Trained as an astrophysicist, Dr. Susan (Mahan) Niebur went to NASA Headquarters straight out of graduate school as a Presidential Management Intern in the Office of Space Science (now NASA’s Science Mission Directorate). She was hired as a civil servant and became the Discovery Program Scientist. She worked at NASA Headquarters for 5 years, leading seven research and analysis (R&A) grant programs (not all at once), spearheading the selection process for new missions to the inner planets, expanding research funding opportunities for people interested in results of current and past missions, monitoring changes to the science goals of future missions in planning and development, initiating the first ever Early Career Fellowship and the annual Early Career Workshop to help new planetary scientists break into the field, and learning everything she could.
Then her first child arrived, and she fell hopelessly in love with him. After a year of successfully juggling child-rearing, breastfeeding, and space science work, she was dismayed when her management cancelled her flexible work schedule. She resigned on the spot and opened her own consulting business, Niebur Consulting. A year later, she applied for her own research grant, and won.
Niebur Consulting is now a thriving practice with two active NASA grants and a third in review. The fast-paced, flexible practice gives her the time to think deeply about space science policy without the hustle-and-bustle of competing demands at Headquarters. She now conducts independent research on the history of space science missions, the success of women in planetary science, and the factors that contribute to successful development and launch of space science missions. This research, supported by the NASA History of Scientific Exploration of Earth and Space program, is complemented by her outreach efforts, which include a series of interviews and community-building at Women in Planetary Science. The Women in Planetary Science blog now includes seven co-authors, email lists, regular postings of job announcements, policy discussions, professional development tips, e-mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students, a twitter feed, and an annual meetup at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in order to facilitate discussion about removing barriers to success. In addition, Niebur reviews proposals for NASA and other organizations, consults for for major aerospace companies and research institutions on proposal strategy and planning, puts together science teams for future mission proposals, and is immersed in social media both personally and professionally.
On June 16, 2007, Susan was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, an incredibly aggressive and deadly disease. She started chemotherapy almost immediately and continued weekly treatments for 6 months. A double mastectomy (wherein a second cancer was found, Paget’s, in the opposite breast) and 7 weeks of daily radiation followed. She was supported throughout her treatment by thousands of online friends who visited her every day and helped her spread the word about this silent breast cancer. She blogs about her new cancer awareness activism (featured in Parents and Health magazines; on CNN.com, Fox 5, Babble, and 425 blogs in 2007; and linked from The Washington Post) and journey back to life at the group blog Mothers With Cancer and her personal blog Toddler Planet, which has received over 910,000 hits since 2007.
On April 7, 2010, Susan underwent a third surgery to combat a recurrence of the cancer (a second having been done in 2008 to help prevent such a recurrence). She endured 7 more weeks of daily radiation and is again beginning chemotherapy. Cancer is no longer a terminal illness, she is learning, but a chronic illness. She works to stay positive and finish writing her book for NASA on the history of the Discovery Program, while staying active in her community of mothers and young children, social media, and of course her children’s lives.
Susan has a wonderful husband and two small children who bring light to her life, and joy beyond measure. Born in 2004 and 2007, the little ones are the purpose of her days and the light of her life. They are spending the summer together discovering local museums, tending the garden, rescuing bugs and other animals, climbing trees, kicking the ball around, puzzling out new ideas, and of course reading good books at every turn. While cancer has certainly cramped our style, it is just another challenge to be overcome — one that we will overcome together.