A few weeks after her high school graduation, Alice Trenholme Isaacman (1964, OR) met Alan Shepard, the first American in space, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. A quarter century later, she began working for the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) project at NASA.
Her first NASA visit was part of her national recognition as a Presidential Scholar. “That was in 1964, the very first year of Presidential Scholars,” Isaacman said. “We got the royal treatment. And I do mean the royal treatment.” Isaacman recalls shaking President Johnson’s hand, visiting the Supreme Court, and eating lunch with Senator Wayne Morse (one of just two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution). Her mother asked Leonard Bernstein and Willem de Kooning to autograph a napkin during the reception on the White House South Lawn.
But for Alice, the visit to NASA was the most royal experience of all. Mathematics makes both space travel and satellites possible, and mathematics has captivated Isaacman for most of her life. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, she devoured her late grandfather’s science fiction collection, which she credits with her early interest in the cosmos. She went on to study at Stanford and the University of Maryland, earning her doctorate in mathematics from the latter institution in 1982. She also earned a master’s degree in secondary teaching from Stanford and taught middle and high school math and science prior to her graduate studies in mathematics.
Following an associate professorship at George Mason University, she joined NASA’s COBE project team, calibrating the satellite’s software and analyzing the data it transmitted to Earth. In its seven years, the Explorer’s study of cosmic background radiation bolstered the Big Bang theory and earned its principal investigators the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.
“It was really wonderful to work at NASA—the sense of common purpose, being surrounded by people who were really excellent at what they do, made it an exceptional experience,” Alice said.
Isaacman’s time at COBE was the start of a career in satellite software calibration and analysis, although over more than two decades she shifted her focus from cosmology to earth science and climate research—satellites that measure everything from vegetation and soil moisture to cloud cover and ocean color.
“These are the satellites that drive climate research,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t think of NASA as anything more than the manned missions, but the range of things that are done is incredible.”
Isaacman, who is now retired and based in Maryland, says her favorite pastimes include travel and revisiting an unsolved problem in pure math. “I’m just absolutely stuck on it,” she said. “It grew out of my dissertation. It’s a problem that nobody, as far as I know, has solved.” She added with a laugh, “Don’t tell anybody, but I used to sit in meetings in NASA and think about it.”
As she reflected on her diverse set of work experiences and the societal factors that influenced her early career decisions, Isaacman urged young people to take charge of their professional lives. “In my experience, women tended to bounce around more than men. Women my age never really got what you would call support or mentoring. A lot of women my age started doing what their fathers thought would be great for them to do. That’s how I started out teaching. A lot of those women found themselves a little later because the feminist movement really took off in the late sixties.
“I think one takeaway from that is that everyone can benefit from not feeling that they’re stuck in one place and examining alternatives and, if they truly want to go for something, think of how they might be able to make that happen. Sometimes it’s not possible, but if it is and it’s worth pursuing, you have to be willing to change up or change out.”