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Discovering a Bigger Picture
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Tom Woods

Tom Woods is a planetary scientist who studies the sun. Image Credit: Tom Woods

Tom Woods loved to build things when he was a child. A broken appliance his parents threw away became a new project for him. Woods thought that he would grow up to design buildings. Instead, he chose to use his building skills differently. Woods decided to become a scientist.

"Understanding one's own talents and how best to apply them is a challenge that everyone faces," Woods says. He suggests a person try different things, meet new people and ask for advice. Sometimes, talking to people and trying new things will help a person figure out what job to do.

That is what Woods did. His parents and teachers suggested he consider a career in science. Eventually, Woods decided to focus on physics, which is the study of motion and forces. Then Jack Taylor, one of Woods' professors, encouraged him to attend graduate school. He wanted Woods to study Halley's comet. Woods did not think this was realistic. It was 1980, and the comet was not scheduled to reappear until 1986. He would be finished with school before that time.

However, Woods did attend Johns Hopkins University, as his mentor had recommended. He finished his Ph.D. one year before the comet arrived. Luckily, the school invited Woods to do continue doing work there, and so he did have a chance to study the comet. Today, Woods focuses his research on the sun.

A colorful image of the sun

This multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun was taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 30, 2010. Image Credit: SDO/AIA

Woods likes discovering new things. "I really enjoy the creative part of research," he says. There are many opportunities to find new things when investigating something for the first time. Sometimes, new things are even found in routine observations. Woods works on a large team, and they interpret new and existing data. Together, the scientists also create new instruments for space missions.

Woods currently is working as the lead scientist on the EVE team. EVE is a sensor on board NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, launched in 2010. EVE helps study how the sun's brightness varies at times. This variation is called solar irradiance. The sun's brightness is important because it affects satellites and other equipment in space. It also affects global warming. Woods and his fellow scientists are trying to understand how much the sun affects climate change.

Woods considers himself mainly an instrument scientist, someone who designs the tools and instruments for the mission. But a NASA project requires many kinds of work. "It takes lots of people with many different talents to design, build and operate a successful space mission. Very few of those team members are actually astronauts or rocket scientists." Every mission needs a variety of people from engineers to accountants. Teamwork is the key to achieving their goals.

Related Resources:
› Solar Dynamics Observatory
› NASA Career Resources
› Space Science Explorers Series

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies