Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sophia Nasr, Astrophysicist, University of California (UC) Irvine

26 June, 2017
Sophia Nasr, Astrophysicist, University of California (UC) Irvine

Sophia Nasr, Astrophysicist, University of California (UC) Irvine

On being inspired to choose a career in astrophysics:

I began my undergrad not quite knowing what I wanted to do. I had a “dream” of being a medical doctor imprinted on my brain (I put “dream” in quotes because it wasn’t really my dream—it’s what my father’s dream was). I knew I needed to discover who I was.

As a child, the questions that fascinated me were all related to space: What are black holes? What is dark matter? How did the Universe begin, and how will it end? Does life exist beyond Earth? (How could it NOT exist beyond Earth in such a vast Universe?!) With all we know about this Universe we live in, there’s far more that we don’t know, and these questions burned like embers in my mind when I began my undergrad. That’s when I realized I wanted to study astrophysics, to be able to work on figuring this type of stuff out. So, I enrolled in the program, and a couple of years down the road, I met a professor who I’d work with for the rest of my undergrad (and continue to work with today): Dr. Sean Tulin.

Under the supervision of Dr. Tulin, I started working on a type of dark matter that interacts with itself, called Self-Interacting Dark Matter. The beautiful thing about this research is that I get to use all my favorite disciplines to tackle problems we are trying to solve: cosmology, particle theory, and astrophysics! It was through this research that I realised astroparticle theory was what I wanted to work on. This is when I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to physics. And, here I am, off to work on my PhD in Physics at UC Irvine this fall!

My biggest role model was Albert Einstein. I loved his brilliance, and always wanted to have a brain that worked the way his did.

On the brilliance of Albert Einstein:

My biggest role model was Albert Einstein. I loved his brilliance, and always wanted to have a brain that worked the way his did. It probably stemmed from my affinity with mathematics, which I probably owe to my Dad; he has a PhD in Applied Statistics, and as a child, he’d teach me math beyond the elementary school curriculum. I loved it so much that when I wanted to play a game, I’d ask my dad to make me a math test! And I think I wanted to build a brain like that of Einstein. I laugh saying this now, not because I think Einstein is out of my, or anyone’s, league, but because everyone is different, and being “brilliant” comes in many forms.

I also enjoyed Bill Nye’s TV show “Bill Nye The Science Guy”. But I also had different role models—singers, and actors. I really liked the entertainment industry and wanted to be part of it. I think my childhood was a rather diverse one.

I thought I’d likely end up in some medical field during my youth. I also enjoyed music, singing, and playing guitar, so I thought these things would be part of who I would become. Eventually, I realized physics was where my heart lies, in those burning questions that remain unsolved today.

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

On whether there was anything unexpected during her career journey:

Absolutely. For starters, I thought I’d likely end up in some medical field during my youth. I also enjoyed music, singing, and playing guitar, so I thought these things would be part of who I would become. Eventually, I realized physics was where my heart lies, in those burning questions that remain unsolved today. That being said, I plan to pursue the entertainment industry, using my knowledge of physics to help people learn about this mysterious Universe we live in, and make learning about it fun!

On what helps her get through a stressful and bad day:

One easy answer to this—my hamster Neutrini! You may wonder about his name, and it came from these “tinisymmetric particles” I came up with (tinisymmetry is not a theory, it’s just a naming scheme for furry little friends, taking a particle and replacing the last letter with an “i”, or appending an “i” to it, depending which particle it is). So Neutrini is the tinisymmetric partner of the neutrino, and I named him that way because he’s tiny, very quick, and when I first got him, he was so reluctant to interact that when I’d put my hand in his cage, he’d seem to run through it, much like neutrinos just pass through matter! Now it’s less of an issue as he’s grown more comfortable with me, so I take this development as me having become a really good detector.

Animals in general get me through bad days. I tend to be great with squirrels, and most of the ones on campus know me because I carry a bag of peanuts for them!

On following her own dreams:

As a child, I thought I’d end up in the field of medicine because it was my father’s dream, what he wanted me to be. I later learned I loved playing the guitar and singing! I have an electric guitar that I eventually stopped playing because I didn’t have an amp, so it didn’t sound good playing without one. I still have my guitar, and perhaps will take on learning it again sometime.

On whether science has become more inclusive for women:

I want to say it has, but the disparity remains. Faculty in physics are by far men, white men, with women comprising only a small percentage. I am pleased to say that the number of women going into the fields of physics and astronomy has grown, which tells me that change is on the horizon! There are, however, remaining concerns with regards to the treatment of women in the field, and these need to be addressed. Women need to feel safe going into the fields of physics and astronomy, and feel safe remaining in them. It’s not enough to bring women into the field, when they may leave anyway due to issues like harassment.

We need to listen to people of colour, to hear what they say, and help solve these problems and make them feel safe going into these fields, and again, safe to remain in these fields.

I am also concerned with the disparity between people of colour versus white people in the field. This stems from societal barriers people of colour face. This needs to be addressed. We need to listen to people of colour, to hear what they say, and help solve these problems and make them feel safe going into these fields, and again, safe to remain in these fields. This was probably the most noticeable gap I saw in my undergrad, and we need to work to change this.

While I’m speaking only of physics and astronomy because this is where my experience comes from, this can be said of most STEM fields. And these problems need to be addressed now. Not tomorrow, but right now. We have a world of women and people of colour that are being discouraged about getting into these fields due to societal barriers. We cannot allow this to continue.

Would I change things? I can’t say I would, because if I did, I might have just fallen into a dream that wasn’t mine.

On the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self:

One piece of advice to myself: Don’t feel like being good at maths makes you an outcast (because I did feel that way).

One piece of advice that I’d give to any 10-year-old child: Never feel discouraged to be who you are, to do what you want to do and what you are good at. You are the determining factor of what you love. There will be obstacles, but never stop aiming for your dream, whatever that dream may be.

Would I change things? I can’t say I would, because if I did, I might have just fallen into a dream that wasn’t mine. I think I needed to take the path in life I did to get where I have. I’ve learned things I’d otherwise never have known, and in the end, discovered myself, who I am, what I’m good at. And I can say I’m genuinely happy today.

Follow Sophia at astropartigirl.com & on Twitter @Astropartigirl!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Ariel Waldman, Founder, SpaceHack.org & Author

17 June, 2017

Ariel Waldman in California at the space-communicating Stanford Dish [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

Ariel Waldman in California at the space-communicating Stanford Dish [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

With a background in design, working at NASA set Ariel Waldman on a mission to empower others to contribute to space exploration. Ariel founded Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration and is the “global instigator” of Science Hack Day, an event that brings people together to prototype with science in 24 hours. Recently, Ariel authored the fantastic book “What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There” and is the co-author of a congressionally-requested National Academy of Sciences report on the future of human spaceflight. Ariel describes her journey in the space industry to Rocket Women.

RW: Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are today? 
AW: My journey has been an unexpected one. I don’t have any childhood stories of wanting to be an astronaut or a scientist. I don’t blame that on my schooling (I was an A student who always found math to be a breeze while my schoolmates struggled), I just personally wasn’t very interested. As a young teenager I found myself entranced by art and design and pure creation. I suppose I actually found it to be more challenging.

My art classes were certainly more intimidating to me than any math class I ever attended. So, I went to art school and got my degree in graphic design. I had a job I loved that I can only describe as being like what I imagine it’s like to work at Pixar. But I hit a glass ceiling and ultimately left, not knowing exactly what I was going to do next. In the spirit of continuing to want to be around creators, I moved from Kansas to San Francisco to be alongside the freshly reemerging tech scene.

A few months later I was at home watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel called When We Left Earth. It was about NASA during the early days, when they were trying to figure out how to send humans into space. The documentary interviewed a number of the guys who worked in mission control in the 1960s. They spoke of how when they joined NASA that they didn’t know anything about rocketry or spacecrafts or orbits! They had to figure this stuff out as they went along. That sparked something in me. The idea that you could work at NASA without knowing anything about rocket science.

I said to myself that I knew nothing about space exploration but I’d love to work at NASA. I then told this to a friend who had just met someone who worked at NASA at a conference and he agreed to give me their email address. So, I sent this person at NASA that I had never met an email about how I was a fan of NASA and offered myself as a volunteer if they ever needed someone like me. It was a piece of fan-mail that I didn’t expect would get a response.

Serendipitously, the day I emailed the person at NASA was the day they had just created a job description that they sent back to me. They specifically wanted to hire someone who had no experience with NASA who could help bridge the gap between communities inside and outside of NASA to collaborate. They also wanted someone with design and agency experience who knew how to effectively communicate/translate concepts between different communities, as well as someone who was connected to the tech startup scene. I applied and ended up getting the job! It’s fair to say I was over the moon.

Getting a job at NASA awoke something powerful within me. Over time it made me realize what unique contributions I could make to furthering space exploration.

Never had I expected that someone like me could work at NASA. Even though I hadn’t considered myself a space geek, if at any point in time someone had asked if I, as is, would like to work at NASA, I would’ve said hell yes. And I think most other people would, too.

Getting a job at NASA awoke something powerful within me. Over time it made me realize what unique contributions I could make to furthering space exploration. My lifelong mission now is to give others this same empowering experience and realization – that they, too, as they exist right now can actively contribute to space exploration, and often in clever new ways. That’s what spurred me to create Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration, and later to be the “global instigator” of Science Hack Day, an event that brings all different types of people together to see what they can prototype with science in 24 consecutive hours. My projects are all about infusing more serendipity and ingenuity into science through what I call “massively multiplayer science”.

My lifelong mission now is to give others this same empowering experience and realization – that they, too, as they exist right now can actively contribute to space exploration, and often in clever new ways.

Since my unexpected beginnings, I’ve had the honor of serving on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Spaceflight, which reported on how to build a sustainable human spaceflight program out to the 2050’s. I currently sit on the external council for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), a NASA program that nurtures radical, science-fiction-inspired ideas that could transform future space missions. I’ve had fun appearances on Syfy and the Science Channel. Last year I published my first book. I’m independent, so I also continue to do consulting work and create fun side projects like Spaceprob.es and my YouTube channel.

I wanted the book to be fun through sharing many of the awkward and amusing stories astronauts might only tell you over a beer.

RW: Congratulations on your new book, ‘What’s It Like in Space?’. How were you inspired to write the book?
AW: Thank you! It was so much fun to make. Throughout my time on the NRC Human Spaceflight Committee, I got to meet a number of astronauts who had so many great and hilarious stories to tell in their downtime. I’d often retell their stories at parties and I eventually decided that it’d be great to collect them all in a book as bite-sized vignettes about what it is like to be in space. I wanted the book to be fun through sharing many of the awkward and amusing stories astronauts might only tell you over a beer.

RW: Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

AW: I’d be hard-pressed to say I’ve had any expectations since beginning a career in space exploration!

Landing humans on the surface of Mars is something I see people consistently underestimate just how challenging it is. It will require international collaboration on an unprecedented level.

Author and Science Communicator Ariel Waldman  [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

Author and Science Communicator Ariel Waldman [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

RW: In your opinion, what are the main challenges that human spaceflight faces in the near future?

AW: There are a number of challenges in the near future for human spaceflight that are both intimidating and exciting. Landing humans on the surface of Mars is something I see people consistently underestimate just how challenging it is. It will require international collaboration on an unprecedented level. It’ll also cost hundreds of billions of dollars over decades, which requires strong political will.

Much of the technology needed to land humans on Mars, while it’s foreseeable, doesn’t even exist yet. It’s estimated that NASA’s budget needs to be increased to be 2-5% above inflation for several years in order to reasonably land humans on Mars. With NASA’s current trajectory of flat budgets, it will be unable to conduct any human space exploration programs beyond cislunar space. Landing humans on Mars, no matter who does it (and the most likely scenario is that it’ll be an international collaboration of countries and companies working together), requires a number of facets across politics, money and technology to work in harmony at the same time.

Because landing humans on Mars is so difficult, it will require a large portion of humanity to contribute to it in order to make it happen. If we do land humans on Mars in our lifetime, it will only be because people around the world worked together.

It is far from guaranteed to happen in your lifetime. While one could look pessimistically at this monumental challenge of getting all of these factors to come together at the same time, I think there is something to genuinely be excited about. Because landing humans on Mars is so difficult, it will require a large portion of humanity to contribute to it in order to make it happen. If we do land humans on Mars in our lifetime, it will only be because people around the world worked together. In this way, compared to the Moon landing, a Mars landing will an achievement owned by humanity more so than any one nation or organization.

Women across the board in both commercial industry and government continue to face work environments that retaliate against them when they report harassment. Women continue to be discriminated against more across a myriad of ways as they move up in the workforce.

RW: How do you think the space industry & STEM has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

AW: I have personally been extremely disappointed with much of the commercial space industry which actually has worse racial and gender diversity percentages than NASA does, and I don’t see much signaling to say that will change anytime soon. It’s sad that the commercial sector is doing worse given that NASA can not as easily recruit or refresh their workforce as commercial companies can. Women across the board in both commercial industry and government continue to face work environments that retaliate against them when they report harassment.

I certainly will keep fighting to make space exploration more accessible and inclusive from any corner I can get a toe-hold in, and speak up about the injustices and disappointments I see. I do hope it gets better.

Women continue to be discriminated against more across a myriad of ways as they move up in the workforce. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t get better and many times it gets worse. You’re often gaslighted every step of the way by colleagues and made to feel isolated in these situations. The only solace I find is that I continue to meet and hear about more women who have been through these situations and that helps verify that you’re not alone, that what you experience is extremely common, and there is a network of people you can confide in.

I certainly will keep fighting to make space exploration more accessible and inclusive from any corner I can get a toe-hold in, and speak up about the injustices and disappointments I see. I do hope it gets better, I’m just skeptical that disruptive change will come from the inside.

RW: If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? What would you change? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

AW: It’s okay to be interested in a lot of different things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s also okay to be obsessive about one thing. Focus is not a virtue, it’s just an option.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Madhurita Sengupta, Program Manager, American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA)

10 June, 2017
Madhurita during a flight on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft

Madhurita during a flight on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft

At the age of 8, Madhurita Sengupta was transfixed during a visit to NASA’s Mission Control Centre and declared that she would work there some day. Seventeen years later she did just that, going on to train astronauts and work on commercial launch activities. Madhurita tells Rocket Women about her passion for human spaceflight and her impressive career journey.

On how she was inspired to consider a career in the space industry:

I’ve had a passion for space since I was very young – I still remember peering through astronomy books I brought home from the library and deciding I wanted to be an astrophysicist after I learned more about Sally Ride. At age 8, my family and I visited the NASA Johnson Space Center, and as we visited the Mission Control Viewing Room, I remember sitting transfixed by the hustle and bustle of our nation’s human spaceflight program. I came home from that trip declaring I’d work in Mission Control one day and eventually become an astronaut. The dream never escaped me, and seventeen years later, I sat in Mission Control, working with my very first crew on-orbit.

I came home from that trip declaring I’d work in Mission Control one day and eventually become an astronaut. The dream never escaped me, and seventeen years later, I sat in Mission Control, working with my very first crew on-orbit.

On the education and training needed to qualify for her current role: 

I began my career at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a Space Station Robotics Instructor, where I taught astronauts how to operate the robotic systems on the International Space Station (ISS). In this capacity, I trained the crews of Expedition 21, STS-132, and STS-135 (the last Space Shuttle flight)

For this role, I completed a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and participated in the Cooperative Education Program, while I was pursuing the degree. This program enabled me to take semesters off from school to gain real-world experience in various parts of NASA JSC.

Through this period, in the U.S., our nation’s space policy was shifting slowly over the previous few years, and I began to take an interest in understanding the changes and their effects. In 2011, upon the completion of the Space Shuttle Program, I decided to go to graduate school to study public policy, to specifically learn how policy is developed and implemented, so I could bring that knowledge back to developing future space policy. As space has traditionally been used as a foreign policy tool, I decided to concentrate my studies on International Relations.

Upon completion of my graduate work, I began working for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which is responsible for ensuring public safety during commercial launch and re-entry activities and, more broadly, promoting the commercial space industry in the U.S. This role allowed me to combine and apply my technical and policy backgrounds and contribute towards developing strategy and policy for my organization.

After some time in AST, I began my current role at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), as the Program Manager responsible for the planning and execution of the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to be held in Washington, D.C., in October 2019. This role has been the perfect culmination of the knowledge and skills I’ve developed thus far in my career, as I’ve been able to use my experiences within different parts of the space industry, as well as my academic work in international relations.

I have no regrets. I’ve had incredible experiences in all of my roles, and I’ve been able to pursue my biggest passion in life. My journey thus far has helped me appreciate the old adage, “The only constant is change.”

Madhurita with astronaut Ron Garan during a training session to practice a spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

Madhurita with NASA astronaut Ron Garan during a training session to practice a spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

I began my career at the Johnson Space Center thinking it would be where I’d stay for my entire career.

On her career journey and unexpectedly leaving the world of NASA behind:

Given my consistent interest in human spaceflight through my formative years, I began my career at the Johnson Space Center thinking it would be where I’d stay for my entire career. I think the most unexpected thing in my journey thus far was leaving that world behind. To be sure, I have no regrets. I’ve had incredible experiences in all of my roles, and I’ve been able to pursue my biggest passion in life. My journey thus far has helped me appreciate the old adage, “The only constant is change.”

On growing up with an Indian background and how her family helped to shape her career path:

My parents instilled values shaped by the dedication and perseverance they displayed as they raised my brother and me. Education was of course highly regarded, and math and science was seen as a cornerstone of that education. They supported my interests from the very beginning, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had because of their support.

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis's Flight Deck

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis’s Flight Deck

On what helps her get through a stressful and bad day:

It will sound a little clichéd, but I tend to gravitate towards reminders of my passion and why I’ve pursued the career I’ve chosen. Something as simple as a picture from crew onboard the International Space Station, a recording of a conversation I had with the very first Space Shuttle crew I trained, or just stepping outside at night to look at the Moon (something I loved doing when my family and I would take road trips, and I could see the Moon out of my window). My passion in life is and always will be human spaceflight. When I’m having a bad day, I just have to take a few moments to remember what I’m grateful for and appreciate the journey I’ve been fortunate enough to take.

On the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self:

Be open to change. Life is never a series of events planned on a particular timeline. Embrace the unexpected. Life’s too short to worry about what can’t be controlled.

Education, Inspirational women

Inspired by Space: Engaging Girls in STEM

19 May, 2017

Engaging Girls In STEM [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

Engaging Girls In STEM [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

A fantastic new guide, launched by Curved House Kids, details how and why we should be lifting our girls up and encouraging them to further their STEM education. The Inspired By Space: Engaging Girls In STEM guide (pdf) features brilliant activities created by combining the classroom experience of teacher Claire Loizos with Curved House Kids materials and learning methods. The guide was released this week to mark the 26th anniversary of Dr.Helen Sharman’s mission launch, the first British astronaut!

Curved House Kids and author Lucy Hawking worked with
 European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake and the UK Space Agency to create the Principia Space Diary, marking the launch of Tim Peake’s Principia mission in 2015. The programme simplified the complex subject of space for a primary-aged audience using a series of activities that followed the story of Tim’s mission. In its first year, the Space Diary reached over 60,000 students and 38,500 printed books were distributed to schools for free!

Women In STEM Statistics [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

Women In STEM Statistics [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

As we’ve discussed at Rocket Women previously, the project highlights that the UK has a STEM skills crisis across all sectors, with an estimated shortage of 69,000 recruits a year. At the same time, only 7% of women are choosing STEM careers.

The Space Diary aims to reverse this trend through helping primary-aged girls to see themselves in STEM careers, whether as an astronaut, scientist, mathematician or coder. Publisher Kristen Harrison stresses that this guide is ‘not just for girls’ and promotes the use of these ideas with all students. ‘True equality is not just about giving girls opportunities. It’s about developing empathy in all students to ensure we are all open to female voices and appreciate the benefits of diversity.’

The guide emphasises open tasks that require children to “learn on their feet”, with activities ranging from researching women in STEM and introducing positive female role models to writing a diary entry from the perspective of an astronaut and building a model of their own Soyuz capsule. They aim to encourage independence whilst enabling girls to be creative and crucially ‘allowing them to see themselves as scientists.’

Women In Science

Women In Science [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

I’m excited to be featured in the guide alongside Dr.Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut! Twenty-six years ago, astronaut Dr.Helen Sharman beat 13,000 applicants to become the first British astronaut and the first woman to visit the Mir space station! Her mission was and is a remarkable moment for the UK and for women in STEM, along with a timely reminder of the need to encourage girls into STEM careers.

Personally, Dr.Helen Sharman was hugely influential in inspiring me to consider a career in the space. At the age of six, I remember learning that Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut & had travelled to space a mere two years before. That moment changed my life. To now be featured alongside her & such inspirational women is an amazing honour! 

Two and a half decades on from her flight, achievements like Dr. Helen Sharman’s are unfortunately still all too rare. This fantastic guide aims to change this and encourage the next generation to pursue a fulfilling career in STEM.

Learn more about the Space Diary here: http://principiaspacediary.org/

The Space Diary by Curved House Kids and the UK Space Agency is now a ready-made programme that schools can use to deliver the science curriculum with secondary links to literacy, maths and numeracy, design and technology, geography, PE and more. To date, over 90,000 students have registered in schools and home education settings across the UK!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sravanthi Sinha, Intern, NASA Frontier Development Lab

15 May, 2017

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

In her own words, Sravanthi Sinha has only ever been limited by her imagination. Sravanthi’s inspirational journey began in India before moving to the USA. After attending Holberton School, an alternative to college training software engineers, she was accepted in an internship at the NASA Frontier Development Lab. The NASA lab is aimed at developing new approaches to the asteroid threat by combining the expertise of NASA, academia, and the private research community with the powerful techniques of machine learning. Rocket Women had the chance to ask Sravanthi about her aspirations in space and her experience at NASA.

RW: Can you tell me about when your interest in space grew?

SS: It all started when NASA announced that Pluto will no longer be considered as a planet. I was baffled with the news and I started reading about the research. One article lead to an another and I was very intrigued with the technologies which are being used to make such observations. That fascination led me to a dream visualizing myself working in the field of space and technology in future. I was in primary school then.

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla is one of my role models and I always look up to her for her determination, hard work, and courage.

RW: How important are role models to young girls? Do you think more needs to be done to allow the younger generation to interact with women working in STEM?

SS: Role Models are super important in one’s life. They become a great example of making things or achieving honours of what one dreams of. I believe in the quote “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” One can gain paramount amounts of inspiration and motivation from their role models. Their experiences guide us in making correct decisions at every point of our lives. While I was in India, I never really had an opportunity to directly interact with women working in STEM. There were various science and technological conferences held in the country but I was never in a position to afford to attend one of those, where the well achieved scholarly women working in STEM speak and impart their knowledge and experiences.  Fortunately, the books and internet became my source of knowledge. I still remember the news of Kalpana Chawla’s tragic demise in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster during the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Probably, that was the moment when I learned about Indian women working at NASA. Kalpana Chawla is one of my role models and I always look up to her for her determination, hard work, and courage.

We are only limited by our own imagination.

We are only limited by our own imagination. Providing the younger generation with an opportunity to interact with women working in the STEM, would certainly increase their knowledge and awareness. Furthermore, it will instigate their interests in pursuing a career in STEM. I look forward to the promising future where the younger generation is driven by science and technology and disregard any biases. #MoreWomenInSTEM

RW: What did your internship at NASA entail and what did you do specifically?

SS: The NASA Frontier Development Lab is aimed at developing new approaches to the asteroid threat by combining the expertise of NASA, academia, and the private research community with the powerful techniques of machine learning. I was selected as a Data Scientist to work on one of three projects titled “Finding Meteorites in the Field with an Autonomous Drone”. The objective of the project was to develop a small UAV (such as a commercially available quadcopter) equipped with cameras and onboard processors that can identify potential meteorite targets in the search areas calculated from triangulated meteor observations.

In terms of machine learning the problem was that of object detection, to identify interesting object(s) in an image. To date, state of the art object detection algorithms are based on deep learning architectures, specifically convolution based networks. Convolutional models need to be trained before they can be used to identify or classify objects in images. Typically, these networks require tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of images to train an accurate model. Unfortunately in our case, this database of useful images did not exist. In an attempt to avoid weeks of data collection and curation we decided to investigate approaches that do not require training such as traditional Computer Vision Techniques – Anomaly Detection and Hand Crafted Feature Detection. I worked on the Hand Crafted Feature Detection approach.

After striving to develop a model that could detect meteorites without having to be trained, we eventually conceded that we would not be able to build a generalised model using the traditional machine learning and computer vision approaches. We determined to proceed with Deep Learning which needed collection of data and GPU power. I was involved with data collection and augmenting the dataset by photoshopping images of meteorite on different terrains. I was accountable to administer the Nvidia Jetson TX1 which was used for the on board processing. While we were still training the model on the dataset, I came up with an idea of having a web app as an User Interface for this project The ADELIE Meteorite Hunter web application was built to carry on the off-board processing of the images collected in the field. It serves the purpose of analysing the images collected from drone and archiving the meteorite images which could become a potential data-set for future learning.

RW: What steps did you take that landed you such a prestigious internship?

SS: My first acquaintance with NASA was during my primary schooling when NASA announced that the Pluto would no longer be called a planet. I learned that it was the ultimate place where an intense research in space is carried out. Since then I have always dreamed and desired to work at NASA. I would totally credit Holberton School for allowing me to live my dream of working at NASA/SETI. When I joined the school, I had no idea what was in store for me, I did expect to become a Full stack developer and realise my dreams in Silicon Valley, but I wasn’t sure that it could happen in just 7 months of joining it. The school has got tremendous support from the mentors. I got the serendipitous opportunity to interact directly with two of Holberton’s great mentors, Gregory Renard and Louis Monier (Founder of Alta Vista).

As an initial step of my experimentation in deep learning, I employed a neural style algorithm to make an image of me as it would look if Vincent van Gogh painted it. When I heard about NASA FDL program from one of the founder of the school Julien Barbier, I was awestruck and determined to get this. The application needed a personal statement, team and collaboration work and a concept note to be submitted. For the concept note, I had to choose from one of the 3 challenges/projects provided and make a brief statement of my solution to it. Louis Monier played a key role in guiding me throughout the completion of the concept note. While I wanted to explore the techniques in Deep Learning he even offered me to use his GPU machine remotely. I was quite sure, that I would get it.

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

RW: How invaluable was this internship and what was your favorite aspect?

SS: Being on an NASA internship and working at SETI gave a plenty of opportunities to meet extraordinary people such as Ed Lu (former NASA astronaut) who founded B612 Foundation, Steve Juvertson (invested in SpaceX, Tesla, D-Wave, Skype, Box and a number “New Space” leaders – including Planet Labs). Getting a special talk from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and watching the movie Contact with astronomer Jill Tarter (on which the lead character is based!) and the former director of the Center for SETI Research.

Working with Peter Jenniskens (mentor) and my teammates Christopher Watkins from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation(CSIRO), Amar Shah from Cambridge University, Robert Citron from University of California, Berkeley on a project solving the problems in Planetary Defense. And of course living at NASA Ames Research Center, where 2 years back I just had the opportunity to visit on its 75th Anniversary.

RW: What did you take away from your internship?

SS: The internship gave me real-time exposure to the space industry. I felt the absolute need for more software “techies” to get involved with the space industry to bring in the latest technologies and leverage the NASA expertise and contribute to the space exploration.

Desire combined with effort pays off. Raise your hand when opportunities arise and make it known you are interested.

RW: Following this internship, what are your goals for the future and how has the internship helped you to achieve these goals?

SS: I desire to experience the universe of Star Wars and Star Trek. I believe that the “force is with me” in contributing to the AI research and hope that AI would reach the capability to turn my belief into reality.

During my internship I did have a great chance to work and learn from the machine learning and planetary science expertise. The project in which I was involved during my internship is still in progress and once I am back in the US from India I would like to continue my work on it and find a meteorite. And I would like to continue my journey in exploring the Artificial Intelligence and build real-time applications too.

RW: Do you have any advice for others who may want to follow in your footsteps?

SS: I would like to mention the words from A.P.J Abdul Kalam (Missile Man of India) “It’s a crime to dream small”. If one doesn’t dream about it, they never can make it. Desire combined with effort pays off. Raise your hand when opportunities arise and make it known you are interested.

RW: If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

SS: Oh wow!! A great and probably important piece of advice to myself would be: To never stop questioning and to keep looking up.

Inspiration

New Short Film ‘Dot Of Light’ Showcases Stories of Female Astronauts

6 May, 2017

A fantastic new short film, Dot of Light, highlights the stories of three astronauts from very different backgrounds, Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Nicole Stott, and Anousheh Ansari, narrating their journey to space. Intimate interviews and archival footage of their flights bring their pioneering stories to life in this film by Eliza McNitt, produced in collaboration with Google.

Anousheh Ansari in 'Dot of Light' (Still from 'Dot of Light')

Anousheh Ansari in ‘Dot of Light’ (Still from ‘Dot of Light’)`

These lines that we’ve drawn on a map that separates this country from that country, you don’t see that from space, there are no walls separating us. Everything is connected. It is one home. It is one planet. It is one single unit that we live on. Around us is this dark universe. There’s nothing else around that looks anything close to our planet. –  Anousheh Ansari, first female spaceflight participant (first Iranian astronaut).

Watch this powerful film above and here.

Inspiration

Confidence Is The Missing Key Factor

5 May, 2017
#BeBoldForChange was the theme to this year's International Women's Day. This great infographic by Trade Machines FI GmbH introduces the difficulties women have to face when deciding to enter the highly male-dominated field of engineering - an explanation for why only 13% of US engineers are female. (Copyright Trade Machines FI GmbH)

#BeBoldForChange was the theme to this year’s International Women’s Day. This great infographic by Trade Machines FI GmbH introduces the difficulties women have to face when deciding to enter the highly male-dominated field of engineering – an explanation for why only 13% of US engineers are female. (Copyright Trade Machines FI GmbH)

We may be aware of the fact that women are under-represented in STEM fields, but seeing the exact numbers of female representation is still startling: on average women comprise 19% of STEM students and 20% of engineering students in the United States. Other tech-related fields attract even fewer women. Women within electrical engineering fields represent solely 12% of the students while within computer sciences only 10%.

When it comes to engineering, not only are fewer women choosing these study fields than men, but it turns out, that even after finishing college 35% of women either choose to not enter the field or leave eventually, while this number is 10% for men. So what could be the reason behind this worldwide trend?

The American Sociological Association released a study (pdf) with the title ‘Women Aren’t Becoming Engineers Because of Confidence Issues’. The study pointed towards the lack of ‘professional role confidence’ as an issue for female engineering students. This eludes to female students not having as much confidence in their engineering competence as their male counterparts and doubting the fact that engineering is the career that fits them best.

But it’s worth looking at what could lead to such a lack of confidence. Why are women more affected by this than men?

As the study and the following infographic explains, there are several components to this complicated issue. The main reason might be, that a stereotype threat is still present according to which engineering is still assumed to be a male career. As the study said, “competence in engineering is associated in people’s minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity”.

While there is no quick-fix solution to this issue, there are actions we can take to support young women. In order to not lose those who are currently studying or who are already working in STEM (also known as the leaky pipeline syndrome), we need to make work environments more accepting and eliminate any residual “macho culture”.

It is also important that role models, successful women in STEM careers are visible and tangible to younger women considering their future career paths. It can be an excellent way for younger women to realize that engineering is just as much for women as it is for men.

We can additionally encourage girls to consider a STEM career in an even earlier phase of their life. According to Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, we need to start by raising girls differently. While boys are taught to be “brave”, women are often told to be “good” and therefore women ‘seek perfection and avoid taking risks’ with this potentially leading to missing out on great opportunities.

Female under-representation in engineering is clearly not because of a lack of capability but, as the study eludes to, because of girls not believing in themselves. In the words of Canadian-Indian poet Rupi Kaur, “What’s the greatest lesson a woman should learn? That since day one she’s already had everything she needs within herself. It’s the world that convinced her that she did not.” Not only do we need to change this in order to encourage girls to see themselves as engineers in the future, but also in order to ensure the next generation are more confident and believe in their potential. We need women supporting other women. How can you help a girl that you know to reach their potential?

(Disclaimer: This post was written in association with Trade Machines FI GmbH)

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Justyna Barys, Young Graduate Trainee, European Space Agency (ESA)

1 May, 2017
Justyna Barys, a Young Graduate Trainee working in ESA’s technical centre, ESTEC (Credit: ESA/G. Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/igo/)

Justyna Barys, a Young Graduate Trainee working in ESA’s technical centre, ESTEC (Credit: ESA/G. Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/igo/)

Justyna Barys not only works at the European Space Agency (ESA) but was also recently selected to be featured on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Originally from Poland, and now based in the Netherlands, Justyna tells Rocket Women about her journey to the space industry.

RW: Congratulations on being selected as one of the 30 Under 30 on the Europe Industry List chosen by Forbes. Can you tell me about that experience and when you found out you’d been selected?

JB: Thank you very much. I felt very thrilled and excited when I found out about this nomination. I was nominated for the Forbes list 30 under 30 Europe 2017 in the Industry category. The journalist from Forbes found my professional profile on the LinkedIn website. The description of the research, which I’m currently conducting in the European Space Agency (ESA) MELiSSA project seemed very interesting to him. That’s how I was nominated. Then the jury in the Industry category decided to place my name on this special list.

RW: How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

JB: To be honest I had never been planning to work in the space industry. I was studying biotechnology and I was expecting to find interesting job after the university in this area of industry. Nevertheless I have been always interested in astronomy and space exploration. It has been always one of my biggest hobbies. When I found a position of Young Graduate Trainee in the European Space Agency in MELiSSA project I thought that it would be a perfect job for me, which includes my academic profile and personal interests. I was delighted when I got this job.

RW: Did you need any specific education or training in order to qualify for your current role? If so, what was it?  

JB: No, I didn’t need any additional courses. The knowledge, which I gained during my studies was sufficient for my position. Nevertheless in the beginning I had to get acquainted with overall knowledge about MELiSSA project and space industry.

I recall a quote from Carl Sagan’s book ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which was very influential: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

RW: Who were your role models when you were growing up?  How important are role models to young girls?

JB: In my opinion it is extremely important. I remember when I was eight, I watched the film “Contact” with my father. I can now say that this movie changed my life. I was only eight and of course in the beginning I didn’t understand everything from the movie, but enough to inspiring me to become a scientist. The movie is based on a novel of Carl Sagan with the same title and it’s about a SETI scientist who is looking for extraterrestrial life. In this movie I found role models of women in the science world. Furthermore, the movie shows that a way to achieve success is not always easy and how important is not to give up, be strong and in spite of all always follow your dreams.

As I mention I was eight when I saw this movie first time. From time to time I like to watch it again to remember how my fascination about being a scientist began. I also have to admit that my father had a huge influence on my interest of science and astronomy. When I was a child I spent many hours with him watching science-fiction films and documentaries about space. I recall a quote from Carl Sagan’s book “Pale Blue Dot”, which was very influential: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

RW: What’s your favourite book? 

JB: My favorite book is actually Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”. As I mention before when I was young I got fascinated with “Contact” film. A few years later I started to read books by Carl Sagan about space exploration, the role of the human in the universe and his visions about human future in space. ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is the book which I liked the most. I think that description of the Voyager missions are for me the most interesting part.

In the beginning of my scientific way I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe that girl like me could do something really important. Now I know that was wrong.

RW: If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? What would you change? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently? 

JB: Never give up on your dreams.

Following your dreams is not an easy task. On the way to achieve a success you will encounter plenty of failures. Actually it is a hard job. But for sure worth the effort. After all the feeling that with your actions you can change the world – it’s priceless.

To be honest I think that I wouldn’t change any of my decisions. The only one thing which I would change it would be my attitude. In the beginning of my scientific way I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe that a girl like me could do something really important. Now I know that was wrong.

Inspiration

Illustrations To Inspire Girls In STEM

14 April, 2017

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

Recent reports have shown that there’s a massive skill requirement for engineering upcoming over the next few years with one in five schoolchildren having to become an engineer to fill that gap in the UK. Considering 15% of UK engineering graduates are female and only 9% of engineering professionals, we can start to fill this gap today by encouraging more girls to pursue STEM, ensuring that they make up 50% of engineering talent in the future.

One of my favourite quotes is by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s in this vein that these brilliant new motion illustrations were created by Total Jobs and the co-founder of STEMettes, Jacquelyn Guderley, each depicting the STEM journey and challenges young girls endure. Each illustration, backed by the British Science Association, is supported by inspirational advice, helping to dispel the stereotypes and gender boundaries that exist today.

Opening Doors

Opening Doors [Total Jobs]

Opening Doors [Total Jobs]

You can be what you can see. STEM is inclusive and doors need to be opened to a career in STEM for everyone.

Looking Beyond The Labels

Looking Beyond The Labels [Total Jobs]

Looking Beyond The Labels [Total Jobs]

Be more than the labels placed upon you by society. Be more than what people think you will ‘only’ amount to and push yourself to be what you want to be. Be an awesome coder like Felicity Smoak from CW‘s Arrow, or an astrophysicist like the woman who came into your school and showed you that you can be more than your labels.

Jobs For The Girls

Jobs For The Girls [Total Jobs]

Jobs For The Girls [Total Jobs]

I’m British Asian and my background is Indian, so although my parents were supportive of my interest in space and science, there was some pressure to study a traditional subject for a girl – become a dentist, doctor or a teacher, as it was a “safe” choice and an acceptable job for a girl in Indian culture. Even in society as a whole jobs in technology or science are still seen widely as “for boys”. Girls need to be encouraged to choose STEM careers and when they do, girls often outperform boys in STEM subjects!

Smashing The Sterotypes

Smashing The Sterotypes [Total Jobs]

Smashing The Sterotypes [Total Jobs]

Self-belief can be changed in an instant. We need to stop so many 16-year-old girls walking away and abandoning STEM. One way to do this is for career advisers to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM, an industry where you’re able to attract wages that are 20% higher than other industries! Stereotypes need to be broken down so that girls aren’t denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

The lack of female role models has a profound effect on girls choosing A-levels, says sociologist Louise Archer at King’s College London. “For girls in particular, physics is seen as being a very masculine subject,” she says. “So the girls who like physics have to work a lot harder to balance it with that notion of normal femininity.”

Finding Inspiration

Finding Inspiration [Total Jobs]

Finding Inspiration [Total Jobs]

Finding Inspiration [Total Jobs]
Finding Inspiration [Total Jobs]

You need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be.

Options For Girls

Options For Girls [Total Jobs]

Options For Girls [Total Jobs]

Girls deserve the same career opportunities as boys. In term of recruitment we still have big challenges in the world of STEM. You have to ask yourself the question, how many female role models can young people (especially girls) spontaneously quote, other than their direct family members, versus boys? By ensuring these female role models are tangible and visible, this can change.

Opportunity Knocks

Opportunity Knocks [Total Jobs]

Opportunity Knocks [Total Jobs]

I’ve learnt that representation matters and I hope that young women around the world will be inspired by the stories of successful women featured in these illustrations and on Rocket Women that look like them, to take the first step in their STEM story.

Read more about these illustrations supported by the British Science Association here.

Education, STEM Programmes

Redrawing The Balance 2017

26 March, 2017

What movies are your kids or nieces watching right now? Are they watching Angela the Astronaut, Carla the Coder, Sally the Scientist or Cathy the Carpenter?

Angela The Astronaut [MullenLowe London]

Angela The Astronaut [MullenLowe London]

Although I’d love these to be actual movie characters, they are in fact characters created for the 2017 #RedrawTheBalance campaign by four fabulous female illustrators from around the globe, namely Lizzie Campbell (UK), Be Towers (Spain), Ariane Pelissoni (Brazil) and Abigail de la Cruz (Philippines). This year’s #RedrawTheBalance campaign, It’s Time To Get Animated, was developed by leading creative agency MullenLowe London for Inspiring Girls, a global charity founded by Miriam Gonzalez-Durant. The charity also launched an innovative national campaign to ‘connect British girls with female role models who could inspire them with the possibilities of what they could become’.

Following last year’s groundbreaking #RedrawTheBalance campaign focusing on gender stereotypes that form between the ages of 5-7, (read Rocket Women’s take on the 2016 campaign here) with a related film that was seen by 30 million people, this year’s campaign launched on International Women’s Day, focuses on gender inequality in pop culture, a place where most children find their first heroes.

Less than 30% of speaking film roles are given to women in Hollywood, making it no surprise that lead characters are predominantly male. However, the #RedrawTheBalance campaign film narrated by animator Sophie Marka, reveals that in children’s animated films only 29% of all characters are women, and usually portrayed as the sidekick or damsel in distress. This is especially poignant, considering the lower age demographic that these cartoons are targeted towards. These animated role models shape young minds and mould their aspirations.

It’s been shown that children seek their first role models in cartoons, and as the film says, “If they don’t see women leading, achieving and succeeding then girls and boys might think that women are incapable of doing that at all.”

The narrator, animator Sophie Marka, describes, “It’s important for children, especially young girls, to see female role models because it’s creating an image in their head so they know that they can do certain things and become what they want. Children should see women in animated films because films should be the reflection of our society. For me it’s really important to talk about this subject to raise awareness.”

In the creative industry itself, only 20% of animators are female. Challenging this, the campaign was powerfully developed and produced at MullenLowe London by an all-female team, including the ‘animator, four female illustrators, editor, director, sound designers, musicians and producers’.

Richard Denney, ECD of MullenLowe London commented, “The creative and media industry clearly plays an important role in a child’s early perception of the world and how they see their place in it. The stats are shocking, both onscreen and behind the scenes, and we have a huge responsibility to act so that girls aim high and become the future. Other than a couple of token men including myself, we made sure the team surrounding this incredible project was built on female talent. You have to practice what you preach.

The audience is invited to share the film, allowing it to reach studio bosses who have the influence to commit to drawing women as lead roles in the future. After all as the film rightly states, women are ‘just as capable of doing an infinite number of things, and beyond’.

Sally The Scientist [MullenLowe London]

Sally The Scientist [MullenLowe London]

Volunteers can sign up here to make a difference and pledge just one hour a year to talk at a school to a ‘group of girls about their life, career, ups and downs, choices and experiences in the workplace’. The charity’s goal is to see women from a wide range of occupations going into state schools collectively talking to 250,000 young women. You can also create your own #RedrawTheBalance character here and show the world who you want to be.

Carla The Coder [MullenLowe London]

Carla The Coder [MullenLowe London]

Redraw The Balance