    posted a while back 885 views
  • They Persisted

    Despite complex social, cultural, and professional trends that keep women from academic careers in the sciences and mathematics, a small percentage of female research faculty stay the course.

    posted a while back 2231 views
  • Taking a Leap

    Psychology and Public Administration alumna Ann Bridges Steely says her biggest career risks brought the greatest rewards.

    posted a while back 651 views
  • Stellar

    Physics alumna Christina Richey has built a successful career in the competitive, and mostly-male, field of planetary science.

    posted a while back 1016 views
  • Across the Spectrum

    Four female faculty members in the Department of Psychology study and treat Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    posted a while back 4538 views
  • Everyone has a story

    “How did you end up in Alabama?” I get that question a lot, both here and abroad. I suspect that every immigrant is frequently asked the same question out of genuine curiosity, maybe interest.

    posted a while back 1028 views
  • Letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
    Our fall semester is in full swing and the momentum is building in the College and across the university.
    posted a while back 1618 views
  • Finishing Strong

    We finished the academic year with a major exhibition at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts and celebrated another joyful, thrilling commencement ceremony, at which more than 2,000 UAB students graduated.

    posted a while back 1507 views
  • College Alumni Community

    Our former graduates have had a great year of events and celebrations, all organized by our Alumni Board led by president Wes Calhoun. 

    posted a while back 1717 views
  • Faculty Receive University Awards

    Renato Camata, Roger Gilchrist, Samiksha Raut, and Nitesh Saxena were all recognized this year for their excellence in teaching, mentorship and advising.

    posted a while back 2085 views
  • New Chairs, New Faculty Join the College

    This fall, we welcomed several new faculty members, a new chair for the Department of Sociology, and three interim chairs. We are proud to have all of them in leadership and academic positions and are excited to see what they accomplish at UAB.

    posted a while back 2512 views
  • Nine Departments Welcome New Faculty Members

    This fall, new faculty members join the Department of Communication Studies, the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Department of English, the Department of Music, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Social Work, the Department of Sociology, and the Department of Theatre.

    posted a while back 2413 views
  • New Degrees, New Department Names

    At recent Board of Trustees meetings, two new degrees and two new department names were approved.

    posted a while back 1919 views
  • New Building Groundbreaking

    Dean Palazzo, along with President Ray Watts and Provost Pam Benoit, joined several invited guests to celebrate the groundbreaking for our new arts and sciences academic building on Tuesday, September 19, 2017.

    posted a while back 2092 views
  • Remarkable Generosity

    Donors establish five new endowments in the College—the most ever received in one year.

    posted a while back 1812 views
  • Personal History

    Love and learning are the two recurring themes of Sol and Rita Kimerling’s incredible story.

    posted a while back 2848 views
  • Strike Up the Band!

    Under the leadership of new director of bands Dr. Sean Murray, the marching blazers are ready to retake the field this fall.

    posted a while back 3396 views
  • Risk Takers

    From changing majors to changing sports, these former football players, cheerleaders, majorettes, and Blazerettes stepped outside their comfort zones and transformed their student experiences–and future careers.

    posted a while back 6338 views
  • Just This Once, A little Health Advice

    Am I the only one who feels bombarded by unwanted health advice? You can’t open a newspaper (remember those?), a magazine, the internet, or turn on the television without stumbling across someone dispensing tips for living a longer, healthier life.

    posted a while back 1955 views
  • Message from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
    Right now is such an exciting time on campus, and not just because the flowers are blooming and the birds are singing. With the approval of our new Arts & Sciences building, scheduled to be open in Fall 2019, we are embarking on an exciting journey to construct a stunning space for our faculty and students.
    posted a while back 4248 views
  • A Vibrant Fall Semester
    There was an explosion of creativity and celebration last fall with AEIVA and the Institute of Human Rights kickoff event at the Alys Stephens Center.
    posted a while back 4371 views
  • Senior Wins Gilman Scholarship
    Jane Murphy, a student in foreign languages with a concentration in French, has been awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad.
    posted a while back 4615 views
  • Dean's Award Winners
    Congratulations to these deserving undergraduate and graduate students, who were nominated by their professors for this prestigious recognition.
    posted a while back 3809 views
  • Neuroscience Major a Finalist for Gates Cambridge Scholarship
    Hriday Bhambhvani, a double major in mathematics and neuroscience, was named a finalist for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship
    posted a while back 5326 views
  • Lamario Williams Wins Scholarship and Travel Award
    Physics major Lamario Williams received a PhysCon MSI/HBCU Travel Award to attend PhysCon 2016 in San Francisco.
    posted a while back 3986 views
  • Students, Faculty and Alumni Win Big at 2017 ADDY Awards
    Students, faculty, and alumni from the College of Arts and Sciences make a strong showing at the ADDY Awards.
    posted a while back 4630 views
  • New Degrees in Computer Science, Digital Forensics, Immunology and Genetics and Genomics Sciences
    The College of Arts and Sciences is proud to offer new degrees in Computer Science, Digital Forensics, Immunology, and Genetics and Genomics Sciences.
    posted a while back 5661 views
  • Public Relations Certificate First in State
    Majors in public relations and other communication studies will now have the opportunity to boost their resumes with the addition of the Certificate in Principles of Public Relations.
    posted a while back 4485 views
  • Dr. David Schwebel Receives Multiple Honors
    Dr. David Schwebel, professor in the Department of Psychology and associate dean for research in the sciences, receives multiple honors.
    posted a while back 4397 views
  • Dr. Christopher Lawson Named Chair of National Research Nonprofit
    Dr. Christopher Lawson, professor in the Department of Physics, has been elected board chair of a national nonprofit coalition.
    posted a while back 4119 views
  • Dr. Sarah Parcak Launches TED Wish, Receives Additional Recognition
    Dr. Sarah Parcak, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, launches GlobalXplorer, a project funded by her $1 million 2016 TED Prize.
    posted a while back 4485 views
  • Dr. Shahid Muhktar Receives Large NSF Grant
    Dr. Shahid Mukhtar, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has been selected to receive a three-year $800,000 grant for his research from the National Science Foundation.
    posted a while back 4255 views
Back to Top