Monthly Archives

December 2017

Education, Inspiration

Luciana Vega – The American Girl & NASA Doll To Inspire The Next Generation

30 December, 2017

In partnership with NASA, American Girl have created a brilliant new doll called Luciana Vega, an 11-year-old aspiring astronaut who wants to be the first person to step foot on Mars. In the accompanying book series written by Erin Teagen, Luciana is introduced as a young girl of Chilean descent, with a dream of landing on Mars, who wins a scholarship to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. However as Luciana graduates from a ‘Space Camp kid to youth astronaut trainee’, she encounters a multitude of challenges that ‘test her competitive spirit and self-confidence, pushing her to find the courage to embrace the unknown with bravery, curiosity, and wonder.’

Alongside Luciana, American Girl and NASA through the Space Act Agreement have also created a spacesuit outfit based on NASA’s Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), the spacesuit used onboard the International Space Station (ISS) and previously during space shuttle missions. Luciana’s other fantastic accessories include a Maker Station, a blue Space Camp flight suit and a Mars Habitat which is ‘loaded with science and research essentials for hours of pretend play’. American Girl and NASA have also created a new American Girl World app featuring the doll and aspiring third to fifth grade astronauts can take part in ‘Blast Off to Discovery’ an educational program by NASA, Scholastic and Space Camp featuring Luciana Vega content, including ‘lesson plans, classroom activities, videos and a game’.

“It is so important to find exciting new ways to inspire our next generation of space explorers. I always want to encourage girls and boys to pursue their dreams, no matter how big, and I think it helps to show how those dreams can become reality for any kid.”

A NASA advisory board, including former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, the CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Deborah Barnhart, Manager of Strategic Alliances at NASA Headquarters Maureen O’Brien and NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur, proudly worked with American Girl to create the authentic design and story. As Astronaut Megan McArthur mentions in a NASA post, “It is so important to find exciting new ways to inspire our next generation of space explorers. I always want to encourage girls and boys to pursue their dreams, no matter how big, and I think it helps to show how those dreams can become reality for any kid.”

Luciana Vega is certainly the doll that I wish I had when I was younger, and will be available to buy for any young budding astronauts in January 2018! If you’re an aspiring astronaut like Luciana and want to attend Space Camp, American Girl are providing 20 scholarships to Space Camp through the project!

How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspirational women

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sarah Kendrew, Instrument and Calibration Scientist, European Space Agency (ESA)

18 December, 2017
Sarah Kendrew

Sarah Kendrew

Based in Baltimore (USA), Sarah Kendrew works for the European Space Agency as an Astronomer. She tells Rocket Women how strong female mentorship and inspiration from the sports world has allowed her to achieve success.

Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?

I currently work as an Instrument and Calibration Scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA), where I work on one of the instruments (called MIRI) for a next-generation space telescope for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The mission is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), led by NASA; so even though my employer is European-based, I am actually based in Baltimore, in the United States. I also carry out astrophysics research into the formation of high-mass stars in our Galaxy, and how they impact their surroundings.

I work on one of the instruments (called MIRI) for a next-generation space telescope for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The mission is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), led by NASA; so even though my employer is European-based, I am actually based in Baltimore, in the United States.

I joined ESA early in 2016.  My education and early career were in astronomy, and particularly in developing technology and instrumentation for telescopes, both on the ground and in space. After spending my childhood and school years near Brussels in Belgium, I studied at University College London, both for my undergraduate and PhD degrees. Between graduating in 2006 and moving to ESA in 2016, I worked at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, and the University of Oxford, in the UK. I actually started working on the MIRI instrument for JWST in 2007 already, alongside other ground-based instrumentation projects; since I moved to ESA I’ve been working full-time on JWST.

What does an average day look like in your role?

My work is incredibly varied, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it. I’ve worked on MIRI, the Mid-Infrared Instrument for JWST, for a decade, and the work has changed a lot throughout the life of the project. Right now, we’re only around 18 months from launch, which means a lot of my work is preparing to support the global astronomy community in their proposals for JWST, and ensuring that they’ll be able to get the best possible science from our instrument.

My work is incredibly varied, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it.

That includes for example helping to build and test software tools, working on data processing algorithms and procedures, giving tutorials at conferences, and preparing for the critical 6-month commissioning period after launch, when we will be working round the clock to switch on our instrument, test all its functions and perform all the measurements that are essential for the first science observations. But a lot of my days look nothing like “the average day”. In recent months for example I spent a lot of time at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where we were testing the telescope and its instruments in NASA’s test facilities there over a 3-month period. That included overnight shifts and irregular working hours, particularly while the Texas coast was battered by Hurricane Harvey!

What are your favourite things about your job?

Working on the more technical side of astronomy, either for telescopes on the ground or in space, can mean working on design studies, assembling and testing hardware in the lab, writing software, analysing data, travelling to observatories. The variety and the travel keep it interesting! I like that my work actually produces hardware – physical stuff, rather than numbers and journal articles – that will be used to make incredibly exciting scientific discoveries. The people I work with on large international projects are also almost invariably very intelligent, interesting and conscientious, they come from different countries and cultures and have so many interests and talents. I always feel very privileged to be in such great company.

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?

I actually came quite late to science. As a child I was a total bookworm (I still am!), I loved reading and history. I really enjoyed reading about people who explored the world and discovered new continents, and about the world’s ancient civilizations. I think my earliest role models were probably fictional characters in the books I loved: adventurous girls and women who broke the mould, defied expectations, and explored the world.

I think my earliest role models were probably fictional characters in the books I loved: adventurous girls and women who broke the mould, defied expectations, and explored the world.

I think role models are very important to young women, and I think inspiration and mentorship can come from many places. Some of the most valuable career advice I received particularly as a young scientist was from male colleagues and friends; only later in my career, when I became more sensitive to the particular challenges women face in STEM careers, did I seek out strong female mentorship and advice. Men can be excellent allies and mentors, but there are aspects of being a woman in science or engineering that I think only other women can fully relate to. I particularly admire those colleagues who are fantastic scientists, but also generous with their time and ideas for students, not ego-driven and honest in their work. I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with many such people in my career.

I also get lots of inspiration from the sports world, which is full of incredible women – I have learnt a lot from reading about athletes’ passion, work ethic, commitment to their training, dealing with adversity. Building a career in science isn’t that different: talent is helpful, but the key to success is persistence, hard work, plenty of recovery time and a dose of luck.

I would tell myself not to worry about fitting in, looking the right way, or being liked – instead learn, read, be curious, be passionate, and be kind to yourself and to others.

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

I could nitpick over some decisions I’ve made over the years, but I don’t really think I would change anything. I don’t believe there is one right path when it comes to career choices. I would mostly go back to reassure my 10-year old self that everything was going to work out fine! I would probably also tell myself not to worry about fitting in, looking the right way, or being liked – instead learn, read, be curious, be passionate, and be kind to yourself and to others. And pay more attention in German classes: you’re going to live there one day!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Kim Kowal Arcand, Science Visualization Lead, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory & Author

10 December, 2017
Kim Kowal Arcand (Image credit: Brittanny Taylor)

Kim Kowal Arcand (Image credit: Brittanny Taylor)

As the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory observatory, Kim Kowal Arcand transforms data into stories to communicate about the Universe.

With an impressive background, combining an undergraduate education in molecular biology, and a graduate degree in computer science from Harvard University, Kim talks to Rocket Women about the wonders of NASA’s Chandra Observatory and her crucial role, currently using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), to communicate its findings to the public.

Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?

I’ve had the pleasure of working for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since 1998, about a year before the spacecraft was launched from Space Shuttle Columbia. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is an X-ray telescope that studies very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and black holes. Operated for NASA by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Chandra orbits about one third of the way to the moon at its farthest point from Earth. Scientific and control operations for the observatory are headquartered in Cambridge, MA, where I work.

Operated for NASA by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Chandra orbits about one third of the way to the moon at its farthest point from Earth. Scientific and control operations for the observatory are headquartered in Cambridge, MA, where I work.

But I didn’t go to school thinking I would work in the space industry. Like many kids, I suppose, I had wanted to be an astronaut when I was young (quickly realizing I could in no way handle the bumpy launches!). I really enjoyed science however, in all forms. I completed my undergraduate work in molecular biology and then went on to do graduate work in computer science. That background combining biology, physics, chemistry, computer programming, etc., was incredibly helpful in my job working for Chandra.

I use data to tell stories and communicate about the Universe in many different ways. So I transitioned from working with data from a microscope to working with data from a telescope.

As the Visualization Lead for that observatory, I use data to tell stories and communicate about the Universe in many different ways. So I transitioned from working with data from a microscope to working with data from a telescope.

What are your favourite things about your job?

There are a lot of things to love. In this line of work, I get to learn something new each and every day. Right now, I’m learning all about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), as I’ve worked with some collaborators to create our first VR/AR data-driven experience for Chandra of a supernova remnant in our Milky Way. Getting to walk inside a star that exploded 10,000 light years away, based on data that we’ve been collecting for a good number of years from Chandra and additional observatories? Just incredible.

Getting to walk inside a star that exploded 10,000 light years away, based on data that we’ve been collecting for a good number of years from Chandra and additional observatories? Just incredible.

Our work is typically very collaborative. Being able to work with and learn from incredibly bright, interesting people from all across the world is another definite perk.

I’ve learned so much in this job, beyond the scientific/technical aspects, from how to write better, to how to speak better, to how to work through highly complex situations. Those softer skills have really helped me grow into areas I would not have expected – writing popular science books (my fourth one just came out this month), giving a number of public talks around the world, working with scientific diplomacy groups, etc.

Kim Kowal Arcand on the TEDx stage (Image credit: Tracy Karin Prell)

Kim Kowal Arcand on the TEDx stage (Image credit: Tracy Karin Prell)

When you’re having a stressful or bad day, what helps you get through it?

Beyond smaller practical techniques such as keeping an organized digital calendar and a lot of sticky notes, I would say two things help me. One is that my job is flexible, and the other is that it can be creative. So if I’m feeling particularly stressed about a project or situation, I know that I can usually step aside for a bit, and get a little space or perspective. I might use that time to switch to a project that’s more creative leaning until I can figure out the way to approach the other more difficult situation.

Sometimes, when I’m really deep in a stressful project or situation, I try to remind myself that I’m not saving lives in the ER or on an operating table. I love my job, but keeping a reality check is healthy for me.

Also, I have a very, very supportive family. I couldn’t do much without them! The whole “it takes a village” thing is definitely something I believe and am fortunate to have.

Kim presenting on-stage (Image credit: Rudy Montez)

Kim presenting on-stage (Image credit: Rudy Montez)

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?

I didn’t know many women in science or technology when I was young. I was a little bit isolated I think. But I always looked up to my mom. She was a waitress when I was very young but she wanted to be a nurse. I remember sitting with her at our dining table when she was studying anatomy for one of her classes at a local community college. I was really interested in that anatomy book! But I was also so inspired that she could be more than one thing- a mother, a waitress, a student – all at once. She even took me to school with her a few times, and I can remember looking through the bookstore at science texts. She became a nurse’s aide a few years later and enjoyed her job until she retired recently.

I didn’t know it was ok to fail sometimes. I didn’t know where to look for internships and events and organizations and jobs. I tried to read up on my fields and take an educated guess, but I was just stumbling through hoping I would make the right decisions.

It is important to have role models. In high school and college, most of my science and computer science teachers were men. As a first generation college graduate I didn’t have a network in either of these fields. I didn’t know it was ok to fail sometimes. I didn’t know where to look for internships and events and organizations and jobs. I tried to read up on my fields and take an educated guess, but I was just stumbling through hoping I would make the right decisions.

I was very fortunate to land in a job where there was a supportive network growing for women in STEM, from the scientists and administrators to the very astronauts who launched the telescope. I’ve had that personal support for much of my career in a male-dominated field, and I truly appreciate it. I also try to pay it back as much as I can for young women and minoritized groups exploring the field.

Kim Kowal Arcand experiencing VR (Photo credit: Elaine Jiang)

Kim Kowal Arcand experiencing VR (Photo credit: Elaine Jiang)

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

One technical achievement was working on the first 3D printed data-driven model ever created of a supernova remnant, the leftover bits of an exploded star (as mentioned above). 3D models of distant objects in space are difficult to create due to the limitations of the data- they require not only a very large amount of data on the specific object, but also the type of data must provide velocity maps to gauge the depth since we cannot fly to and around such objects ourselves.

The successful data-driven model of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A was the first of its kind and we translated that into a format that can be manipulated in-browser by the user, be printed in 3D, and just recently, be experienced in VR. Such technological applications for astronomical sources have wide applicability for accessibility for users of different needs, for educational purposes for non-experts, as well as new avenues for exploration of data by experts.

One major non-technical moment, however, would be the work we did for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 and the follow-up work for the International Year of Light in 2015. These were large-scale public communications efforts to reach out into communities across the world with high-quality science content placed in free or otherwise accessible areas such as malls, metros, airports, cafes, libraries, town squares and even hospitals and a prison.

We worked with grassroots community organizers to translate content into many languages, incorporate local information, culture and perspectives, and ended up reaching many tens of millions of people worldwide. Working with UNESCO, the International Astronomical Union, the international society for optics and photonics, the U.S. Department of State and a number of other groups on these “International Years,” celebrating a common topic, we were able to communicate with so many new people.

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

I’m sure I should have some advice for my 10-year-old self, but I’m too much of the mindset that it’s good to learn from your mistakes and it’s okay to fail and learn from that failure. I prefer to look forwards instead of backwards – perhaps that’s somewhat ironic considering how much of astronomy involves looking back in time.

I wanted to save the world when I was young and although I certainly can’t claim that privilege, I have a life of meaning and a career I find worthy of one of the most precious of commodities – time.

Instead, I do tend to think on what my 12-year-old daughter might experience in her possible future career. She currently wants to go into a STEM field, and it’s rather depressing to me that so little seems to have changed since I have been a part of those fields. For her, and all the other children considering how to make an impactful stamp on the world, I would say dream big, think big, look forward, and –when you can – help others do the same. I wanted to save the world when I was young and although I certainly can’t claim that privilege, I have a life of meaning and a career I find worthy of one of the most precious of commodities – time.