Dalia Kirschbaum, 36, is a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, where she is an expert on rainfall-triggered landslides. Back on her very first day of college, as the new millennium dawned, she discovered both her life’s career and her future husband. Concerning one of those two, it was love at first sight. The other took a little longer.
You work for NASA at a space flight center. Yet, you’re an expert on landslides. How does that fit into NASA’s general purpose?
Besides having missions that explore other planets and the moon, we have more than two dozen satellites with eyes pointing down at Earth, to understand Earth’s vital signs, including how landslides impact people around the world. And if we learn about our own atmosphere, we can better understand other potentially life-sustaining planets and how their atmospheres might behave.
You’re talking about planets even beyond this solar system.
You grew up in Minnesota.
I did. In St. Louis Park, near Minneapolis.
You loved math all through high school — but science, not so much. So how did you get here, from there?
I came to Princeton as a future math teacher, but after two weeks, I realized that wasn’t the right fit for me. Math was fun, it made sense, but I didn’t know the options to apply math to other things. Freshman year, I took a survey course that introduced a lot of scientific issues. The teacher was amazing. We learned about beach erosion, hurricanes, tornadoes.
True story — I met my husband, first day of school. We sat next to each other in that class. I was hooked from the beginning.
You mean, about your husband?
Well, that took a little longer. But concerning the class, I was always on the edge of my seat.
And that led you to your career?
The professor told me I could get a PhD in natural disasters. I said, “You mean that’s a thing?”
He said, “That is absolutely a thing!” In graduate school, I was introduced to NASA and the perspective of space, which can be powerful for getting the big picture. Being at NASA has been great. I can bring math and science to real world applications.
NASA played a part during recent hurricanes, right?
For Hurricane Maria [in Puerto Rico], in near real time, we provided an update of potential activity, and that helped the National Guard understand which island might be impacted by landslides. One of the hats I wear at NASA is: I’m the disaster coordinator for the agency. During Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, our team really evolved as a support agency, to help operational agencies like FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] understand, prepare for, respond to and recover from natural disasters.
But most of our observations are global, and so, in addition to responding to the land-falling hurricanes here, we also had a team that helped respond to the tsunami in Indonesia in September, that killed thousands.
You have young children. Are they aware of what you do, and interested in it?
I’m definitely trying to brainwash them to be scientists. We always talk about science, ask the question: ‘Why,’ create that thirst for knowledge. If you have that, even if you don’t go into that field, you have an appreciation for it, and an excitement to learn more.
What has been your Jewish background, growing up, and now?
I always had a very strong Jewish identity in a close-knit Jewish community in Minneapolis. There were bar and bat bitzvah preparations, Jewish youth groups. We always had Shabbat dinner at home on Friday nights. I went to Camp Herzl, and then was a Ramahnik in Wisconsin — a camper and then a counselor — and I went to Israel with Ramah.
Now, we belong to a synagogue in Bethesda. We’ve participated in the preschool, Hebrew school, services, getting to see everybody, help each other. My work is a way I feel I can try to make even a small difference in improving lives, or at least helping those in decision-making positions have information they can use to help others. I don’t know if I associate that with religion. You have your passion to do for others, and it can be interpreted however you want.
Children’s minds move in imaginative directions. When you were a child in Minnesota, the local Jewish newspaper was American Jewish World.
Yes, and the word “world” jumped out at me. For the longest time, I thought it was a publication for the whole world. So when my mom said that something about my bat mitzvah was printed in there, I thought: This is the big time! When I realized it was only for Minneapolis, it was still exciting, but I thought that giving the newspaper that title was false advertising.
Marji Yablon is a Washington-area writer.