Could you tell us a little bit about your career? (ex: Your position at NASA and what it entails)
I’m currently the social media lead and website manager for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Webb is a giant infrared telescope that will launch in late 2018 and the telescope part of the observatory was actually assembled at Goddard. Webb is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s going to be able to go beyond what Hubble can see both because of its size and because of its ability to see infrared light. We’ll be able to see the first stars and galaxies forming in the early universe, for example. And we’ll take a closer look at the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.
I’ve spent my career at NASA Goddard essentially as an outreach specialist – using my background in astrophysics to explain the science that NASA is doing to the public, as well as telling them why it is cool and important.
These days, people largely get their information from their news feeds. Five or ten years ago, people maybe used an RSS reader or went to a list of websites in the morning to get news. Now people look at their Twitter or Facebook or even Tumblr feeds for information – so NASA has a huge social media presence to allow us to let people know what we’re doing. I run Webb’s social media accounts, and also manage our website. If you want to follow us, I’ll link those at the end.
How long have you worked for NASA and what made you choose to pursue a career in astrophysics?
I was lucky enough to get an internship at NASA Goddard before my last year of college. They offered me a job after I graduated, which I took, and I’ve been there ever since. So I’ve been there just over 20 years full-time. I sort of fell into the field of “education and public outreach” as an intern. It was a great fit for me, as it allowed me to use my writing and communication skills, as well as my degree and love of science. It’s a much deeper and broader field now, and it’s been interesting to see how it has morphed and changed over the years. It has been really rewarding though. I’ve gotten the chance to do things like work with teachers on incorporating NASA data into their curricula, create posters, games, and other science learning tools, blog and podcast, and run events.
I’ve always loved astronomy and the stars, and things like rocketry and the space program. I don’t think I knew what I was getting into with a degree program in astronomy/astrophysics though – because it’s not much to do with looking at the night sky, it’s really a lot of physics. But physics is a tool for understanding how those things in the night sky work. So while it was way more math than I bargained for, it’s a truly fascinating field, that to me gets more and more interesting the more we discover. When I first started college, we had only just discovered the first solar system outside our own, and it was a weird one, with planets orbiting a compact, dead star. Twenty years later, we know that planets are extremely common, and we’ve really only started to learn more about them.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions for better or worse about NASA?
I think people don’t truly understand how difficult NASA’s successes are to achieve. When we are successful, we make it look easy – so when there is a failure, the public can’t understand how we could have screwed up so badly. The reality is that what we do is very hard, and even the most careful work can fail. Rockets fail, parts fail, humans fail. And NASA is often under schedule and budget pressures. How do you balance the time and money it takes to do something truly cutting-edge? And do you take risks on doing things that are cutting edge, or only pursue the safe and easy? NASA has so many smart people and they are so dedicated to the work they do. It’s not a place where people phone it in.
What has been the most difficult hurdle in this field to overcome and what did you learn from it?
My biggest one may have been my degree program. I was woefully underprepared mathematically in high school, because of the math I was tracked into in 7th grade. Not having calculus before college made a lot of my classes really challenging. The best encouragement I got was from a grad student who pointed out how lucky we were to be able to study a field we were interested in, and not to be forced to pursue something we were simply good at. There were easier things (for me) that I could have done, but earning my degrees in astrophysics and physics was incredibly rewarding because they were so hard won. I also learned that it’s ok to not be naturally gifted at something - you can still learn it. Things like music and writing come very naturally to me, I don’t have to work at them. But I loved knowing that I was capable of learning and being proficient at something I wasn’t naturally gifted at. I think that’s an important lesson.
I also personally feel that it’s very valuable to be trained as a scientist because it really colors how you look at the world, in a good way. In life we constantly have to make decisions – and it’s sometimes confusing to know how to make good, solid ones. How do we assess risk or danger? How do we separate anecdote from actual evidence? How do we know if we are falling into logical fallacies? Now more than ever we are bombarded with information from all sides – how can we tell what information is reliable? I think scientific training is useful for sorting through all that information. And I know it has made me value accuracy of information. For example, when you are trying to explain how a black hole works, it’s very easy to simplify to the point of making your explanation wrong. Black holes are really complex. And so are, say, scientific studies of diet cola. The media loves a catchy headline that makes a bold declaration, but that’s rarely how science actually works. It’s always more nuanced than what a headline would have you think. And are you better off making your choices based on the splashy headline, or the actual study?
In your experience, are there unique challenges a woman may face in your field?
Astrophysics and physics are incredibly male-dominated. I often felt in college like I had to somehow represent all women. So if I did poorly on a test, would people think it was because I was a girl, or was it really because I didn’t have a strong enough math background, or just that math doesn’t come naturally to me? And frankly, one of the other girls in the physics degree program was very, very good at math, which made me feel better. But I still felt a pressure to perform, which I don’t think a guy would have felt in the same situation.
I think I was incredibly lucky in many ways that my guy friends (because nearly all of my friends from my classes were guys) were all really nice, we all studied together and helped each other, and I never experienced any harassment or sexism from any students in my program.
That said, I did not go to grad school, and there seem to be big issues with harassment in grad school in astrophysics right now. There have been multiple public cases of very famous astronomers/professors harassing female grad students, and many women have left the field because of it. So it’s there. And it’s finally being recognized as a huge problem. So that is good – but there is a ways to go before it is “fixed.”
My experiences with my co-workers at NASA have been good too – maybe I have been lucky there as well? I don’t know. But while I’m sure harassment and sexism exist, it has fortunately not been my experience. My friends and co-workers are very like-minded for the most part. And I think NASA does care a great deal about encouraging diversity.
In your opinion, are there opportunities for a woman to thrive in a STEM career that are not available in other fields?
It’s hard for me to say since I have only worked in STEM, so I have nothing to compare it to! I think there are lots of opportunities for a woman to thrive in STEM, but I do think there are obstacles to getting to that career, and I think they start very young – basically as soon as we start giving girls the impression that science and math are boring and only for boys, and as soon as boys start crowding girls out. I think we have a long, long way to go in getting kids to regard each other as equals, because somehow they seem to keep getting the message that certain things are for girls and certain other things are for boys. (And I believe that messaging affects both boys and girls, by the way. Boys have lots of pressure on them to conform to societal stereotypes too.) So it seems to be a challenge to get girls interested in STEM, and to stay interested in it long enough to be hooked by it – and not be chased away by being made to feel like they don’t belong. And for those who do stay, we need to do something about a culture that is often unfriendly towards women.
What has been your greatest professional success?
That’s a tough one! I’m proud of all the missions I have worked on. Webb is easily the most high profile, and getting to be a part of the team that gets to tell the story of this telescope has been a huge honor. Webb has a huge, exposed, segmented mirror, which is nearly 22-feet tall – and it is coated in gold. The gold is there for a scientific reason. Gold is a really good reflector of infrared light, so the coating optimizes our mirror for reflecting it. But it also makes our telescope aesthetically beautiful.
Recently I organized an event where artists came and were able to sit in front of our cleanroom window, in front of the actual telescope itself, and be inspired to create. And nearly all the artists actually completed artwork (some of them multiple pieces) that we exhibited at the NASA Goddard Visitor Center. We’ve also done exhibits at Art.Science.Gallery in Texas, and we are working on a display at the Texas Museum of Science next. The event and exhibit were a HUGE amount of work, but so, so rewarding. Getting to see our mission through non-scientist eyes was so refreshing, and I felt like we reached an audience that was atypical for us, which was important to me.
You can see an online gallery of the art here: http://jwst.nasa.gov/jwstArt
We had so many people interested in the initial event, and had very limited space – but we asked people to share any inspired art they created with us, and we’ve had a lot of really cool submissions via social media: https://jwst.nasa.gov/jwstArt/publicArt.html
What inspires you professionally?
I think understanding the world (and the universe) around us is so important. It’s important on the “micro” level as well as in terms of the bigger picture. How does the environment we live in affect us and our well-being? I think NASA tech has changed our lives and made them better, with everything from communications to crop growth to disease prevention. There is so much tech that we take for granted that comes from work done at NASA. And then on a more existential level – where do we come from? Are there other beings out there? Are we alone? Looking back in space and time is really looking back at our origins – and it’s a part of understanding humanity’s history.
Every time I’ve had the privilege of standing in front of Webb’s mirror and seeing myself reflected in it, I think about how those mirrors that are seeing me are also going to see the very first stars and galaxies to ever exist. That’s incredibly inspiring. I can’t believe I’ve gotten to be even a small part of this mission.
What is the next step for you? What long term goals does this job help you achieve?
The next step will be launch! We launch in just over a year, which will be a really big deal, considering this project has been in the planning for easily 20 years. (I’ve been on the project for nearly 12.) So I can’t see much past launch and all the stuff that has to happen post-launch before our data starts coming in. And then I want to just be able to enjoy getting to see what this telescope will do. Because it’s going to take incredibly amazing images, and I can’t wait to see them. I’m not sure what comes after that!
What advice would you give a woman considering Astronomy or Astrophysics as a career?
Persist! Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong or that you’re not good enough, if it’s something that you’re passionate about. You’ll probably hear that a lot, and likely more so as a woman. (Though I sincerely hope that changes.) More practically speaking, take as much math as you can. Get help if you need it, tutors, whatever you need to help you to learn. Persist!
My other big advice is to not to let Imposter Syndrome chase you off. Take advantage of doors that are opened for you. Don’t feel like you don’t deserve that open door. Life (and a career) seems to involve a lot of luck and being at the right place at the right time. It’s easy to believe that you didn’t earn that big break. But if you get a break, take it. After you are through the door, that’s when you’ll have the chance to prove yourself worthy of being there.
It’s cliché but networking is so important. Opportunities are often based on who you know, or who your friends know, and who is willing to give you a chance based on personal recommendation. So cultivate professional relationships and connections. And then consider being flexible enough to explore options that you might not have considered. You never know where they will lead you.
Follow the James Webb Space Telescope:
@nasawebb on Twitter and Instagram