“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  ~  Mahatma Gandhi

I believe there needs to be a global mindset shift on all issues pertaining to women.  And as it is the change I wish to see in the world, it is what I strive to do with  The She-Ecosystem platform.

~ Iris

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Women in 'STEM-&-Space' Answer 4 Questions to Inspire You To Believe You Can Do Anything You Dream Of

August 2, 2019

 

(Below, a short explanation on why I’m writing about Women in ‘STEM-&-Space’ and my personal interest in this subject.  To go straight to the interviews, just scroll down the text between the blue lines here below.)

I'll be honest: I'm quite new to the ‘Space’ trend.  By Space trend I mean all things pertaining to the Space industry, and space exploration initiatives, like the ‘Parker Solar Probe’ (which will mark its one-year anniversary -Aug. 12- since launched), to all the various rockets, spacecrafts, modules and satellites being launched almost regularly these days – even launches of humans (astronauts) to the International Space Station (which, I’m almost embarrassed to say, I knew little about) – and finally, how many private companies and countries partake in the Space Industry (even dubbed the “New Space Race”)!

 

It all started for me in early 2018. One day, all over social media, I kept seeing images of this red convertible with a man in a spacesuit with the Earth as a background, and because that's really freaky, naturally I thought it was just a fake - fake whatever - but I would soon find out I was wrong, and it was very much real!

 

It was "Starman", a mannequin in a red Tesla launched by Elon Musk.  I was blown away by the whole thing!

 

I was seeking inspiration, so I picked up Elon Musk’s biography (although I knew of him, and the names of his companies, I didn’t really know what he was up to - like launching cars to space!!).

 

I started following Elon on Twitter and Instagram (he is no longer on that platform), which led me to learn about launch events/schedules; watch them live (online), seeing cool rocket-launch photos on Instagram, and following the latest news on social media.

 

My new found interest in all things pertaining to ‘Space’ coincided with the booming Space industry: from NASA’s campaign for the-then upcoming 50th anniversary of ‘Apollo 11’ celebrations (I’m writing this a couple of weeks after the anniversary), to various outreach programs to get the next generation interested in Space Exploration (including Women in STEM).  This is not only NASA, but the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) - especially with astronaut David St-Jacques, a Canadian who was on-board the International Space Station until June of 2019 - also are campaigning on social media for getting youth (and adults alike) interested in all the latest developments pertaining to the future in space – the campaign at CSA goes by: “#DareToExplore”.

 

During this past year was also the announcement of the ‘Lunar Gateway’ project by NASA, and Canada, being the first to partner up with NASA.

 

Also, in the summer of 2018, we had a beautiful night sky to watch.  From Venus being a dazzling “evening star”, to Mars being closest to the Earth since 2003 – and quite the jewel in the sky!  (And I watched it in awe every night!)

 

So all the above as well as my always-intrigue for the Universe and the quintessential philosophical questions of “Why are we here?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, led me to follow more and more the various projects we, humanity, are taking on to explore the Cosmos.

 

And especially on Twitter, following it all, I noticed how there were so many women involved in all these companies and projects; all kinds of ‘Rocket Scientists’: from Aerospace Engineers to Flight Controllers, from Astronaut Candidates to Astrophysicists and Planetary Scientists…

 

But prior to that, I knew of little women from the industry.  After reading  Elon's book, I leaned about Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX, and after watching the launch of the Parker Solar Probe, I heard a lot from "Rocket Scientist" Nicky Fox.  But Women in 'STEM-&-Space' who work "behind the scenes" (except astronauts), are not always known about.

 

And that's the problem: lack of representation from the industry, and lack of role models for girls to look up to.  

 

This is the purpose of this piece.

 

So here are an inspiring bunch of Women in ‘STEM-&-Space’ with answers to 4 simple questions:

  1. Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

  2. What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

  3. What got you through the hard times?

  4. What is your message/advice to school girls?

Ryan Watkins - Planetary Scientist, studying the Moon; Aspiring Astronaut

Twitter: @Ryan_N_Watkins

Website: ryanwatkins.webs.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

My path to planetary science started in middle school. I had a really great science teacher, and the way she explained space really captivated me and I couldn't get enough of it. I decided that year (8th grade) that I wanted to be an astronaut. After some research, I decided to pursue dual degrees in physics and space science. While in undergrad, I did two summer internships at Kennedy Space Center, where I studied the effects of rocket exhaust on the lunar surface. It was during these two summers that I discovered my love for planetary science and lunar exploration. I made a decision to pursue my PhD in Planetary Science and dedicate my career to seeing the U.S. return to the Moon.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 

There are so many cool things about working in my field! One of the coolest is that I get to interact with Apollo astronauts on a somewhat regular basis. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the only geologist to walk on the Moon (Apollo 17) regularly attends lunar science meetings and is involved with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team, of which I am also a science team member. I am also currently serving on Blue Origin's Science Advisory Board for their Blue Moon lander, where I am providing input for their new lunar lander design. [Blue Origin is Jeff Bezo's space exploration company]. Finally, I get to work with beautiful images of the lunar surface on a daily basis, and I have a direct hand in helping the US return to the Moon - essentially fulfilling part of my dream.


What got you through the hard times? 

In high school, I was made fun of for my dream to work at NASA and ultimately become an astronaut one day. Even guidance counselors told me I needed to change my dream. This was very difficult, and I stopped telling people what I wanted to do with my career for fear of being laughed at. However, I had strong support from my parents, who have always been my biggest cheerleaders. They encouraged me to pursue my dreams no matter what, and have always supported me. Their love and support, together with my faith in God to open the right doors, helped me keep my eyes on my goals and dreams. My undergrad institution was founded by NASA, so there was no shortage of people there who had ties to NASA or who wanted to be an astronaut. This meant no one there made fun of my dreams, which helped me stay focused on my path to becoming a professional scientist. Having a strong network of supportive friends and family members was one of the key things that got me through tough moments throughout college and grad school. 

Finding study buddies and friends to do homework with was also especially valuable to my academic success. Asking for help from professors and going to their office hours was an important skill I learned - most professors are eager to help!

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

  • My main piece of advice is to pursue your dreams no matter what anyone says. It won't always be easy, but it will be worth it. You are in charge of your future, and you can do anything you set your eyes on.

  • While in school, choose classes you will enjoy - while you'll be required to take some classes that may be less interesting to you, be sure you mix in classes that are on subjects that interest you. You are more likely to succeed when you have subjects that keep you challenged and curious.

  • Never be afraid to ask for help. Spending time in my professors' offices asking questions about problems I was struggling with helped me grow as a student and a scientist.

 

Dr. Jessie Christiansen - NASA Research Scientist

Twitter: @aussiastronomer

Website: Spider.ipac.caltech.edu/staff/christia/

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

The sky! I just fell in love with the sky. It is so beautiful, and every time we painstakingly unveil something new about the universe around us I’m amazed.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 

I get to discover new planets! And I get to use world-class telescopes and NASA spacecraft to do it, which is pretty exciting. 

 

 

What got you through the hard times?

I keep a ‘Feel Good’ folder on my computer - in it goes anything that reminds me that I am a successful scientist. Praise for my work, proposal/grant acceptances, prize announcements, and thank you cards and emails for outreach work that I’ve done. When I am feeling tired and stupid, like Darwin the day he wrote that famous diary entry, I can open one or two things in my folder and feel better. 

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life. Try something that sounds exciting to you. Then - it’s okay to change your mind! Most of all - try to work out what YOU want, not what other people think you should want. It can be hard to disentangle - your internal motivations and the external motivations get all intertwined - but keep re-evaluating if you’re on the path YOU want.

Emma Osborne - Astrophysicist and Creator of the Extraordinary Universe

Twitter: @emmanigma 

Instagram: @emanigma_

YouTube: The Extraordinary Universe

 

Who/What inspired you to go in the field?

I’ve always had a passion for trying to understand how things in our world work. I’ve also always enjoyed building and creating. When I studied physics for the first time, it brought all of my passions together. I was very fortunate to have an excellent physics teacher who explained concepts well and really encourage participation and experimentation. I guess some of his passion rubbed off onto me! Combining this passion with the desire to learn more about how the universe works is what lead me to pursue a career as an astrophysicist.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 

Oh my gosh, there are so many different aspects I don’t think I can choose just one! I love studying gravity and learning about all the weird and wonderful things that happen in regions where gravity is strong, such as what happens just outside a black hole. For my PhD,  I built a neutron star from scratch using maths and code, which I was then able to conduct experiments on - that was very challenging and rewarding!

 

What got you through the hard times?

I’ve always found it good to try and step back from the situation and look at how far I’ve come. I think about how I felt before I started my degree and how that version of me would feel if I could see myself now. In particularly stressful times - such as exam season - I try to really take care of my body by eating well, exercising, maintain a good sleeping routine and probably most importantly taking breaks and ensuring I have days off so I don’t burnout. I also have a very supportive husband who has been there every step of the way on my journey through university.

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

Study what you enjoy and do what makes you happy. Aim high and take risks. If you don’t make it, then you are no worse off than if you didn’t try, but if you succeed, then the world is your oyster.

 

Moiya McTier - Astrophysicist and Science Communicator

Twitter: @GoAstroMo

Website: moiamctier.com

 

Who/What inspired you to go in the field?

I found astrophysics by chance as a sophomore in college. My mom always wanted me to be a scientist (she was an adjunct English professor and didn't make much money), but I was never sure which scientific discipline I was most interested in. After several bad experiences with science classes in college, one of my friends dragged me along to an introductory astronomy class. I wasn't that interested, but the professor promised we'd get free pizza every week, so I registered for the course! Now it's six years later and I'm getting my PhD in astrophysics. 

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

I don't think astronomy is inherently more interesting than other sciences, but I do appreciate its near-universal (pun intended) appeal. I've found that people can relate to astronomy on a much more foundational level than they can relate to other fields because there's a globally shared experience of looking up at the night sky. That shared fascination makes astronomy the perfect subject for science communication, which is my true passion.

 

I also think it's really cool that astronomy is fundamentally an observation science instead of an experimental one. There are a few exceptions, like laboratory astrochemistry, but most space science is done without manipulating a subject in a lab. I study planets and how they're affected by the motion of the Milky Way galaxy, and I obviously can't go out and perform an experiment on a planet with control groups and whatnot. And yet, astronomers have been able to learn SO MUCH about distant space, an environment we can never experience directly.

 

What got you through the hard times?

School is HARD! I'm now in my fourth year of grad school, less than two years away from getting my PhD and I've definitely struggled a lot along the way. But ultimately I've kept myself from leaving the field because I know having a PhD in astrophysics will lend me credibility in whatever I do next. I want be a professional science communicator after I graduate -- think Bill Nye the Science Guy -- and I know people are more likely to trust and believe me if I have the PhD behind my name.

 

I know that probably isn't a super romantic or inspirational answer. You probably wanted to hear that my love and passion for science got me through the hard times, but people aren't always passionate about what they do. Instead, I'm passionate about what I'll do NEXT, and I need this step to make that possible.

 

What is your message/advice to schoolgirls?

My advice to young girls is to stop comparing yourself -- your work, your timeline -- to others. You're going to do things at your own pace, you'll have your own strengths, and you'll develop your own interests. Good science isn't done by a crowd of people who all think and act the same way, so if you try to be like everyone else, you're doing the world a disservice. (Also, it's totally okay if you don't want to be a scientist! But you can still benefit from learning how to solve problems like one.)

Melinda Soares-Furtado - Astrophysicist - Currently completing her PhD

Instagram: @astro.melinda

Website: msoaresfurtado.com

 

Who/What inspired you to go in the field?

This is a hard question to answer, as my desire to become a scientist was brought on by a large amalgamation of interactions. It was the 2nd great teacher who responded enthusiastically to my home-made science books, really just stapled sheets of printer paper with drawings. She encouraged me to keep making them. It was the giant National Geographic table book that I read for hours with fascination as a child. It was my first window into a world much larger than my own hometown. It was Carl Sagan's series Cosmos. His stories made me feel that scientific ideas were beautiful and accessible. He made me feel that learning about the cosmos was learning about myself. It was the MESA center at my community college where I always felt supported, encouraged, and part of a community. It was there that I dared to apply to a four-year institution and check "physics" as my intended major. It was my undergraduate adviser who has always shown unwavering support. I know he's always there to remind me that I have what it takes to make it.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 

Just one thing? Oh, that's tough. Perhaps what is most splendid about learning something new in the field is the way these moments of insight bring about a cascade of new questions. Although, maybe it's even more wonderful that I am able to share my enthusiasm to explore such questions with a cohort of peers that I respect and admire.

 

What got you through the hard times?

A wild imagination. I would dream up what it would feel like to arrive at this next exciting chapter in my life and the feeling that daydream would bring about was just too enticing to ignore. I'd imagine myself on a bicycle in Copenhagen, riding home from a productive day at the Niels Bohr Institute. I'd imagine myself giving an engaging talk in front of an audience at Pomona College. I'd imagine the students that I could encourage along the way, watching them achieve new milestones and strengthen their abilities. It would remind me that I deserved the things I wanted most in life. Why did I deserve them? Because these are the things that I love. 

 

What is your message/advice to schoolgirls?

You are so much stronger than you think. Often, I find that the best way to tap into that strength is to fully experience and process the difficulties that arise. Hard moments will arise. Feel them. Talk about them with people who you trust. Surround yourself with allies and advocates who will remind you of your wins when they feel so far away and out of reach. Self-care is a radical act and one that sustains you along the road to growth. 

Your self-worth is not tethered to your productivity. If you take care of yourself, you will find yourself spontaneously creating meaningful work. 

Naia Butler-Craig - Aerospace Engineer - Aspiring future Astronaut

Twitter: @astronaia

Instagram: @astronaia

 

Who/What inspired you to go in the field?

I was inspired to go into my field when I learned about space through a class called Earth-Space Science in the 8th grade. I already knew and had demonstrated a love for science and engineering when at 7 years old I drew the under-body of a vehicle I was sure could run on oxygen. After taking the space class and learning about the enigma of space I decided I wanted a career that encompassed all three passions of mine: space, science and engineering which was aerospace engineering

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 

The coolest think about what I get to do is my everyday exposure to interdisciplinary subjects and people with diverse backgrounds and subsequent diverse perspectives. I truly appreciate being able to learn from such a breadth of brilliant people.

 

What got you through the hard times?

My passion coupled with my faith usually get me through the rough times. I also lean on my village of friends, family and mentors for support during the tough times.

 

What is your message/advice to schoolgirls?

My advice is to always go for it. To put it plainly, no matter what, give it a try. Also seek mentors to help you in every facet of life that applies to you: academic, career, personal, spiritual etc.

Megan Shabram - Data Scientist - PhD in Astrophysics

Twitter: @mshabram

 

Who/What inspired you to go in the field?

I got inspired to go into science in general by watching discovery channel and national geographic channel shows with my dad when I was a kid.  During the summers my family would often visit my grandpa who lived in Nevada, and driving up the 395 and seeing the awe inspiring mountains, I started to want to explore and see things.  Thinking about planet Earth and the possibility of other planets similar yet different in ways we can’t even imagine, drew me towards wanting to learn about and study extrasolar planets. Movies like Contact with Jody Foster and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos were really inspiring to me.  I was maybe 13 when I first learned of planets in other star systems being discovered and it was probably the coolest thing I had ever heard about.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?
I find working with data very compelling.  For instance, no one person can know everything that has ever happened, or even remember everything they have ever encountered, in any one moment. Working with data that is collected over time and over space gives us a connection throughout time and space, helping us to know more about what is going on out there than we could know by ourselves.  There is a feeling of awe and wonder in the scientific process by uncovering a new result, especially a result that could be acted upon to gain more knowledge or help others.  

What got you through the hard times?

The thing that got me through the hard times was really leaning on friends, family and counselors for support.  The hard times really boiled down to loneliness, in retrospect.  In academia, in particular, we often have to move to other parts of the country or world, and often by ourselves without knowing anyone.  It doesn’t matter how excited you are for what lies ahead, uprooting is jarring and heartbreak small or large can impact your flow and rhythm that you need to thrive in research or high focus knowledge work.  I also found that I needed to be brave and face the fear of what would happen if I prioritized exercising or helping to facilitate community connections between myself and others.  Those things take time and in grad school there is a lot of pressure and competition that can make people work hard at the cost of their health.  But it is a catch 22 because you need to keep yourself in good condition physically and mentally in order to do well anyway.  

What is your message/advice to school girls?
My message is that when I look back at my journey so far, I see that what I really did was follow a trail of bread crumbs, in a sense.  Little hints or leads will come to you through reading or conversations that may spark your curiosity.  Now, I look for those and I give them a lot of attention and follow the trail to where they lead.  It makes life interesting and often is really a great way to get to the answers you may be seeking scientifically at work, or just for feeding your curiosity about life. Stay curious! 


Anything else you want to add?
Being a scientist is a great career and there is no one particular type of person who will make a great scientist.  We all participate in scientific type processes all the time whether we realize it or not, and each person has something unique to contribute. 

Sarah Pearson - Astrophysicist and creator of Space with Sarah

Twitter: @spacewsarah

YouTube: Space with Sarah

Instagram: Dr. Sarah Pearson

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

My fascination for nature, how everything works around us, what ties us, humans, to the Universe, how are we connected. It was also my curiosity and love for learning (especially math and science).

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

That I get to spend my days surrounded by such smart driven people all here to explore and advance knowledge. I also feel very lucky that my job encompasses so many skills at once (e.g. analytic skills for math and coding, communication skills for writing and giving talks, creative skills for visualizing my results and coming up with new questions about the Universe no one before me has answered or, sometimes even, asked.

 

 

What got you through the hard times?

Good mentors and, especially, close peers who could give me advise or empathize when things weren't moving along. Also, being kinder to myself and realizing that you cannot always work at your 100% ability and that some periods are just slower and less exciting than others.  

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

If something excites you, go for it! Explore, read, tap into that excitement! Try not to let others discourage you with negativity. So many times I was told "Oh you want to major in physics, you realize that's really hard right?" If you like it - go for it!

 

Katy Rodriguez Wimberly - Graduate student, studying galaxy evolution, PhD Candidate

Twitter: @AstronoMouse_

Instagram: @astronomouse

Facebook: Astronomouse

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

I actually went into astronomy later than most - in my mid-twenties. I loved space as a kid but didn’t realize Astronomy Researcher was a career option for me until I got deep into binging Star Trek: Voyager! I was inspired by Captain Catherine Janeway to look into scientific researcher careers and discovered what is now my life’s path - Astronomer!


What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 The coolest thing I get to do is use some of the largest telescopes in the world to study the night sky!


What got you through the hard times?

A strong support network of astronomy peers and family and learning to ask for help are what got me through rough academic times. I went through a large learning curve when I went back to college for physics in my mid-twenties. Since I am the first scientist in my family and the first to pursue a Doctorate degree, my family encouraged me to apply scholarships that would help me learn how to navigate academia, research programs and study groups. Through the guidance and support I received in such programs, I learned how to ask for help, study hard and efficiently and, thus, navigate any academic hurdles I faced. Leaning on my support network of peers really helped, too - we learned together, helped strengthen one another's weak points and laughed about our mistakes.


What is your message/advice to school girls?

My advice is that whatever your interested in - pursue it! There are so many exciting careers in the world that there’s a way to making a living in whatever excites you! It can seem scary but it's much easier than it appears to reach out to people who have cool careers asking for their advice - most people want to help! If you don't have support now for what you want to do - you can build those networks and do exactly what you love!

Olivia H. Wilkins - Astrochemist, artist, and Ph.D. candidate at Caltech

Twitter: @LivWithoutLimit

Instagram: @LivWithoutLimit

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ohwilkins/

Website: theskyisnotthelimit.org

Patreon: patreon.com/LivWithoutLimit

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

I was inspired to go into astrochemistry by big telescopes. When I was about seven, my family and I were driving through the middle-of-nowhere West Virginia when we passed by some giant satellite dishes, which I sketched in my notebook. After high school, we visited the site to find out that it was Green Bank Observatory, and the “satellite dishes” I had drawn were actually radio telescopes (similar to your typical optical telescope, but radio telescopes collect radio waves, or a type of invisible light). I became obsessed with one of the telescopes – the Green Bank Telescope, or GBT. The GBT is the largest movable object on land and taller than the Statue of Liberty; its dish is about 2.3 acres, which is big enough to fit about two American football fields (without the endzones)! Because I was so fascinated with this telescope, I applied for a summer research job in Green Bank. I was studying chemistry and mathematics at the time and had never even taken an astronomy class, but I was offered a job anyway. While in West Virginia, I heard about “astrochemistry” and was so excited. I could combine my chemistry studies with my love of telescopes after all!

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

Literally the coolest thing about astrochemistry is the fact that a lot of the processes I’m studying take place at temperatures of about 10 to 20 Kelvin, or about -440 to -425 degrees Fahrenheit. You would think that those temperatures are too cold for anything to happen, but the seeds for everything around us – minerals, plants, us – form at these really cold temperatures in places where stars will eventually be born.

 

Besides that, the coolest thing about radio astronomy and observational astrochemistry is that I get to tune in to the invisible universe. I’m studying chemistry – the interaction of matter (or stuff) with other matter and radiation – using invisible light that reaches Earth as radio waves. This light has traveled thousands of light-years from giant clouds of dust and gas in interstellar space where new stars are on the verge of being born. That’s just amazing to me.

 

What got you through the hard times?

I get through the hard times with a strong support network: family, friends, mentors, professors. I doubt myself a lot, so having people to tell me that I’m in fact doing a great job (or even just okay!) can make a big difference in my confidence. In times when I need more help, specifically while working through depression and anxiety, I regularly see a therapist. It is great to talk to someone who is completely outside your day-to-day experience and can help you step out of your head and untangle the things that are causing hard times.

 

I also use art to cope with difficult times. I think having something outside academics that you enjoy is important, and for me, that generally means being creative. I make my drawings into stickers, stationery, and zines, and I design pins. It feels great to share these with other people and also to take some time to myself to relax and not think about academics for a bit.

 

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

My advice is to try out whatever things interest you, even if you think you’re not qualified for. I would never have found my passion for astrochemistry if I thought my lack of astronomy background meant I couldn’t try out being an astronomer. Whatever interests you, just go for it! More often than not, no one is going to offer things to you, even if you deserve it. So ask about opportunities, put yourself out there, and surround yourself with honest people who will both challenge you to grow and help build you up. You will “fail” sometimes, but you can still use those opportunities to grow and learn more about yourself and try again with those new insights.

 

Anything else you want to add:

There is no single profile for who qualifies as a scientist, and I think it is important to pursue your dreams and passions (whatever they are). You will be the best scientist (and this is true for other professions as well) if you are true to yourself. I’m a scientist who wears dresses almost everyday, I’m an artist, and I have a family of my own, including a small child. People often tell me they are surprised because they thought scientists only wore certain clothes or didn’t have time for families or couldn’t be artistic, but these things are important pieces of my identity, just like being a scientist is.

Dr. Parshati Patel - Astrophysicist & Science Communicator

Twitter: @ParshatiPatel

Instagram: @spacegeek.parsh

Website: parshatipatel.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

I was around 12 years old when I visited Nehru Planetarium in Mumbai, India. Upon the tour and planetarium show, I had tons of questions so my parents bought me a few books from their gift shop. Once I was finished with those books, I was intrigued about the unexplored and unanswered questions about the universe. I kept craving for more and more information which my parents quenched my thirst with more books.

 

It wasn't until a gift of a telescope from my aunt - the experience of setting up my own telescope and looking at the planets through it - that I decided that I will pursue astronomy.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

So many things!!!! Universe is vast and mysterious - there are so many questions we are yet to answer and so many mysteries we are yet to solve. My curiosity about planet formation led me studying disks around massive stars. The coolest thing about studying disks was to have the ability to sit here on Earth, recreate the star-disk on a computer, match it to observations of the stars, and try to solve the mystery of the disks one simulation at a time.

 

Now that I have transitioned into science communication, the coolest thing about my job is to communicate amazing scientific discoveries with students and members of public.

 

What got you through the hard times?

Support of my family/friends as well as my hobbies got me through the hard times! I relied heavily on my family for support and advice and I was lucky to have few very close friends who were by my side throughout my journey. Later in my graduate studies, I realized that a creative outlet such as photography helped me to de-stress.

 

If anyone is facing tough times in their academic journey, I would suggest that they find a small group of friends/family to create that support system to help them through hard times. Having something else to do other than just academic work, helps a lot to divert your mind but at the same time help your mind to relieve stress.

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

Stay curious! Never let anyone tell you that you cannot pursue your dreams. If you are passionate about something, just go for it! Find a mentor who can help you navigate and achieve your goals. Never be afraid to ask questions and push your limits by trying something out of your comfort zone, it gives you a different perspective to your goals.

Dr. Sarah Milkovich - Science Systems Engineer, Ph.D. in Planetary Geology

Twitter: @milkysa

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field? 
Growing up, I loved learning about astronomy and geology – the strange objects in outer space, and the ancient stories recorded in the rocks. I found that planetary geology was an excellent way to combine the two!  Also, I loved to watch the show NOVA on PBS, and was particularly interested in any episode concerning spacecraft and the team of scientists and engineers running the spacecraft. I thought it was so cool to be part of a group of people working together to explore such distant worlds.


I also worked for two summers as a high school intern for the camera team for the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft. The team took me to see the spacecraft launch. After that experience, I knew I wanted to make a career of working with spacecraft.

 

I became a research scientist, and then I became a special kind of engineer – one who works to bring scientists and engineers together to form a spacecraft operations team.

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 
I work with a variety of very intelligent and creative people around the world to tell robots what to do in outer space!  

There’s a lot of camaraderie on a spacecraft team, because we work very intensely and closely together for a long time. And it is amazing to see the pictures come back of places that no human has ever seen before, and think “I helped take that!”

What got you through the hard times?

I have depression and several forms of anxiety, and I am fortunate to have a great support network of family and friends who always catch me when I start to fall. I also think of my great-grandparents, who came to the United States with no money and without any knowledge of the English language. I try to live up to their legacy of perseverance and determination.

What is your message/advice to school girls? 
Don’t stand in your own way – if something sounds exciting, try it even if there’s an internal voice telling you that it’s too hard or too scary for you. You are stronger and smarter than you realize.

Anything else you want to add? 
The more diverse and wide-ranging the experiences of the people at the table, the more creative and better the team is at problem-solving. Don’t let a lack of faces that look like yours prevent you from pursuing your dreams – we need you!

Erin Winick - Scicomm specialist for the International Space Station (Mech. Engineer), and CEO Sci Chic

Twitter: @erinwinick

Instagram: @erinwinick

Website: erinwinick.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field? 

It's been a winding journey with a number of role models. The things that probably inspired me most were my grandfather's work on the space program and science communicators I've befriended through social media. They've been incredibly supportive and helped me find my passion.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do? 

The coolest things are probably looking through all of the pictures that come down from the space station, including lots of pictures of the astronauts performing science, and writing up information to help inform the astronauts about the science they are working on so that they can help share it with the public.

 

 

What got you through the hard times?

My family and the community of people I've gotten to know through my work were the people that helped support me. They were always there for a phone call and for support.

 

What is your message/advice to school girls? 

Know that you can combine your passions in your career. I love science, engineering, writing, and fashion, and somehow I get to explore all of those things in my job! I work as a science communications specialist for the International Space Station during the day, but also freelance write and run my 3D printing jewelry company, Sci Chic in my spare time. Combining your interests in your career can help you carve out a niche and do something unique.

 

Kim Kowal Arcand - Science Visualization Lead with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory/Author

Twitter: @kimberlykowal

Instagram: @kimberlykowal

Website: KimArcand.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

 

I’ve always been curious, from the time I was very small. I loved science– asking questions, figuring things out, hopefully helping people along the way. My mom was a waitress when I was very young, but in between shifts she started taking classes to be certified as a nurse’s aid.  I recall being enraptured by the big anatomy text book she had to study from- I would sit under the dining room table as she did her homework above me. So for a few months around that time, I wanted to be a nurse, but then I wanted to be an astronaut, and then a doctor, and then an environmentalist, and then a veterinarian, and so on. I knew I wanted to work in science some how.  I also really liked computers when I was in elementary school, as the personal computer was just becoming more affordable and commonplace at that time. Technology – and science- fascinated me. 

 

So I went on to complete my undergraduate work in biology, specifically molecular biology and parasitology. I wanted to study computer science as I wanted to combine the two areas, science and technology.  I wasn't really sure what such a career might look like at the time. But there was a fantastic job opportunity that opened up, working for a NASA mission that studies the Universe in X-ray light. It was an incredible place to land right after college.  In that position, I was able to flourish in a good work environment with a flexible and supportive boss who let me be me – curious and creative. I found that I enjoy translating complex ideas or concepts and presenting them in a visual, accessible manner.  My work now covers a wide spectrum of using science data to essentially tell stories, whether in the form of a 3d print or a virtual reality application of an exploded star.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

I get to play. The amount of creativity and collaboration involved in this type of position is fantastic.  There are some popular assumptions about jobs in science and technology and one I hear a lot is that they are perceived as mostly loner-types of jobs based completely on a computer.  But my career, for example, requires thinking creatively, solving problems, and building and working with large networks (of people!).  

 

For example, I’ve worked with supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) for the past few years.  Cas A is one of the first objects NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory ever looked at and is also a calibration target, so we have over two million seconds of observations taken over 20 years. That is a deep, rich data set to work with. What can we do with that? Well, we’ve done quite a lot with it. We’ve been squeezing all the science-goodness we possibly can out of it: creating 2D images cut by energy or emission from chemical elements, showcasing 2D images changing over time, making 3D representations (data-driven!), and translating it into virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) experiences. We’ve figured out how to 3D print this same supernova remnant small, large, in single color and multi-colors, in different kinds of materials and with different textures. All of that is through play, experimentation, curiosity; working with different groups of people who have new skills and figuring out how to make something new together.  

 

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

As a first generation college student, I didn’t really know what to expect once I got on campus.  I was taking a heavy science course load, doing a work study, and trying to complete the honors program and an English minor.  I’m rather introverted, have always been terrible about asking for help (really quite, quite bad) and like to over-commit myself as well.   It was a bit of a shock going into this new, challenging environment where I didn’t really know how (if at all) I would fit in and where I would find support.  

Some of my fellow students didn’t seem to struggle at all, so I started to feel pretty stupid when I got a C in one class, or had to fight really hard to scrape by with a low B in another.  And then I got to genetics and failed the class completely – I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the material, and I couldn’t find (or was unable to make) the time to seek out the professor, to get a tutor, find a study partner, etc.  That class was a bit of a turning point for me. I thought the amount of struggle was unnatural and too high (I didn’t know any better). I started considering options for completing my undergrad work in bio but *not* pursuing an advanced degree in it, which had been a dream for so long.  It was disappointing at the time, but I had a very supportive boyfriend (who would become my husband) and a group of close friends who made me feel capable and happy and secure. And my parents too just believed in me anyway and insisted I would figure it out. I started looking at my strengths, and figuring out what came a little easier to me, and then puzzling through how I could apply that to what I wanted to do with my life. 

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

I don’t know that I have a lot of useful advice, but one practical thing I do tend to recommend is to try to get some kind of experience in coding if you’re at all interested in STEM fields. A survey done a few years back with the American Astronomical Society showed that about 95% of professional astronomers need to code in order to perform well at their jobs (though only about 5% had ever had formal training in coding).  For me, learning how to code was the key that unlocked the Universe, quite literally. I got the job I now have 20 years ago because I knew how to code, and also had physics/chemistry knowledge, and could figure out how to present different kinds of astrophysical information. But coding cuts into many, many other fields right now as well. So it’s an incredibly useful tool in your STEM tool-belt - (listen to short sound bite about this very advice here.

 

Anything else you want to add?

 

The Universe is ours to discover!

Abigail Harrison - Aspiring Astronaut - Founder of 'The Mars Generation'

Twitter: @AstronautAbby

Twitter: @TheMarsGen

Instagram: @astronautabbyofficial

 

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

 

My inspiration was not one person. My field is astrobiology and I have been inspired by parents, teachers, mentors, astronauts and many people along my journey towards this career path.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

The coolest thing I get to do is ask questions and then set out to find the answers. I am an explorer every single day.

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

I think my community of family and friends are the most important thing in helping me through the hard times. People are everything.

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

My message to girls is to go after your big dreams and don’t be afraid to fail. All successful people experience a lot of failures along the way. We have to be brave and know that failing is part of learning and growing and it’s part of any success.

Paige Godfrey - PhD, Astronomer at Slooth 

Twitter: @thespacepaige

Twitter: @Slooh

Instagram: @thespacepaige

Website/Blog: thespacepaige.wordpress.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

I've always had a curious mind, and naturally gravitated toward science as a child. My parents were very supportive and enthusiastic about my interests, putting me in the right places at the right times. And I had wonderful science teachers all the way back to elementary school. So on one hand I like to think that I inspired myself to go into my field, following my sense of self, but I could never give this a proper answer without acknowledging all of the people that helped to get me to this place. A healthy dose of sci-fi helped a bit too.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

The not knowing. The intangible. Astronomy was always so appealing to me because it was so theoretical. The objects I study now- brown dwarfs- were theorized back in the 1960's but weren't discovered until 1995. I love the idea that we only have a tiny grasp of the universe from this little corner we call home. And yet with the recent space industry boom, we are also learning so much more than we ever have, and exploring places we only ever dreamed of getting to!

 

 

What got you through the hard times?

I made sure I always had a life outside of academia like social plans and hobbies, things to lift my spirits and give me a break. Beyond that, it was my support system. A system isn't just one person, one mentor, one adviser. Mine was my parents, friends (from all different places), colleagues, assigned academic advisers, not assigned academic advisers that I sought out myself, the list goes on.

And you know who else was on my support system? ME. 

 

What is your message/advice to girls?

It's all about figuring out who you are, and being comfortable with yourself when that changes directions. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, it would be to trust myself and my decisions. Seek out the mentors that you need to help you pave your path. Some of those mentors might last a lifetime, some might only be around for a short while. All are valuable. Another piece of trusting yourself is to know that if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Mental health and happiness are the most important. You won't love your career if you aren't happy at the end of the day. And lastly, you have a place in this world. Every single one of us has a place and can make a difference. Let your voice be heard because girl, it sings!

Dr. Anita Sengupta - Aerospace Engineer, PhD; Rocket Scientist, really...

Twitter: @Doctor_Astro

Twitter: @AirspaceXP Co-Founder/Chief Product Officer

Website: iflyasx.com 'Airspace Experience Technologies'

Twitter: @USCViterbi (Research Associate Professor to students in the Astronautics & Space Tech. Dept.)

Website/Blog: anitasengupta.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

Science Fiction inspired me to be a apart of the space program and my father, a PhD Mechanical engineer showed me what being an engineer was from a multi-faceted expertise perspective. But my role model was definitely the character 'Dr. Who'.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?   

I get to solve impossibly challenging problems with my brain, my hands, and my heart. I have developed launch vehicles, the propulsion system that powered the Dawn Spacecraft, the parachute that landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars, and even an atomic physics facility for the 'International Space Station'. Aerospace Engineering is a field that allows you to challenge yourself and make the impossible possible.

 

What got you through the hard times? 

 

My friends, my mentors, and my teachers. Also what my mom taught me ever since I was a little girl: "there is no such word as can't".

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

We need more of you in my field because diversity of thought leads to diversity of solutions. Whether you want to explore the solar system or fly through the skies on the next generation aircraft, the field of aerospace engineering is the ultimate adventure for a career for you.

 

Anything else you want to add?  The sky is not the limit, only the beginning to infinite possibilities.

Abigail Fraeman - Planetary/Research Scientist with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Twitter: @abbyfrae

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

 

So many people and events shaped my desire to go into my field, it’s hard to pick just one.  I’ve always loved science, but I got hooked on space exploration when my father brought home a small telescope, and I saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter from my front porch.  I thought that was so cool! I was specifically inspired to go into planetary science when I was in high school and witnessed the landing of the Opportunity Mars rover. I had the amazing opportunity to be with an international group of students who were in mission control when the rover landed, and it was so inspiring.  The outreach program was sponsored by the Planetary Society, the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy organization. The program itself was run by Emily Lakdawalla, and she was the first person to show me it was possible to have career driving rovers on other planets and studying their geology.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

Again, it’s hard to pick just one! Obviously getting to work with the engineers to help operate rovers on Mars is pretty amazing.  I love working together to put together an activity plan, and then seeing the data come down the next day and trying to figure out what it all means.  Another great perk of my field is the large amount of international travel I get to do, to interact with collaborators around the world and to visit geological field sites. 

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

Having a good support group of my peers (especially women, but not exclusively!) to lean on has been so valuable.  It’s really helpful to be able to discuss the challenges I’m going through with people who are in similar stages of their careers because I often find I’m not the only one struggling.  I’ve also had a lot of help from finding excellent mentors that I trust who are at different stages in their careers.

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

My favorite advice is that if something -- a new opportunity, job, project, etc. -- doesn’t scare you at least a little, it’s not worth doing.  Do things that excite you, even if you’re not sure they will turn out.  It’s no mistake that the amazing, accomplished scientists I look up to the most are also the ones who’ve failed the most.

My second advice would be to educate yourself on the sorts of issues that underrepresented groups can face. Being able to identify things like imposter syndrome and unconscious bias is the first step to fighting/overcoming them.

Dr. Emily Martin - Astrophysicist, currently an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Santa Cruz

Twitter: @emily_spacecats

Website: emily-c-martin.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

 

My high school physics teacher, Ms. Antinone, got me interested in physics, and then my undergrad adviser, Prof. Jen Marshall, got me hooked on astronomical instrumentation! My need to understand how the universe works and to build tools to help us answer tough questions makes me want to stay. 

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

Instrumentalists get to tinker with things a lot, and it is so much fun! I spent 6 years working on an instrument for the Keck Telescopes and at the end, we went to work at the summit of Maunakea to install it over several months. Working at 14,000 feet elevation is tough, but really rewarding and such a unique experience.

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

Good friends, family, mentors, and learning self care. My last year of grad school I found the @DrsSarahCare podcast and listening to two powerhouse astronomers talk about the importance of self care and how they deal with impostor syndrome was amazingly helpful. Also I see a therapist weekly. I'm big on reducing the stigma of taking care of mental health, because it's really important! My therapist helps me grow my coping mechanisms for difficult situations and she helps me work with my anxiety so that it doesn't control me. 

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

Allow yourself the freedom to explore and to make mistakes and be kind to yourself when you're dealing with failure. I was scared of research for a long time because I didn't like the idea of working on something that might not have an answer. Once I got over my fear, I realized how fun it is to try new things and to constantly be learning. Research is fun and messy and can sometimes feel like playing or doing a puzzle! Also seek out mentors and role models to help you through the hard times.

Corrine Rojas - Mars 2020 Rover Mastcam-Z Instrument Downlink Operations Engineer 

Twitter: @corrinerojas

Instagram: @geospatially.aware

Website: corrinerojas.com

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

 

I've always been a fan of planets and the cosmos. I remember in kindergarten, I was able to "test out" of my English Second Language immersion class to an English-instructed class in part because I knew all of the planets in English (thanks to watching 'Sailor Moon' as a kid!). However, growing up, I'd always saw myself in law or a medical field. Working in spacecraft operations for a NASA mission was never a tangible reality for me until halfway through college when I was looking for work related to my newly-switched major, Geographic Information Science (GIS).

 

What got me into the field was a student job creating 3D maps (digital terrain models) for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) camera team. LRO is the only active NASA mission on the moon, and coupled with hard work at LROC, I eventually got to try my hand at research as a planetary scientist before graduating with my BSc. I always saw people working for NASA missions as these unreachable, isolated geniuses that are second in line to being actual astronauts aboard the ISS. Little did I know the range of jobs needed to make a NASA spacecraft mission work, and that I had some of the magic needed in one of those missions.

 

What keeps me inspired in my field is the far-reaching implications of the work that I have already done and my amazing colleagues. I absolutely love my role in spacecraft mission operations. Sometimes I still pinch myself on the way to work, because this is the kind of stuff even Corrine from 5-6 years ago would have never imagined in her wildest dreams.

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

It is hard picking one cool thing, especially the "coolest"! I think it's amazing to be working in an important role on a mission that hasn't been launched yet. As of this writing, Mars 2020 is about a year out from launch, and we don't even have a name for the rover yet! Until then, I will help develop the tools used by my team that will be in charge of all of the imagery taken by the "eyes" (Mastcam-Z cameras) of the Mars 2020 rover on Jezero Crater, Mars. Then once we land, I'll be one of the engineers making sure the cameras are safe, healthy, and that the images they take are complete and meaningful for scientists and space lovers alike.

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

A little background: I have to admit that growing up, I never really had a mentor or someone to look up to that looks like me or has a similar background, especially a female Latina. I always felt like the odd one out. I'm a first generation Mexican-American, also a first generation college graduate, and the road was not easy for me. In college, I studied Political Science for 3 years with hopes of going into law. I spent the first couple of years lost and disenchanted; I struggled to find classmates with similar ambitions, lost interest in classes, and I didn't feel like I had a life road-map to follow. It felt like I was making a mistake, but I already invested so much time and money into this degree. At the same time, I was feeling guilty talking to my parents about it because they're some of the most amazing and strong-willed people I know. They sacrificed many things to move to a different country and learn a different language to find better opportunities for the family they created. I felt like I was beginning to flounder my opportunity. 

 

Luckily for me, I was able to empathize with those in my support system that believed in me and wanted to see me succeed. In my case, it was my parents in particular -- I found strength in their love. Whatever my parents couldn't do financially was more than made up with being the best cheerleaders behind me at all times. Failing is honestly frightening, but I wouldn't be the same person I am today had I not failed so hard for a while. I was lucky to have a support system to fall back on, and now that times are better I work hard to maintain the strength of that system.

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

I've always been a student who didn't have to work hard to learn new subjects, and that certainly changed for the worse as I got to college. My biggest school-related advice is that just because a topic doesn't come to you quickly and easily doesn't mean something is wrong with you! Turns out many people lie about the effort they put into homework and studying. Many of my peers were studying for hours or had tutoring but never talked about it.

 

Learning is a skill. You won’t learn things the same way your entire life. You’ll have to work to find new ways for you to learn different kinds of disciplines, so practice your ability to be flexible. Take the time to learn a topic: go to office hours, ask questions during/after class, and later, bring this attitude to your workplace. Teachers actually love to help, and want to support you getting higher grades and being your best self.

 

Don’t be afraid to fail. Whether learning a new subject at school, trying to get a personal record on the track, or falling short reaching a goal. The best you can is good enough. The day you stop being afraid to fail is the day you'll truly start working towards sustainable success. 

Sarah Blunt - Astronomy PhD student

Twitter: @SarahCBlunt

Website: sites.goggle.com/g.harvard.edu/sarah

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?


I had an awesome high school physics teacher, Dr. Nunes, who showed me that physics is a union of math, problem solving, and reading & writing. I always looked forward to his class, and I loved doing his problem sets. My specific interest in astrophysics was stoked by my first research project with Prof. Emily Rice and Dr. Adric Riedel.

 

 

What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

I love how much freedom I have to pursue my ideas. I think it's so cool that some days I get to just play around with data all day. All of my friends have "real jobs," but I get to come in whenever I want and spend the whole day basically however I choose. 

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

Support from family and friends, especially my mom Allison and my partner Devin, and therapy. :)

 

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

Seek help and advice. Find people who will help you with your problem sets and research projects, even if they are outside your department or university. Don't stop looking until you find them! Reach out to me if you can't find anyone. You are not feeling isolated in physics/astrophysics/academia because you are not worthy; loneliness is a symptom of existing in a white, male-dominated profession. 

Sarah Cruddas - Intl'. Space Journalist, TV Host and Author. with an academic background in astrophysics

Twitter: @sarahcruddas

Instagram: @sarahcruddastv

Website - to find where to buy book by Sarah: The Space Race: The journey to the Moon and beyond

 

Who/what inspired you to go in your field?

 

Learning about the Space Shuttle astronauts as a child growing up in the 1990's and reading the stories of the Apollo Moonwalkers fueled my interest in space. Although the truth is, I cannot remember a time when I haven't been interested in space.

 

 

 What's the coolest thing about your field or what you get to do?

 

Traveling the world as a young adult inspired my love of story telling - wanting people to see and experience and know about the places I had seen. I am lucky enough to be able to combine the two; my love of space, and my love of story telling.

Our story with space is the greatest story of all time! And I get to travel the world telling stories about space. Does it get any better than that?!

 

What got you through the hard times?

 

Knowing that everything you achieve in life comes at a price. Be that the dedication you have to give to your studying or working hard on carving out a new career - at the cost of social activities - or the failures you have to get over on your own road to success. It is rarely easy for anybody, not matter what social media makes it look like. 

 

What is your message/advice to school girls?

 

Keep going. Be bold. Take risks. Live your dream. This is not a rehearsal.

**Note: Updates are done regularly to this article with more interviews - keep checking back!**

I invite you to also read my two previous features of inspiring Women in 'STEM & Space':

 

 

A Future Doctor in Space - Interview with Shawna Pandya, MD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Real [She]-Rocket Scientist - Interview with Kristen Facciol

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