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Fire and Ice: A Profile of Space Scientist Suzie Imber
Suzie Imber studies the gigantic magnetic fields traveling between the sun and our planet, but every once in awhile she abandons it all for something a lot more earthy.

Surrounding Suzie Imber's desk are the accouterments expected of a researcher's office. Imber is a space scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. In addition to the personal touches – a British flag, photos of friends, a calendar from her hometown in Berkhamsted, UK – her office sports books, NASA posters and numerous pieces of paper. Stacks and stacks of paper. On the desk, on the floor, on the bookshelf. Each page is covered in graphs of data from various research spacecraft, data on the solar wind and Earth's magnetic fields that Imber analyzes regularly using computer codes.

"I just code all day," she says.

This is not, in fact, true. Space scientist most of the time she may be, but every 18 months, more or less, Imber packs up her warmest clothes, a set of crampons and a pair of ice axes to go climb a mountain. Not just for a hike, but a true ice climb up a sheer mountain face: like Mt. McKinley in Alaska which is over 20,000 feet tall, or Aconcagua in Argentina, the tallest mountain in both the Southern and Western Hemispheres at 23,000 feet tall.

Suzie Imber on Ama Dablam in November 2010.
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Suzie Imber on Ama Dablam in November 2010. Credit: Dani Fuller

Imber began climbing in 2005, at a time when she was studying physics at Imperial College, London. She went to South America with her twin brother, James Imber, who's currently a particle physicist at Stony Brook University. Her brother didn't catch the bug, but Imber has now made four ice climbs.

She holds up an image of the Ama Dablam mountain in Nepal, host to her latest climb in November of 2010. "It's the most perfect mountain you've ever seen," she says. "The mountain's name means 'mother's necklace,' because of this huge hanging glacier in the middle that looks like the pendant of a necklace."

Imber describes the mountain's breadth, its contours, and the placement of its camps. As she talks about that huge glacier in the middle – some thousands of tons of unsupported ice clinging to a steep ice face -- she shows an awareness of the mountain as a whole.

"I like to see the big picture," she says.

Suzie Imber at her desk where she researches Earth's magnetosphere. › View larger
Suzie Imber at her desk where she researches Earth's magnetosphere.
Credit: NASA/Debbie McCallum
This describes her work at Goddard just as well, where the "big picture" she studies is the gigantic magnetic field around Earth known as the magnetosphere. Imber arrived at Goddard in 2008, after finishing her PhD in space plasma physics at the University of Leicester, and she studies how energy and momentum transfer from the solar wind to Earth's magnetic fields. She says that the journey begins at the sun, which sends energy into the magnetosphere where it builds up over time. Then it is explosively released by a process called magnetic reconnection. These explosions are called substorms and they can be a source for gorgeous polar auroras.

Understanding the entire process requires a global view of the Earth-Sun system that relies on both ground-based and in situ spacecraft instrumentation. This, in turn, requires a much more focused look at the nitty gritty of the data -- thus all that "coding." She can spend months poring over every data point sent back from a mission like THEMIS to spot a signature of the reconnection events in the magnetotail.

Imber is animated when she talks about this process. She sketches the magnetic fields and pulls up images on her computer of the numerous instruments around the world from which she gathers information. She obviously enjoys her work. But she also enjoys walking away from time to time. "When I'm climbing I don't think about work at all," she says.

Such a break comes not just from the actual summit to the top of a mountain but from months of preparation: climbing, too, requires much attention to detail. Imber's training regimen is geared to increase both stamina and strength. She is up rowing for a crew team at 5 AM most mornings and she also does sprint training to develop the lung capacity needed at high altitudes. For endurance, there are hundreds of miles of cycling and "load carrying" – carrying a backpack containing five gallons of water roughly five hours a week. Not to mention dragging three car tires attached to a harness around her local park for those mountains that require dragging sledges.

And that's just the work before she arrives at the mountain.

On her most recent trek, summiting Ama Dablam required nearly four weeks of hiking on the mountain before the day-long climb to the top. The hike to the top doesn't in of itself take that long, but the food, fuel and technical equipment needed for the ice climb are so heavy one can't carry them up in a single go. Imber and her partner Dani, didn't have the luxury of sherpas. So they made numerous trips between the four camps on the mountain, gradually bringing everything they would need up to the top camp.

After four weeks, they were ready. They left to begin the summit at midnight on November 4, 2010. "The summit day itself took 22 and a half hours, total," says Imber. The climb up was hard work; they left in the bitter cold (-30 F) with only a head-torch for light, and climbed some 3,000 feet of first mixed ice and rock and then steep ice. The weather was perfect at the top, she says, and the views of the surrounding mountains, including Everest only 11 miles away, were spectacular.

But the work didn't end at the summit. Indeed, many say that the most dangerous part of the climb is the descent. "By the time we made it half way back to top camp, the sun had gone down," says Imber. "The ropes were beginning to freeze. We had to rappel down at least 50 pitches with huge gloves on and only the light from our head torches".

They arrived back at camp at 10:30 that night and carried all their materials off the mountain the next morning. It took four weeks to climb up, but just four days to hike back to the airport that carries one out, exhausted and elated. ("Once down, the first thing you do is eat your body weight in chocolate," says Imber.)

After that, it was back to Goddard and her studies of magnetospheric eruptions, more data, and more holistic views of Earth's magnetic fields. Occasionally interrupted, of course, by a brisk 5 AM row or dragging a few tires across a park.

Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.