Susan Niebur: Astrophysicist & Mom

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  • Susan Niebur would probably tell you she’s a mom, then she would tell you she’s an astrophysicist. She’d tell you all about exemplary women in her field and what younger scientists in general can contribute to planetary missions.

    If she wasn’t so involved in spreading the word about the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer - the cancer that strikes without a lump - she might not even tell you she’s currently fighting metastatic breast cancer. Maybe you wouldn’t even know because she’s too busy mothering her boys, blogging at Toddler Planet, working, and - lucky for us - pinning.

    So, we got to know Susan through her pins first, but that’s clearly only the tiniest fraction of her story. Here’s her full pinterview and we really hope you’ll take some time to get to know a pinner who’s inspiring by example.

    Hi, Susan! First, can you tell us a little about yourself?

    I’m a 38 year-old scientist currently at home with my little boys. Four years ago, I got inflammatory breast cancer, which changed my life forever. I’m now in no rush to go back to work fulltime, but I do a little work every day to keep my hand in the game and to make a contribution to my field as I can.

    Speaking of contributions, between working at NASA Headquarters, helping create programs, and research: what have been some of your most rewarding professional moments?

    Two weeks ago, I presented a poster at a meeting and took the opportunity to discuss increasing the involvement of a broader spectrum of people in planetary science mission leadership. The poster was full of facts and demographics making the case that more new young people need to be involved in NASA missions so that they can be prepared to lead missions years from now — not your typical science poster! I was nervous about how it would be received, but as the poster session opened, I was surrounded by suits (division directors and branch chiefs) and we were able to talk together about several ways that goal could be accomplished. It was really rewarding to hear some agreement — and interest in making changes to open up the field so that younger scientists could become more involved on NASA missions to other planets, comets, and asteroids. I believe that it’s critical for the future of our field.

    Marie Curie is typically the only female scientist commonly talked about in grade school; can you tell us about your “Women in Planetary Science” board and what it means to you?

    Agreed - I remember pinning up my hair and donning a lab coat to dress as Mme. Curie myself for a 7th grade presentation! The interesting thing about Curie is that she pioneered flexible work. She made her award-winning discoveries in her home office - a lab out back behind her house, and urban legend has it that she was known to cook dinner on a bunsen burner now and again!

    42nd Annual Lunar & Planetary Science Conference: Women in Planetary Science breakfast

    I started the “Women in Planetary Science Project” at a blog of the same name (, trying to raise the profile of women in planetary science who are often overlooked. Two graduate students and I conducted a series of 51 interviews with women working on space missions, observing planets through telescopes, running laboratories, teaching, and many other aspects of a scientist’s career today. But it wasn’t enough.

    Women in Planetary Science board on Pinterest

    I wanted to be able to visualize the numbers, and to see how many women we could find working in the field - a field that is so diverse that we come from physics, geology, astronomy, and sometimes chemistry, biology, and other fields. We don’t even know how many men and women there are in the field! What we do see is meeting after meeting filled with older men, and it can get discouraging for someone who doesn’t look like everyone else. This way, we can all SEE other planetary science women — and that is powerful.

    I love pinning to this board, and my community is involved now too, sending me names for pinning. I’d happily open up the board to the community (I love that that’s a feature!), but each person typically only has a few suggestions.

    In addition to being a scientist, you’re a cancer survivor and mom. Can you tell us about your efforts to bring awareness to inflammatory breast cancer and supplying lymphedema sleeves?

    Sure. When I got sick four years ago, I had no idea what it would be like. The only people I’d ever known with cancer were elderly (I suppose I had been lucky) and it just blew my mind that a 34 year old mom of a toddler and a newborn could have cancer living in her body and not even know it. It blew. my. mind. As I researched it (my mother-in-law was also fighting cancer), I shared details on my blog. I’d never even heard of inflammatory breast cancer (the cancer that strikes without a lump!) and here it was trying to kill me!

    I knew I had to talk about it, to share the warning signals so that other moms would not be taken unawares and to know what the possibilities are if they found a hot, red, itchy, or bumpy (like an orange peel) patch on or under their breast. IBC is very often misdiagnosed or dismissed in nursing moms as “just mastitis,” but the truth is, many of us were diagnosed while pregnant or nursing - and since moms often forget to take care of ourselves when we have young children, it’s important to know the warning signs that merit a call to the doctor.

    The lymphedema sleeve project arose organically out of social media. A friend sent me a note one day offering help via an email that she’d gotten offering pampering services for breast cancer patients and survivors. ”Need anything?” she asked. Well, I didn’t, but I sure knew some people who did! My physical therapist and I had just been chatting about how much the compression sleeves that I wear were helping control the swelling in my arms after my double mastectomy and subsequent surgeries — and many of her other clients couldn’t afford them. Two phone calls to the company who made mine ( and Crickett’s Answer To Cancer, and there was a match made in heaven. LympheDIVAs donated $13,000 of their beautiful lymphedema sleeves and gloves, Crickett’s Answer agreed to do the paperwork, and a couple of shout-outs to my social media friends over Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and email, and the information was plastered all over the internet. I’m very proud of what we were able to do, making a big change for a lot of people just by using our social networks for good.

    Finally, we talk a lot about inspirations on Pinterest and you’re a role model for finding beauty and joy in life no matter what happens - what are your top “little things that count”?

    Thank you!

    Children’s laughter. Soap bubbles on a summer afternoon. Reading books together in an easy chair. Family meals. Cuddling. Taking time for a night out with friends — even when there is other work to be done. Stargazing or watching the clouds pass by. Asking a child a question, and listening — really listening — to her answer.

    We really enjoyed listening to your answers, Susan! Thank you again for pinning so much inspiration.

    And if you’re reading and want to know more about women working in planetary sciences or how you can help provide lymphedema sleeves to those in need: do check out Women in Planetary Science or Susan’s personal blog Toddler Planet.