“At NASA, I have the best job on – and off – the planet!”
Dr Nicola Fox is the first winner of our Alumni Achievement accolade in the Vice-Chancellor’s Alumni Awards. After graduating from Surrey in 1991, she launched a stellar career in space exploration. This year, she landed the prestigious and key role of Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“My dad inspired my interest in space,” reveals Nicola. “We’d often be outside at night and he’d look up at the Moon and say: ‘Imagine what it would be like to walk on there and look back at Earth…’ He’d often add: ‘I can’t imagine anything better than working for NASA. It must be so exciting!’”
Nicola’s dad did make it to NASA. On a business trip to America, he visited the Kennedy Space Center.
Nicola continues: “He bought me a NASA hat and a bunch of postcards. I still have the hat. It’s a treasured possession.”
Nicola made it to NASA, too. As the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, she’s in charge of an $8 billion budget and 140+ space missions.
And part of her journey from Hertfordshire to one of the top science jobs in the world includes studying an MSc in Telematics and Satellite Engineering at Surrey.
Launching a career
“I came to Surrey because they were the only UK university to have ever launched anything into space,” says Nicola. “They also had cube satellites that they were building on campus.
“Before I decided to come, I asked if I could see a CubeSat in the laboratory. It was exciting to be that close to something that was going into space.”
Nicola remembers the MSc was “pretty stressful” because the course had undergone significant changes. She still learnt key lessons for later in her career, though.
“During a group project, we had to create a machine learning tool to plot a route through the London Underground,” she explains. “The difficult aspect of this involved the Circle Line as it had no defined end and start points. Our initial test code worked. Then we added in all the stations and it blew the memory. In the end, we solved the issue by building a mini database to temporarily house the information.
“Our tutor had gone away on honeymoon for a couple of weeks. When he returned, he couldn’t believe we’d succeeded.
“That group thinking to achieve a solution without having somebody who knows the answer in the room was a key lesson. It’s essentially what I do at NASA. Here’s a new problem. Nobody has the answer. How do we tackle it?”
Following graduation from Surrey and PhD study at Imperial, Nicola landed her first role at NASA.
She continues: “I attended a research conference in Alaska. I’d made a poster presentation and a man I’d never met asked me if I wanted to apply for a postdoctoral position at NASA.
“I didn’t even know it was an option at the time. I mean, NASA was this shiny institution in another country.”
NASA accepted Nicola’s postdoctoral proposal. She left the UK to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1995. Nicola says:
“It remains one of the bravest decisions I’ve made. I knew the guy who’d hired me, but I didn’t know anyone else. I moved away from my friends and my family. My mum’s washing machine was no longer two hours away! It was a bit daunting.”
Brave new world
Nicola completed her research project at NASA, then accepted a new role at the Applied Physics Lab (APL) at John Hopkins University in 1998. She worked at APL for 20 years on many space missions. These included the Van Allen probes, the New Horizons flight to Pluto and the Messenger mission to Mercury.
She was also the Chief Project Scientist on the Parker Solar Probe, which will travel to within four million miles of the surface of the Sun in 2024.
Nicola was lured back to NASA in 2018. She explains:
“Three weeks after the Parker Solar Probe launched, I began working as Head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division. We essentially explore the behaviour of the Sun and how it influences the Earth and the other planets in our Solar System.
“Instead of working with one or two missions as I was at APL, I was working with all the missions that were part of NASA’s Heliophysics portfolio. It was a big undertaking and we had a huge research community.”
Star role at NASA
In February this year, Nicola took on her biggest role to date when she became Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“In every previous role, I thought I had the best job on the planet,” says Nicola. “As the Associate Administrator, I now have the best job on – and off – the planet.
“There are six divisions in our Science Mission Directorate. Alongside Heliophysics, I have responsibility for Planetary Science, Astrophysics, Biological and Physical Sciences, Earth Science, plus a joint agency overseeing spacecraft for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”
It’s a position that Nicola is hugely enthusiastic about.
She continues: “I love the role. I get in early every morning and the security guard says, ‘Have a great day!’ and I think, ‘I absolutely will!’ Most days, I still have a moment where I realise, ‘This is amazing. I’m working at NASA! It’s so cool!’
“What excite me most is that the interesting science always happens on boundaries. If you look at a planet and how it’s responding to solar wind, it’s the boundary where the two systems meet that is always where the most fascinating physics takes place.
“Extending that idea of what happens on the boundaries where the different divisions of NASA expertise meet is the exciting thing. So what happens at the intersection between Planetary Science and Heliophysics? And how can we apply that knowledge in Astrophysics?”
Alumni Achievement Award
Even though she’s an acclaimed scientist working in a high-profile role, Nicola hasn’t forgotten her roots at Surrey. She admits she was quite touched to receive the latest accolade in her star-studded career.
“Being honoured in the Vice-Chancellor’s Alumni Awards was totally unexpected,” she says. “I was pleasantly overwhelmed with congratulatory emails and letters when I got the Associate Administrator role. It took me a couple of days to go back and read everything properly.
“I was shocked and surprised when I fully realised what I’d won. I had that moment of, ‘I must be reading this wrong!’ But it’s lovely to get the award and to be recognised in this way.
“I usually tell schoolkids to ‘Close their eyes and dream big. Because if you can’t see it, you’ll never be it.’ That remains a key piece of advice I’d offer to anyone who wants to launch their own career doing something they love.”
Read our full interview with Dr Nicola Fox.