Planet Hunter and Governor Candidate: DTM Alumna Maggie Turnbull

Maggie Turnbull, DTM Alumna (2004-2006) and Wisconsin Governor Candidate. Photo courtesy Maggie Turnbull. Image: Roberto Molar Candanosa, DTM.
Thursday, September 27, 2018 

Some people might call Maggie Turnbull the person who knows most about habitable stellar systems. And she arguably is, thanks in part to her development of a database that includes over 1 million stars which could potentially support habitable exoplanets.

In a few months, as Turnbull continues to lead cutting-edge planet hunting research with NASA, people in Wisconsin might also call her governor.

In this Q&A, the former DTM postdoctoral fellow discusses her unique pathway to becoming a maverick scientist who left the perfect astronomy job to eventually become a world renowned astrophysicist in a remote town in Wisconsin—and how all that prompted her to try to become an independent governor of her home state in November 2018.

Would you call yourself an astrobiologist?

MT: Yes, I would call myself an astrobiologist whose part of astrobiology is with astronomy. My home expertise and focus is with the stars, and I've chosen to focus on potential habitable environments around other stars for life as we know it on Earth. I also focus on the different ways you might detect life, including looking for habitable planets. Then, if you are going to look for habitable planets, you have to look for any kind of planet, so that's why I'm involved with NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, which will be the first mission to fly a space-based planet imaging coronagraph.

What's your involvement with WFIRST?

I am the principal investigator of the WFIRST coronagraph science investigation team. My team includes people who model planets, and it includes people who create simulated data products that include all the different noise sources that you would expect to get from the imager and the spectrograph onboard. We are running data challenges with the community that will be testing our ability to interpret the data that come back from the instrument, hopefully spanning the theory people to work with this data. My home expertise is understanding the star system, so we are choosing target stars. If we want to do discovery targets where we don't know already that there are planets around them, we're trying to choose some systems that are most favorable for detecting planets.

The coronagraph on WFIRST will be a technology demonstration. There are a lot of components to the system that have never been demonstrated in the space environment, but we understand that you have to go to space if you want to have any chance of detecting planets around Sun-like stars. No current technology is able to do that from the ground. So WFIRST, its exoplanet coronagraph, will be the first attempt at refining that technology and demonstrating it in space. We do expect to detect at least a handful, probably a dozen, of known exoplanets that are Jupiter-sized, or a little smaller, and that our technology will be a stepping stone to the bigger mission to look for Earth-like planets with coronagraph.

WFIRST, the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, is a NASA observatory designed to settle essential questions in the areas of dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. The telescope has a primary mirror that is 2.4 meters in diameter (7.9 feet), and is the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope's primary mirror. WFIRST will have two instruments, the Wide Field Instrument, and the Coronagraph Instrument, which will perform high contrast imaging and spectroscopy of dozens of individual nearby exoplanets. Credit: NASA Goddard

But you are also running for governor of Wisconsin. What does that mean, and why did you decide to get into politics?

Well, a couple of things. I looked at the field of candidates this spring that were going to be going into the primary, and there were no scientists on the primary ballots. I also was looking at the democratic field, and the outcome seemed almost predetermined, so I knew it was highly unlikely that we would have any women on the ballot either. I thought: "There aren't very many people who are in a position to be able to run for office. But I can do it. I have enough flexibility in my work that I can still do my job and run as an independent." So, at least I will have somebody to vote for that I can be excited about. Maybe some other people also would like to see a scientist and a female on the ballot.

I've been learning so much about the issues facing Wisconsin, but obviously science education is a big one for me. Environmental protection and diversity in leadership is a really big issue for me too. We also have severe racial inequities in Wisconsin. But underlying all of these issues is the way we elect our representation. We need ranked choice voting, as Maine is now doing. I don't think it's too strong a statement to say that the usual single checkbox ballots, as I call them, are slowly paving the road to civil war by creating a us-vs-them mentality that actually destroys relationships and triggers this "run to your corners" response about every single issue. Ranked choice ballots, in contrast, actually build consensus through the voting process and make it possible for third party and independent candidates to be taken seriously. It's night and day. We have to consider this.

Why and how did you get back to Wisconsin after being a DTM postdoc and getting a pretty good gig at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore?

Yeah, I had the best job. I decided to leave because my home state of Wisconsin kept calling to me. Also, I was sort of rebelling against this notion that in order for us to have really productive and awesome cutting-edge careers, we have to be separated from our families. Meanwhile, smaller communities are continually suffering this brain drain, where all of our brightest people who go out to get advanced degrees just never come back. They make their lives somewhere else. These great communities that are so good for raising kids are now falling apart because nobody is coming back to keep their economy going. I just thought that that was wrong, and it's happening all over the country. So I thought that if I could, I wanted to stop that from happening, or at least not contribute to it. I don't think there's a ready-made job out there for me that is going to ever meet my need to be close to my family and really active in my home community, my roots, my native community. That means I had to make my own job somehow. And here I am, an astronomer, in Northwoods Wisconsin.

I had heard of other people becoming soft money scientists and starting little institutions, but I didn't know much about it. I thought I didn't see any reason why I couldn't do it. Also, northern Wisconsin is a really inexpensive place to live, so I thought, "If I have to, I will work as a waitress, a bartender, or whatever I can do to make ends meet while I'm building my own career in astrophysics." Not that there's anything wrong with waitressing, by the way. And since I wasn't married and had no kids to worry about, that freed me up a lot. But I still think that anybody can do it. I really believe that.

Was there a specific event or development that made you decide to enter the race for governor?

It kind of gradually built up in my own consciousness that this is something we need to all be stepping up for. These are offices that should be circulated amongst many working people, and they weren't intended to be an insiders-only lifelong career. I think we should have people who are working and who have families and are different from each other all circulating through these offices.

When I moved back to Wisconsin from the Baltimore area, I ran for public office and served on the city council of my hometown in northern Wisconsin for four years. For me it was a little taste of the discussions and debates and arguments that go on from the smallest municipalities all the way to the oval office. It was a little microcosm of the negotiating, and sometimes wheeling and dealing, that happens at all levels.

After I moved into Madison, I kept thinking about how I might be able to continue to serve in the public arena and add a stronger voice for science, the environment, and diversity, and help create policies that are more inclusive of people throughout the state rather than just having sort of 40 percent of the people represented while everybody else is marginalized. We should have somebody like that in the ballot.

You are a very prominent astrobiologist. So, how do you balance your science projects with your campaign?

The two experiences really help each other out. That sort of practice in having rational arguments and differences of opinions and trying to work through them together carries over onto other aspects of my life. So when I'm in the political arena and interacting with people, debating these different issues and answering questions, it is a similar sort of feeling. I'm trying to be reasonable, to persuade and be very clear and well-spoken about what I'm talking about, respecting differences of opinion and not using opinion as fact, trying to be very clear about what I do and do not know.

The aspect of coordinating a team also carries over. My colleagues are all over the country, and everybody adds a different piece to the puzzle. It's a similar thing in a campaign. You have a lot of people in different cities, and they have different levels of ability to help in different kinds of ways. And as a scientist, I don't have authority over my collaborators. They don't work for me, and I can't force them to do what I want them to do. It's all determined by what's needed and what people are willing and able to work on. It's the same thing with the political campaign, if people are jazzed about the campaign and have time or resources to help, then my job is to make the most of that.

Working with the media is another big one. My colleagues and I have interacted with the press a lot, and we have a lot of practice with public speaking, and presentations and answering questions and trying to be approachable and charismatic and passionate when we talk about our work. It's also really important to learn how to find the people with the right expertise, and then trust them to take the lead in certain areas. That's really the same for a scientific team as it is for any kind of political leader. Those are all important skills.

I think a lot of scientists should be running for office, because we have a natural background that's really appropriate for it. And science is so desperately needed in our policymaking.

Maggie Turnbull as a postdoc at DTM. Turnbull was a postdoc from 2004 to 2006. Photo: DTM

How else does your science background help you in the political sphere?

I think it is the fact that I'm so intrigued with how our environment works. That makes it easier for me to understand what other scientists are telling me about the impact of our policies on agriculture, or shorelines, or any number of things that require scientific assessment. For example, what is going on with the state's policies that are affecting local water supply? Because I have background of being scientifically interested in our environment, I've become connected to all these people, good friends throughout Wisconsin, who can explain to me why we have toxic algal blooms at certain times, or why the fish population is changing, or why wolves are essential to songbirds.

What's an exemplary politician for you?

I would say that the qualities of a really exemplary politician would be really similar to the qualities of a really exemplary leader in the scientific world, which is to be inclusive and make sure that you are getting outside the little echo chamber of people who agree with you. In politics we see this sort of "insiders" thing over and over with so-called red waves and blue waves. So, to me, a leader should not just welcome but also insist that people from the other side of the aisle sit with you when you are making policy.

What are the hardest science-related challenges in Wisconsin?

One of the biggest challenges that we are facing is environmental. That's not really news—we know this. But we have got to make headway in protecting our natural resources, including our protected species, habitats for migrating birds and insects, all of these things that require large regional collaboration, as well as empowering local people to have environmental standards that make sense for their local geologies. For example, some counties in Wisconsin can have these very large agricultural operations, you know, ten thousand cattle or so in one building. And there's a large amount of manure that can be safely stored on top of the ground before it's shipped out or used for fertilizer. But there are a lot of areas in the state that don't have the right geology for that, so the manure ends up in the groundwater. The result is contaminated wells, because we are not making the right decisions. So regulations around the agricultural industry need to be informed by science. But that's just one example.

Another example would be local counties being able to set shoreline standards, where you need native plant buffer zones so that rain events don't carry nutrients and soil off of farm fields into our lakes and rivers, and to protect shoreline habitat that is so essential for the wildlife that we love to see here in the state. A lot of those decisions need to be made locally and based on science. It entails soil type, plant species, water life species—but all of that has to be balanced with private interests. The reality is that you have to negotiate. You have to decide what you are willing to concede. That way people are included in the decision-making, so we are not just trampling on people's lives as property owners.

So, long story short, our toughest challenge is using science to protect the environment while respecting the interests of businesses and property owners.

In your opinion, what is the largest challenge for science in the country?

I think it's really important to continue offering earth science in our K12 programs and include direct experiences with nature just to develop an appreciation for the natural world. I believe in the "no child left inside" movement, and I think there's something to this business of "forest bathing." It is so good for us psychologically, emotionally, and physically to connect with nature in an immersive way. I think that alone would help us so much on the environmental front, even if we never taught one scientific thing. We should have a respectful admiration for the planet that we live on. But while we're at it, let's have kids start designing their own science projects and doing explorative learning. Let's see what they absorb as they get used to being in the natural world, which has its own right to exist.

How do you think your unconventional career path gives you a unique background as an astrophysicist?

I wonder about that sometimes. I sometimes feel I have a different perspective from, for example, my colleagues at WFIRST meetings. But I don't know if that comes from being an off grid scientist, or being an astrobiologist with an interest in all of these different fields. Or is it because I am female? You know, it's usually just a few of us women and like 200 guys. But I'm not sure, it's probably all a combination of various things. Living with the cows in Wisconsin is probably just one of those factors!

—Roberto Molar Candanosa