photo of parvathy premAlumna Parvathy Prem was selected to receive NASA’s 2021 Susan Mahan Niebur Early Career Award. The award is given annually by the organization’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) to a researcher who has made significant contributions to the science and/or exploration communities within ten years of receiving their Ph.D.

Prem, who is working as a staff scientist in the Planetary Exploration Group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, earned both her M.S. (2013) and Ph.D. (2017) degrees in aerospace engineering at UT Austin under the advisement of professors David Goldstein and Philip Varghese of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

Parvathy took some time to answer a few questions about her current research and the work she did at UT Austin that helped get her where she is today.

Tell us about the work you’re currently doing that was recognized with this award. 

Broadly speaking, I'm interested in the past, present and future of water on the Moon. My current work involves building and applying computer models to understand the origins of water detected in cold, permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles, the behavior of water molecules in the thin lunar atmosphere, and how water released by burning rocket fuel might affect the lunar surface and atmosphere. This is research that I'm doing as a member of two Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) teams and as a member of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission science team.  

What research did you conduct while at UT Austin and how did that help prepare you for the work you’re doing now? 

My Ph.D. work (with professors David Goldstein and Philip Varghese, as well as Dr. Laurence Trafton in the Astronomy department) involved using a Direct Simulation Monte Carlo (DSMC) code to study the role that comets might have played in delivering water to the Moon. I still use the same code to investigate other problems and rely on the solid grounding in computational science that I gained during my Ph.D. Although I'm an aerospace engineer by training, I'm a planetary scientist by choice. Planetary science is a very interdisciplinary field, so I also really appreciated the opportunity to take classes in other departments such as geosciences, mechanical engineering, etc. during my time at UT Austin.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing advanced research degrees in your area of expertise? 

Know that it's okay to need help, and that the best thing you can do when you need help is to seek it out – whether that's by asking your advisors for guidance, building a supportive community of people around you, or finding professional mental health support. I've personally relied on all of those things. Academic research can be tremendously rewarding but also hard at times (After all, you're creating knowledge and stories that haven't been told before), and there will almost certainly be times where you feel that you are “not good enough.” During those times, know that when you do your work with integrity and take care of the people around you, you are always “good enough” and that even when you feel inadequate, you always have the capacity to make the spaces you are in better.