Laura Iraci

Kids are always asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as if there were one single right answer. As if “grown up” is a static condition, never changing, just being that one thing you always knew you wanted to be: firefighter, astronaut, princess, or veterinarian.

I didn’t have a single childhood passion that shaped my view of who I would be when I reached the destination called “grown up”. I did well in school, voraciously read Nancy Drew mysteries, and followed the plan laid out for me by my parents and school. This plan led me to high school chemistry in my sophomore year. We conducted surprising, memorable experiments and I learned rules that explained how elements and molecules worked and how to predict which ones caught fire when exposed to air and which ones just smelled funny. So when asked “where do you want to go to college?,” I knew that I wanted to go to a school with a really good chemistry department.

Once in college, the path you follow to get a chemistry degree is pretty tightly prescribed: general chemistry, next organic chemistry, then physical chemistry and ultimately onto higher-level electives. Once the degree requirements are accomplished, there is one last decision point before you are finally on your way toward defining your career and your self-image from here on: “grad school or med school?” I considered myself destined to be a scientist, so that was an easy decision for me. The fabled career path people kept talking about looked like a pretty straight line from a bachelor’s degree in science, to a Ph.D. and onto the destination of combining teaching and research at a college or university.

But now, looking back more than two decades later, I can see the long catalog of small events that influenced my journey, like the college brochure I tossed in the reject pile and then decided to fish back out a month later. Like the flyer I saw on a bulletin board just days before the application deadline for an internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. There were so many other small things that could have guided my life down a different route. Maybe my path had a little more wiggle room than I’d realized.

I can also see a few critical events that have fundamentally influenced the course of my life, even though they were nowhere to be found on that nice, linear career path leading toward an academic career in the sciences. The opportunity to work at NASA Ames broadened my scientific horizons and also gave me the chance to meet my future husband.

And of course there are the things I never predicted would occur along the life path of a chemist. I am helping design a satellite mission to study air quality. I met Harrison Ford and talked with him at length about global climate change. I’ve been to the state capital to teach legislators and their staffers about it too. I consult aeronautical charts and weather maps regularly. My experiments have been thwarted by Air Force One on more than one occasion!

As I continue to experience small and not-so-small events that influence my path, I am constantly realizing that a career does not have to be linear, and there is no destination where you finally become the one single, unchanging person you will be for the rest of your life.

photo of Laura Iraci

Biography

Dr. Laura Iraci is a research scientist in the Earth Science Division at NASA Ames Research Center and studies the atmosphere through laboratory, airborne, and satellite studies. Dr. Iraci also serves as the Principal Investigator for the Alpha Jet Atmospheric eXperiment (AJAX) Project, which investigates the concentration of atmospheric gases from a jet aircraft, based at Moffett Field. The project measures greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, over California and Nevada, and observes ozone and pollution levels over the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Iraci’s research group performs laboratory cloud formation and growth experiments for Earth and Mars. She is also a team member on the GEOstationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events (GEO-CAPE) satellite mission that studies air pollution and coastal oceans from geostationary orbit. After collaborating with a NASA scientist, Dr. Iraci took advantage of the opportunity to work with other dedicated scientists who study the Earth and other planets in our Solar System, and joined Ames in 2000. Dr. Iraci believes a major benefit to learning about Mars, the moon, and Venus, is gaining a better understanding of Earth. Prior to working at NASA, Dr. Iraci was a scientist at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, and from 1997-1998, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She received her Ph.D. in Analytical and Atmospheric Chemistry from the University of Colorado, where she studied the formation of the polar stratospheric clouds, which lead to ozone depletion. In that role, Dr. Iraci was in charge of evacuating a building due to a chemical spill. Dr. Iraci received her undergraduate training at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York. In her spare time, she sings with Schola Cantorum, a community chorus based in Mountain View, California, and enjoying tending to her backyard garden. She and her husband, whom she met at NASA Ames, have a son who was born a few weeks prior to the first AJAX flight.