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Meet A Rocket Woman: Dr. Chiara Mingarelli, Astrophysicist, Flatiron Institute

14 May, 2018

Dr. Chiara Mingarelli [Image: Flatiron Institute]

Dr. Chiara Mingarelli [Image: Flatiron Institute]

Rocket Women are thrilled to feature astrophysicist and trailblazing role model Dr.Chiara Mingarelli. Chiara tells Rocket Women about how she was inspired as a child by Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Marie Curie, the importance of supporting those marginalized in STEM and giving a talk to Jeff Bezos at the Amazon MARS event!

Tell me about your journey to astrophysics and to where you are now? 

I grew up in a small town called Rockland, Ontario, close to Ottawa – the capital of Canada. I loved looking up at the night sky, full of stars, and dreaming of making a discovery. When I found out about black holes, and that one could study black holes for a living, I was hooked! I did my undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Physics at Carleton University in Ottawa, and then moved to Europe to pursue my graduate work. I did my Master’s degree at the University of Bologna in Italy, and my PhD in the UK, at the University of Birmingham, where there is a large gravitational-wave group. After my PhD, I won a Marie Curie Fellowship, which I took to Caltech for 2 years, after which I had to return to Europe.

When I found out about black holes, and that one could study black holes for a living, I was hooked!

I spent the final year of my fellowship in Bonn, Germany, at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. This whirlwind tour brings us to today! After my year in Bonn, I got an offer to join the new Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in New York, as a Flatiron Research Fellow. This is where I am now! It’s a great place to work: my colleagues are all world-class and I have been able to expand my research interests (and soon publications!) through my conversations with them.

What are your favourite things about your workday?

I love talking to my colleagues. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by some of the brightest minds in astronomy and astrophysics, and it is a joy to talk to them about their work and how it sometimes interfaces with mine. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a day when I have a great idea! This is really the best part of my job – thinking of new ways to learn about the Universe that other people have overlooked.

Dr. Chiara Mingarelli with Dr. Christine Moran (NASA JPL) and NASA Astronaut Yvonne Cagle

Dr. Chiara Mingarelli with Dr. Christine Moran (NASA JPL) and NASA Astronaut Yvonne Cagle

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

My parents read me Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Marie Curie, to me as a bedtime story. I learned that Marie Curie won 2 Nobel Prizes, so I set out to win 3! This was before I found out that only two women have ever won the prize, despite there being a huge pool of talent to draw from, so I am not particularly hopeful of this anymore. Instead, I hope to be a role model myself, and encourage women to pursue what they are passionate about, especially in STEM fields where we are underrepresented.

My parents read me Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Marie Curie, to me as a bedtime story. I learned that Marie Curie won 2 Nobel Prizes, so I set out to win 3!

One of my modern role models was Dana Scully in the X-Files. She was a serious, skeptical scientist who I deeply admired, and was in turn respected by her colleagues for her keen intellect. I was also inspired by Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who was the first Canadian woman astronaut, and continue to be inspired by trailblazers like Jane Goodall – a pioneer in primate studies. I believe role models to be of crucial importance to young women, even though they may not realize it. It’s hard to imagine who you want to be if you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you being an astronaut for example.

One of my modern role models was Dana Scully in the X-Files. She was a serious, skeptical scientist who I deeply admired, and was in turn respected by her colleagues for her keen intellect. I was also inspired by Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who was the first Canadian woman astronaut, and continue to be inspired by trailblazers like Jane Goodall — a pioneer in primate studies.

Chiara with Adam Savage from the TV show MythBusters at the Amazon MARS event

Chiara with Adam Savage from the TV show MythBusters at the Amazon MARS event

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

I didn’t expect there to be such a sharp transition from the way people interacted with me as a undergraduate student to a graduate (PhD) student. As an undergraduate I couldn’t understand why I would need feminism, everything seemed fine, why waste one’s breath? As a PhD student I was shocked at the huge differences in which men and women were treated.

As an undergraduate I couldn’t understand why I would need feminism, everything seemed fine, why waste one’s breath? As a PhD student I was shocked at the huge differences in which men and women were treated. This was my first experience with being frequently interrupted, not being listened to and having other claim your ideas as their own a few minutes after you share your idea. It was like being in another dimension.

This was my first experience with being frequently interrupted, not being listened to and having other claim your ideas as their own a few minutes after you share your idea. It was like being in another dimension. This has also taught me the importance of being an ally to those who suffer these experiences more regularly than I, and are marginalized in different ways due to their race or gender nonconformity, for example.

Dr. Chiara Mingarelli

Dr. Chiara Mingarelli

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

I am fortunate to have had many rewarding moments in my career. The most memorable are giving a talk in Feynman’s lecture theatre at Caltech when I was a postdoc there, giving a talk to Jeff Bezos and the amazing people gathered at the “Amazon MARS” event this year in Palm Springs, and seeing my 2017 Nature Astronomy paper published after more than 1.5 years working on it!

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?

Don’t ever stop believing in yourself. You’re amazing, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018 – Meet A Rocket Woman: Kristen Facciol, Robotics Flight Controller, Canadian Space Agency (CSA)

8 March, 2018
Kristen Facciol, Robotics Flight Controller, Canadian Space Agency (CSA)

Kristen Facciol, Robotics Flight Controller, Canadian Space Agency (CSA)

Happy International Women’s Day 2018! On International Women’s Day, Rocket Women are celebrating the achievements of trailblazing women in space!

This week we’re featuring Canadian Space Agency (CSA) Robotics Flight Controller Kristen Facciol! Growing up in Canada, Kristen was inspired by the achievements of Canadian astronauts Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette and always hoped that she could be involved with Canada’s contributions to space exploration one day.

Kristen tells Rocket Women about her path to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, astronaut training and why she believes it’s important that we show the next generation that it’s possible to be successful in non-traditional careers.


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

My journey began when I was about 10 years old and was able to attend Space Camp in Montreal, Canada. I learned about the Canadarm, the Space Shuttle program, and the Hubble Space Telescope, and immediately became intrigued. Space exploration was a passion that fuelled my interest in science and math.

When it came time to select a university, the University of Toronto stood out because of the affiliated Aerospace Institute (UTIAS), and the ability to major in Aerospace Engineering through the Engineering Science program. It was during university that I realized my interest in robotics.

The opportunity of a lifetime came up when I joined the Mission Control Group. I am now living in Houston, Texas and training as a Robotics Flight Controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Following graduation, I started with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) as part of a team designing robotic systems for on-orbit satellites servicing. Upon completion of this project, I moved to Montreal to work as an embedded contractor at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as both an Analyst and an Engineering Support Lead for robotics operations on the International Space Station (ISS). During this time, I also certified as an instructor, training astronauts and flight controllers on the Mobile Servicing System, which includes Canadarm2 (the large robotic arm on the ISS), Dextre (a robot performing maintenance work and repairs), and the Mobile Base (which allows translation along the ISS).

At the end of 2016, I joined the CSA as a Payloads Engineer, working on some of the human research projects conducted on the ISS. Soon after, the opportunity of a lifetime came up when I joined the Mission Control Group. I am now living in Houston, Texas and training as a Robotics Flight Controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Describe a typical day at work for you.

A typical day at work can really vary, which is one of the many reasons why I love my job!

When we are planning for robotic operations, we need to go through the Mission Design process. We look at requirements or objectives that need to be satisfied during an operation, and take into consideration the complexity of the ISS operational schedule. Using a simulator, we then develop the procedures and other associated products that allow us to control the robotic systems on the ISS from the ground.

The days that I get to train astronauts and flight controllers, are some of my favourite days!

There are also days that I sit on console, either training during real-time operations or learning as part of simulations. Sitting on console involves monitoring our systems and the timeline, as well as the status of all the other systems that comprise the ISS, to ensure the objectives of the operation are met.

Then there are the days that I get to train astronauts and flight controllers, which are some of my favourite days! It is an opportunity to ensure that I am constantly learning and understanding how our systems work, as well as pass on this knowledge to future operators of Canadarm2, Dextre, or the Mobile Base.

Kristen in NASA's ISS Mission Control Center

Kristen in NASA’s ISS Mission Control Center

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

Growing up, my role models were anyone that took the time and effort to teach me, or anyone I felt I could learn from. This included my parents, my coaches for various sports, my teachers, and my colleagues. I never shied away from an opportunity to learn and improve, and always had a desire to be better at whatever it was that had my attention at the time.

I always admired the achievements of Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette. I hoped that I could one day be involved with Canada’s contributions to space exploration.

I never shied away from an opportunity to learn and improve, and always had a desire to be better at whatever it was that had my attention at the time.

I think it is exceptionally important for young girls to have role models. One thing that has always stood out to me is the way females are portrayed in the media, and the stereotypes that continue to exist today from previous generations. We need to show the next generation that: it is possible to be successful in non-traditional careers; it is possible to have a career as well as a family; and it is possible to be driven and successful without that having a negative connotation.

We need to show the next generation that: it is possible to be successful in non-traditional careers; it is possible to have a career as well as a family; and it is possible to be driven and successful without that having a negative connotation.

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

There have been technical achievements that were quite exceptional, but there are also the “softer” moments that have made an impact as well.

Two of the technical achievements that stand out were the first time an astronaut I had trained was on-board the ISS and the first time a procedure I had written was executed on-orbit. It was so surreal to watch live video from the ISS of something that I had worked on from the ground. It is still difficult for me to truly express the way each of these moments felt.

 It was so surreal to watch live video from the ISS of something that I had worked on from the ground. It is still difficult for me to truly express the way each of these moments felt.

I have also received some incredibly heartwarming messages from people that I have interacted with as a mentor. To know that I have somehow influenced the career path of another person is something I am so grateful to have experienced, and there really is nothing quite like it.

What would you recommend to someone looking at a career in space robotics to focus on?

To develop a foundation for a career in space robotics (or robotics in general), it is important to focus on more than just the technical courses and training that are required. You also need to keep apprised of what is happening in your field of interest. There are advancements every day – not just in space, but also in how what we have learned in space is utilized here on Earth. Knowing where we have come from and the direction we are moving in will help you to strategically position yourself to be a part of the way forward.

Knowing where we have come from and the direction we are moving in will help you to strategically position yourself to be a part of the way forward.

For any career consideration, it is also important to keep in mind that a technical career is more than just the technical elements. Working in space robotics, as part of an interdisciplinary team, has really emphasized the importance of being able to work with others and to understand how your systems interact. You need to be able to communicate the state of your system and to adapt to changes in the surrounding environment. It also often involves working under pressure.

Kristen Facciol simulating Canadarm operations on-ground

Kristen Facciol simulating Canadarm operations on-ground

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

Looking back to when I first started, I thought that I would stay in Toronto and be a career “lifer”. I really admired my colleagues that had established a reputation for themselves to be a go-to person and become indispensable to a certain extent. I thought that was what I wanted. I took somewhat of a leap of faith when I moved to Montreal.

If it had not been for that move, some of the most important events in my life would have never occurred. My life has been ever changed because I took that leap.

Being given an opportunity to work at the CSA was a daunting decision at first, but it was definitely a clear one. This was the Canadian Space Agency that I would be working at! If it had not been for that move, some of the most important events in my life would have never occurred. My life has been ever changed because I took that leap.

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?

My 10-year-old self already exhibited many of the qualities that I think are important contributors to where I have reached at this point in my life. She approached everyone in the same way, whether stranger or friend, superior or equal. She was a team player but a definite leader. And she always strived to be the best.

She also had her moments of self-doubt, and I would want to tell her to never doubt herself, her achievements, or the decisions she made. I would tell her that she was going to end up somewhere she never even dreamed was possible. I would probably also mention that being a nerd would become the new cool, but I doubt she would have believed me.

I would want to tell [my 10-year-old self] to never doubt herself, her achievements, or the decisions she made. I would tell her that she was going to end up somewhere she never even dreamed was possible. I would probably also mention that being a nerd would become the new cool, but I doubt she would have believed me.

If I went back and made any decision differently, then I don’t know that I would have ended up where I am now, which I am very proud of. I really wouldn’t want anything to be any different. So looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Celebrate, Inspiration, Inspirational women

UN International Day of Women & Girls In Science 2018: Inspiring The Next Generation

11 February, 2018

The 11th of February marks the United Nations International Day of Women In Science, a day celebrating the achievements of trailblazing women in science, whilst aiming to inspire the next generation of physicists, chemists, engineers and biologists.

I absolutely love this graphic by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to celebrate, showcasing the variety of careers available in the space industry!

If you’re interested in a career in space be inspired by the stories of trailblazing Rocket Women featured today, from a Flight Controller in Mission Control to an Engineer designing the next generation of satellites, to a Geologist training astronauts for missions to the surface of the Moon and Mars, a Biologist designing novel human life support systems and an Astrophysicist unlocking the mysteries of the Universe.

You don’t have to be the best in maths and science – you don’t have to be number 1 or number 2. You just have to want to help humankind. That should be the passion. You don’t have to be the best –just be proficient. We need to change the conversation to know that you’re all in.

As former NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Dava Newman said, “You don’t have to be the best in maths and science – you don’t have to be number 1 or number 2. You just have to want to help humankind. That should be the passion. You don’t have to be the best –just be proficient. We need to change the conversation to know that you’re all in.”

Remember, there are lots of different pathways to work in the space industry, even if you not looking to become an engineer, scientist or astronaut. During a Rocket Women interview with Emma Lehnhardt from NASA, Emma rightly mentioned that although we need more female STEM graduates, “we also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it.” In her interview with Rocket Women, Emma revealed a woman who really had an impact on her when she was an intern at NASA, named Lynn Cline. She had only ever had one meeting with her, but was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

To work in the space industry the most important thing that you can do is to study something that you love and are passion about. You have to enjoy what you study and the work that you’re doing. Pay attention to what your passion is for and follow that passion to find your ideal career in space.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The Next Generation of Rocket Women: Alyssa Carson,16, Future Astronaut

4 February, 2018
Alyssa Carson in a simulation

Alyssa Carson in a simulation with the PoSSUM Academy – the youngest person to have been accepted

Alyssa Carson is a regular teenager, except alongside impressively taking her classes at school in four languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese), she’s training to become an astronaut and travel to Mars. Alyssa is the youngest person to graduate from the Advanced Space Academy and the first person to complete every NASA space camp in the world!

Alyssa Carson is certainly the most dedicated 16-year-old that I know of and her drive to become an astronaut has motivated me work harder! In a new series featuring the next generation of Rocket Women, Alyssa talks to Rocket Women about her drive to travel to Mars.

How were you inspired to choose a career in the space industry and what drives your passion for space?

I got inspired to become an astronaut and go to Mars while watching a cartoon television show called the Backyardigans. In this show there were friends who went on an imaginary trip to Mars. Watching this as a 3-year-old made me want to be like the characters in the show and travel to Mars. After the episode ended I asked my dad if humans had been to Mars and if it was possible to travel there.

I was then fascinated with wanting to go to space. I began reading books, watching videos, and started learning everything I could about space, rockets and Mars. I never let go of my dream of becoming an astronaut.

I was fascinated with wanting to go to space. I began reading books, watching videos, and started learning everything I could about space, rockets and Mars. I never let go of my dream of becoming an astronaut.

Your goal is to become an astronaut and be one of the first people to step foot on Mars. Can you talk about your journey to become an astronaut and how you hope to achieve this?

The journey for me to become an astronaut includes me completing the rest of high school and then going to college to get a degree in astrobiology. With that degree I could become a mission specialist and study the soil, water, and history of the planet Mars. After graduating college I will start applying to the astronaut selection program after my PhD and work in the astrobiology field as I continue to apply. Once selected I will train for the mission which is currently scheduled to happen in the 2030s.

Alyssa Carson, 16, Future Astronaut

Alyssa Carson, 16, Future Astronaut

Who have been your role models growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

One of my biggest role models growing up was astronaut Sandra Magnus. I had the chance to talk to her when I was 9 years old at a Sally Ride Day Camp. When I spoke to her she told about how she she decided to become as astronaut at the age of 9. Hearing how she decided her career at a young age and then fulfilled it by going to space several times really inspired me that you can decide what you want to do at a young age and then accomplish those goals. Role models are extremely important to girls because it gives them someone to look up to. Also it is motivation to continue searching and following dreams.

Success for me means becoming a mission specialist for the mission to Mars.

What does success mean to you?

Success for me means becoming a mission specialist for the mission to Mars. Also having the opportunity to make new discoveries by exploring a new planet. Another big success would be influencing as many kids as I can to follow their dreams and to help them as much as I can.

Alyssa Carson speaking about her drive to become an astronaut

Alyssa Carson speaking about her drive to become an astronaut

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM? 

My family has been a huge support in my dream. Even from the first time I mentioned the idea I had a lot of support. My dad especially has helped so much and enabled me to pursue the career that I wanted. I definitely would not be at the point I am now without him.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up? 

It wasn’t too hard to keep myself motivated when the things that I was doing was tough. Sometimes things can be very busy and hard however the benefits that I am getting out of all these experience most definitely made up for it. I just had to remember that my goal required a lot work to get there and without it I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I wanted.
Alyssa Carson

Alyssa Carson

Everything has been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

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?

The advice that I would give my 10-year-old self would be to cherish every moment because all experiences are once in a lifetime. I don’t really think I would have done anything differently since I began working on my dream. Everything has been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

Learn more about Alyssa Carson in this short clip produced in conjunction with National Geographic’s brilliant Mars series:

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Niamh Shaw, Space Communicator, Artist & Engineer

21 January, 2018
Dr. Niamh Shaw

Dr. Niamh Shaw – Artist, Scientist, Engineer & Communicator

Dr. Niamh Shaw has dreamt of becoming an astronaut since she was a child and is actively making steps towards achieving her goal. She tells Rocket Women about realising that her passion involved combining science and the arts, ultimately leading her to create international theatre shows and outreach to ensure that the public are brought along and inspired on her journey to space.

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

It’s a very long story. Basically when I was very young, I was very clear that I wanted to go to space and as a child I wanted to be an astronaut. Because there were no role models in the town that I grew up or in Ireland indeed, apart from what you would see on television coming from NASA and the Moon landings, it was like I knew that I didn’t have permission to achieve that. I actually couldn’t figure out how to do it either. So it was a fear of failure and no one really pointing me in the right direction to do that.

It became very clear to me that I hadn’t really let that dream go and I had to do something about it.

So, I forgot about it for a very long time. Then I was making my very first theatre show, which was combining science and the arts together. I was looking at all of these decisions that I’d made, and one of them was about me wanting to be an astronaut as a child. While I was figuring that out, I realised that I got very upset because I’d done nothing about it. It became very clear to me that I hadn’t really let that dream go and I had to do something about it. That was in 2011 and since then I have been actively making steps towards ultimately achieving that goal.

Making theatre is a big part of it. It allows me to share my personal story and I’m now on my third theatre piece. The second piece toured internationally – it toured to Edinburgh and it toured to Adelaide, and it help get the message out there. Every time I do a show it gives me more confidence and more belief that I can move forward. The latest show, ‘Diary of a Martian Beekeeper‘ is set in the future this time, as I’m on Mars and I’m conducting an experiment about bees. Because, as I’m on this space journey, bringing this environmental message into it has been very important to me.

I’m always talking about space and bringing to as many people as possible.

As well as the theatre shows, I participated in the ISU Space Studies Programme, a 9 week intensive programme in 2015 and then out of that I was invited to participate in a simulated Mars mission in the Utah dessert in early 2017 and I was also participated in a zero-gravity flight in Star City in Russia. I’m always talking about space and bringing to as many people as possible.

Dr. Niamh Shaw performing

Dr. Niamh Shaw performing

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

I think they’re hugely important, we don’t realize that every time you’re around a child, you could potentially be a role model, they’re just picking up signals from us all the time. There was nobody really around me from the space perspective that I could call a role model. I think that’s why I didn’t achieve it until now.

My Dad really encouraged me to embrace that technical and logical part of my brain.

Other than that, a role model for me was my older brother – he was mad into space and science fiction, so anything he liked, I liked. My parents as well were really important role models for me. Dad really encouraged me to embrace that technical and logical part of my brain. He bought us a small personal computer when we were very young and I taught myself coding on that using Basic at the time which was the code. He showed me how to change a plug and he set me projects in the Summer where I would pick a planet and I would write a comic about it. So he obviously saw that in me and they were a big influence for me.

Some of my teachers at school too, my English teacher, Sister Lee-Mary showed me that I was a lot more creative than I’d realised and encouraged that in me. My chemistry teacher Mrs.Greer loved chemistry and it sort of rubbed off on me and because of her it just copperfastened my confidence in STEM and wanting to pursue that field of study after I finished secondary school.

Niamh on a zero-g flight in Russia with the Stargazing Lottie Doll

Niamh on a zero-g flight in Russia with the Stargazing Lottie Doll

I love that you bring the Stargazer Lottie doll along with you on all of your expeditions. How do you hope Lottie will inspire the next generation?

I think the ethos behind the Lottie dolls, all of them, is that children design them. So they wait for children to come up with suggestions about the kind of doll that they want to see, which is great. So you’re not getting one kind of doll that’s supposed to suit one million, or one billion girls. The girls themselves are dictating what kind of dolls they want, which is how Stargazer Lottie came about. A girl went and said, “Why isn’t there a doll who is an Astronomer, because that’s what I do.”

[Lottie] dolls mirror the expectations and dreams that young girls want.

So they are very much open to making dolls that mirror the expectations and dreams that those girls want. I think it’s just a fantastic initiative and I’m really proud that I bring her with me everywhere. When I go and talk to young girls in schools, the reason why I like it is that the doll – they attach with immediately and the fact that she’s also an Astronomer kind of shifts their perception of what a doll is for them.

[The Lottie doll] is hopefully feeding into the message that they can be anything that they want to be.

When I go in to talk to them we do a workshop around space and I map out the scale of the Universe, but we also talk about what they want to be when they grow up and all of that is positively attached to space, which is great, and also to the Lottie doll, so it’s hopefully all feeding into the message that they can be anything that they want to be.

What does success mean to you?

Success means to me without a doubt, that I didn’t give up on myself, that I was brave enough to live the life that I wanted. That I bet on myself. It’s been so many years that I’ve wanted to do this, and I never allowed myself to dream that big or to give myself that big a task without that big an objective. Every year that I work on it, that fear gets smaller and smaller and I’m able to take stronger and more brave steps forward.

Success means to me without a doubt, that I didn’t give up on myself, that I was brave enough to live the life that I wanted. That I bet on myself.

To me success would be knowing no matter what the outcome, that I didn’t give up on myself and the reason that if I achieve it or don’t achieve it, wasn’t because I gave up. I think that’s what success means to me and happiness – that in succeeding in what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve managed to bring as many people as I can with me along the way. So it can’t just be the action of me getting say to the Moon and looking back, it has to be something of much bigger value that that. That I can bring the general public with me and hope to get them to see the Earth from a new perspective.

Niamh taking part in a Martian simulation in the Utah desert

Niamh taking part in a Martian simulation in the Utah desert

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

I think because my career journey is so bizzare, to take you through it – I went to college and did a degree in Engineering, and then I did a Masters in Engineering and then I did a PhD in Science. This was around the time that I’d kind of forgotten my childhood dreams at the time. I was always a creative person and when I finished my PhD I was in full-time research – I really didn’t enjoy it and knew that I had to make a change.

I was going to emigrate to New Zealand to take up a new job in the same field of research and I thought that maybe it was the geography that was wrong. But it wasn’t, it was something in me that was wrong, there was something missing. I thought that it was the artistic part of my brain, so I stepped away from full-time research then and I started pursuing performing and getting work in that way, which was great. I think the thing that I didn’t expect was that after I was doing that for a couple of years, I really missed science terribly. I got a bit of a fright and thought that I’d made a major mistake, but I hadn’t. It was when things started to make sense for me.

I realized that the person I am is this combination of loving information and loving technical details, but wanting to make them human and wanting to represent them in an everyday way so people who have no relationship with science whatsoever can find a way to understand it, and hopefully that be a springboard for their own curiosity to kind of take off.

It was around the same time in 2011 that I realized that the person I am is this combination of loving information and loving technical details, but wanting to make them human and wanting to represent them in an everyday way so people who have no relationship with science whatsoever can find a way to understand it, and hopefully that be a springboard for their own curiosity to kind of take off.

I realized I wasn’t that bad in it, as the combination of those two skills made me literate in science but also literate in how to communicate it in an everyday way, because that’s what I’d been doing for a number of years. The lovely thing about that is that it’s really helped me in telling my Space story as well as me also being able to bring people along with me on my journey, because I’m able to humanize as best as I can – I’m not saying I’m perfect at it, but I’ve been able to humanize all of that science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). So I didn’t expect it to all work out, I just thought that with all these things that weren’t joined, I’d finally get to the point where they all kind of worked together.

Niamh on-stage at InspireFest 2017 [InspireFest]

Niamh on-stage at InspireFest 2017 [InspireFest]

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Completely. Totally and utterly. There’s no doubt in my mind that they were the main influencers. My Dad is an Engineer and we were mad science fiction fans. He showed us the Moon landings and he showed me how to change a plug. It was just everywhere and I was very comfortable with science and technology from a very young age. I had a personal connection with it, so I was never afraid of it, or intimidated by it.

I don’t think I was the absolute strongest in the class in maths by any means, but I was never intimidated by it and would give it a try and hope for the best, so they are totally and utterly [responsible for shaping my career path in STEM]. My teachers at secondary school too, but my parents had a huge impact with my relationship with STEM and my comfort with it.

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 think all I would say to my 10-year-old self was that you were right, you should’ve said it to people and not be afraid to say it out loud. Just because you were a girl didn’t mean it couldn’t have happened for you.

I don’t think I could’ve changed anything about the course of my life, I think I should’ve just believed in myself more then that I could do it. Because I went right back to it anyway, so it was always there.

I wanted to go to Space Camp and I wanted to go to [NASA’s] Kennedy Space Center, but we just weren’t a family that could afford that. So I guess if my parents were wealthier I would’ve put my foot down and insisted that we went somewhere like that, but we didn’t have that so I never did. So I don’t think I could’ve changed anything about the course of my life, I think I should’ve just believed in myself more then that I could do it. Because I went right back to it anyway, so it was always there.

Read more about Niamh’s journey and recent events here.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Olga Stelmakh-Drescher, Director of Business Development and International Affairs

10 January, 2018
Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Through a highly successful 14-year career in the space industry, Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher has lived and worked on multiple continents. Olga is impressively fluent in 5 languages, with experience in Europe at the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center, before relocating to North America, living and working in Montreal, Canada. She has most recently been based in Washington DC, USA as the Director of Business Development and International Affairs at the International Institute of Space Commerce.

Olga talks to Rocket Women about her path as an aerospace lawyer, why she is inspired by space entrepreneurs and how her family is a perfect model of the international space community.

From growing up in Ukraine, to now being based in Washington DC – how have your international experiences helped to shape your career and personal life?

During my school years I spent summer and most of my winter holidays in France with my French family. These people actually have been the ones who shaped my French identity and paved the way to my international professional future. As I was fluent in French and English I easily managed to enter the French business school and in parallel to my law degree in Ukraine over five years pursued business degree learning from the best. At that time, I already started working in the space sector providing legal support to the international space projects that also implied a significant international exposure strengthening thereof my cosmopolitan integrity.

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility.

Upon my graduation I had been offered to join an international law firm but decided to first get an advanced space and telecommunications law degree in Paris for which I was granted a scholarship of excellence by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The strong professional touch of that program further opened me the doors to the European Space Agency, German Aerospace Center and later on helped me with relocation to North America making me competitive for the job positions in Montreal, Canada (Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University) and in Washington DC, USA (GWU Space Policy Institute and currently the International Institute of Space Commerce).

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility. I believe that my international experience, including the network I have created, actually played a decisive role in many opportunities I have been given throughout my professional career. In addition to the job opportunities mentioned above, the latter included invitations to speak at different fora, nominations and elections to high profile professional associations, selection to leadership programs, recognitions and awards etc.

My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalized space community.

This has also influenced my personal life. My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalised space community.

Olga at a conference in the UAE

Olga at a conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Describe a typical day at work for you.

It is hard to describe a typical day for me as every day brings something new, especially keeping in mind that I am very often on foreign travels.

My day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

Not going into much detail my day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

This is supported by the following common elements without which the day would not be complete: reading news (political, economical and of course space ones) and books (mainly business or innovation related), drafting, checking emails, having telecons and meetings, networking at space events.

I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Last but not least, when shaping my agenda, I make sure that it allows for personal “upgrading”, recharging and expanding of my horizons. I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

In general, I think it is wrong to consider someone as a role model in its entirety. I would rather say that someone’s qualities, behaviors and accomplishments can serve as an inspiration for personal and professional growth. And to be honest in my case these are not “famous” people, but simply strong personalities with charisma and driving energy who are not afraid to take an action and be accountable for it. In one word (ok, four;) – I am “smart” addicted!

When looking at the space sector the most inspirational to me are space entrepreneurs, I admire them for their powerful belief in their somewhat “out of this world” dreams and all the risks they take.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

Personally, I come from a highly-educated family and therefore I was blessed to have my family members as role models to me. They have achieved a lot, each of them in their specific field. My mother, who is a medical doctor, by her example, taught me to be fully dedicated to what I do; my father, who is a nuclear physicist, taught me to set the bar super high and always strive for better; my sister, a smart engineer and mother of three, – how to make the right choices and set priorities in life.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up? 

Self-doubts and adversity are part of existentialism; without them we would not 1) become more self-confident and mature, 2) duly appreciate our achievements and 3) enjoy taking the risks, making new steps and going further. The “perfect” world is utopia and consequently the “perfect” people who seem not having such moments are the most fake ones.

I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

We learn much more out of critical and stressful situations, this is where we see our real limits and strength. I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

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

The space industry remains dominated by men, however I am very pleased to see more and more women in leadership positions, especially if they manage to become influencers. However, the level of inclusiveness still highly depends on cultural differences and domestic “in-house” traditions. Not naming specific countries, it is evident that in some of them space industry is the men’s world, i.e. “space patriarchate”, where women are given mainly the support functions.

What are the biggest legal gaps and future challenges that the space industry is facing? 

Nowadays the space industry is facing numerous legal challenges, many of which occur as a result of a very fast pace of space technologies development and failing of a legal system to adjust accordingly to these NewSpace calls.

What we observe today is that a space law capacity-building is following the developments of technologies, not playing a proactive role and therefore not ensuring the needed legal certainty (or even jeopardizing it, as the entrepreneurs will not wait for a legal framework to be shaped but instead will set precedents acting experimentally, making their own “wake-up” calls for an adequate legal enterprise).

An appropriate legal enterprise should be established in parallel to (if not anticipating) major technological advancements, not allowing them to evolve detached paving their way in legal limbo.

Olga in the UAE

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

What would you recommend to someone looking at a career in space law to focus on?

To someone looking at a career in space law I would recommend to first of all acquire a solid international and business law background combined with interdisciplinary space related studies (e.g. Space Studies Program of the International Space University).

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors.

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors. Very importantly, the successful space lawyer should not be skeptical, but rather has to foresee all possible scenarios with associated risks and opportunities and diligently guide towards the most appropriate way ahead.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture. Similar to the data that can be acquired by means of remote sensing, a lawyer can much easier comprehend the problem if thinking big and not in the dimensions of a concrete case.

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?

Honestly, I do not like to think how something would have been if … Perhaps if I would have done something differently, I would have been a different person and honestly I am happy with current myself. Projecting and visualizing the future, especially successful implementation of my ideas and plans, this is what I prefer. Past is something that did happen to us but the future is what excites me more as we can influence it.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently, be creative, challenge yourself, strive to become an educated person and not a nerd, do not anticipate time and do not look for a universal algorithm of success, instead create your own story, read more and learn more languages as it is a constituent part of culture and mentality and therefore an enormous facilitator for your future.

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.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 4

21 September, 2017
Natalie Gogins working in NASA Mission Control Center at the CRONUS Console

Natalie Gogins working in NASA Mission Control Center at the CRONUS Console

In a special four-part feature Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team. NASA’s Orbit1 team remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts safe onboard.

These amazing individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.

The fourth and last interview in the series, features Natalie Gogins, ‘CRONUS Operator Flight Controller’ at NASA’s Mission Control.

Natalie’s role in NASA’s Mission Control Center is to monitor and configure systems to ensure the astronauts onboard the International Space Station are safe, and the space station itself. She talked to Rocket Women about the challenges that she overcame to become an engineer, her experience of being in Mission Control during Hurricane Harvey and sharing her love of space to inspire others!

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry? 

From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth. In high school, I volunteered at aviation museums and took private pilot flight lessons. While researching potential college degrees, engineering drew me in. It required using creativity and knowledge to solve problems and make the world a better place. I chose a school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I started an Engineering Physics (which is a combination of Aeronautical Engineering and Space Physics) degree before I realized I wanted a major with more hands-on courses.

From an early age, I always dreamed of travelling to the stars. I wanted to explore new places and work alongside fellow adventurers from other nations to improve life on Earth.

I switched to Mechanical Engineering with a Robotics focus and, of course, modeled an International Space Station (ISS) robot arm for a class project. During my time at Embry-Riddle, I had internships with NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and The Boeing Company in my home state of Washington. I also got to float in a microgravity simulating plane twice!

These internships and experiences helped me gain confidence in my ability to succeed in “the real world” and allowed me to make connections for my future position. Before starting my career, however, I wanted to get a Master’s degree, so I attended Purdue University as a graduate researcher. Although my thesis work was in the field of hydraulics, I never lost my passion for space, and gladly returned to Johnson Space Center as a more experienced engineer to become a flight controller.

Natalie At U.S. Space Camp

Natalie At U.S. Space Camp

What does your average day look like in your role?

My day-to-day tasks vary as a CRONUS (Communications, RF, Onboard Network Utilization Specialist) flight controller. On average, I spend 7 days a month supporting the real-time ISS mission (known as being “on console”) in Houston’s Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1). I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle is healthy, and the mission is accomplished. I also get to work with people in Alabama (USA), Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia.

I monitor, maintain, and configure our systems to make sure astronauts are safe, the vehicle [International Space Station] is healthy, and the mission is accomplished.

My group works with the computers and audio, video, telemetry, and commanding equipment. One of the best parts about being CRONUS is getting to control our external cameras to capture all kinds of exciting things such as an astronaut on EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity), hurricanes, experiments, or spacecraft.

Natalie's Fantastic College Graduation Cap

Natalie’s Fantastic College Graduation Cap

When I’m not on console, I’m back in the office. Right now I’m training to become an Instructor so I can teach CRONUS flight controllers and astronauts and run simulations. Simulations are critical for training as they give uncertified controllers the chance to practice responding to failures and dealing with problems they’ve never seen before. Things in real life never happen or fail in ways you expect, so you have to know how to think on your feet and make the best decision possible.

I’m also privileged to serve as our division’s Morale, Awards, Recognition, and Social (MARS) Team lead. This gives me specific opportunities to use my creativity and organizational skills. It can be easy to get discouraged in an environment where we always evaluate how something can be better next time, but learning and interacting as a team reminds us why we love working at NASA and why we can’t give up on being our best.

Natalie Flying in Microgravity

Natalie Flying in Microgravity

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

I was on a 7-day overnight shift throughout Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Texas. This set of shifts is already extremely challenging, but the hurricane made it seem like an unbelievably long week. Based on the weather reports, I wanted to pack everything I might need if I was stuck at NASA for the full 7 days, just in case the roads flooded. I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising. I brought lots of food and water and towels and blankets and drove to work early Friday morning.

I had a suitcase full of clothes for mission control shifts, lounging/sleeping, and even exercising.

It didn’t seem like much of a storm until Sunday night. During our normal LOS (loss of signal) with the satellites, when flight controllers get up to use the restroom and grab food, we instead went down to the first floor to check on the parking lot. That night, the water rose to 6” or about 15 cm below my car. Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive it up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.

Thankfully I had a raincoat and shorts to change in to before I ran out in the pouring rain with water above my knee. I was able to drive my car up on a sidewalk and kept it there for the rest of the week.

NASA's Mission Control During Hurricane Harvey With The Harvey Patch in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1)

NASA’s Mission Control During Hurricane Harvey With The Harvey Patch in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR-1)

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey?

As the hours and shifts went on, there were so many friends and co-workers with stories of water creeping in to their homes and vehicles. Harvey was forecasted to keep dumping rain on us for days to come. But, we all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.

We all stayed focused on our job, knowing that the people floating on the ISS were counting on us. As a CRONUS, I tracked Harvey when the ISS passed above it using the external video cameras, and it was surreal that the storm I was zooming in on was in fact, above me, attempting to destroy my home.

We had cots set up in other flight control rooms and even some conference rooms. It almost felt like camping or being back in a college dorm. When the roads were drained enough later in the week, people brought us homemade bread and meals. One of my co-workers edited the Flight Operations patch in honor of our trying week. Instead of ad astra per aspera, “to the stars through difficulty”, it says ad astra per aqua or aquam, “to the stars through water”.

The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever. And, when we were relaxing after shifts, it was wonderful to see all the people that donated their time and risked their lives to try and rescue others during the storm and then helped clean out flooded homes. Houston was just the place I lived, but now, it truly feels like home.

The hardest part of keeping ISS going was staying tough and competent during the unknown. But we made the best of it and knew the memories we’d have from this incredible, exhausting week would stay with us forever.

Natalie Meeting Actors from The Martian Movie at NASA Johnson Space Center

Natalie Meeting Actors from The Martian Movie at NASA Johnson Space Center

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

From a personal perspective, Harvey gave me a tiny taste of what life as a first responder or as a soldier might be like (minus feeling like your own life is at risk). You’re away from family and worried about their well-being, yet the only thing you can do is focus on the task in front of you. It’s not like a movie scene with inspirational music and a montage that gets you through the difficult times in 2 min or less. Instead, you do as you were trained and focus on helping those around you.

At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site.

At times I was really tempted to ask to go home and have someone take my place for the rest of the week, but then I realized it would mean someone else had to leave their family and get used to living on site. I knew my husband and third floor apartment were safe and my eye mask and earplugs were helping me get enough sleep, so I continued on.

I will forever be thankful for the sacrifice of those around the world who take care of strangers even on the darkest of days, and I hope my minor sacrifice of working all my overnight shifts so someone else didn’t have to helped in some small way. My thoughts and prayers were with those out in the storm, scared and waiting for help.

Natalie With Her Husband Loren At Their College

Natalie With Her Husband Loren At Their College

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

The most rewarding moments in my young career are the times when I overcame a challenge or when I get to share my love for space with others.

Getting an engineering degree was not easy for me; it was the first time in my life that I had to persevere over several years. School had always felt easy to me until I started college. I used to start assignments early so I had enough time to ask the professor questions, go to tutoring, or push through it myself. When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.

When I graduated from college, I saw that fighting for something brings the greatest reward. That’s part of why I chose to become a flight controller, even though I knew it would be my most difficult challenge yet.

The other thing I love about my career is that I get to inspire other people. From talking to a 3rd grade class about space travel to volunteering at a career fair, I love to see the look on young faces when they find out I work at NASA. There are so many who want to know about life in space and what’s happening next. I hope that some of them get that same spark of passion for exploration that leads them to STEM fields and maybe even to space.

Natalie Talking To Elementary School Students Through Videochat

Natalie Talking To Elementary School Students Through Videochat

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

I’m thankful for where my path in life has taken me, but if I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.

If I could give my 10-year-old self some advice, I’d say don’t take a mistake as a disaster. I used to feel like getting questions wrong on an exam or missing a shot in basketball made me a failure, but no one is perfect.

Being happy with who you are, or having the bravery to change something for the better, is what matters. It’s worth it to push yourself and fight for what you love, just know that the path toward an extraordinary life is not an easy one. You cannot recognize success without knowing failure.

Natalie’s flight control group also controls the International Space Station’s (ISS) external cameras, and recently supporting this Soyuz docking to the ISS, carrying three astronauts:

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 3

12 September, 2017
Fiona Turett working in NASA's Mission Control Center during Hurricane Harvey

Fiona Turett working in NASA’s Mission Control Center during Hurricane Harvey

Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team that remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts onboard safe.

The third of this special 4-part series (Part 2 here) features Orbit1’s Fiona Turett, ADCO – Attitude Determination and Control Officer in NASA’s Mission Control. Her job is to manage the Motion Control Systems of the International Space Station (ISS) – ‘the systems the ISS uses to know where it is in space, what direction it’s facing, and then keeps it where we want it to be’.

Fiona and her colleagues slept in the former NASA Space Shuttle mission control room for days through the hurricane, supporting communication from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants, keeping them safe.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

Both my parents were math professors, and so I grew up with a love for math and for learning in general. We had a small telescope and a few books about stars, but I didn’t know more about stars than the average little kid growing up. The first time I remember specifically being interested in space was in 7th grade. We had to do a project about a topic of our choosing in one of my classes, and I chose the solar system. I found the whole thing fascinating, and ended up going way above the requirements because I was just enjoying it so much – I wrote a short report on each planet and the Sun, and made clay models of each planet to place in a hallway at school to show relative distances and sizes. At that time, I would have said I wanted to be an astrophysicist, though I don’t know I really knew what that means.

My best friend and I spent our spring break at Space Academy in Huntsville, AL. As part of this, we participated in simulated missions. I was an astronaut in one of them, but the one I loved the most was when I was the Flight Director in Mission Control.

The next year, my best friend and I spent our spring break at Space Academy in Huntsville, AL. As part of this, we participated in simulated missions. I was an astronaut in one of them, but the one I loved the most was when I was the Flight Director in Mission Control. As a freshman in high school, I had the chance to join a high school robotics team. We participated both in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and in a local competition where I lived in Michigan called OCCRA (Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association). OCCRA also had a girls-only tournament as one of its competitions, and that was an amazing opportunity to get to be involved in all parts of designing, building, and controlling this approximately 70kg robot playing a strategy game.

I was hooked. I continued to be very involved in robotics throughout my high school career. This convinced me that I wanted to do engineering, not science, but I did still want to connect it back to space. My senior year, I heard about an internship program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD called NASA Robotics Academy. I worked with a team of other interns on improving a therapy robot designed to work with kids with autism at a small company with connections to NASA.

NASA's Hurricane Harvey Operations Team Mission Patch - designed by Fiona

NASA’s Hurricane Harvey Operations Team Mission Patch – designed by Fiona Turett

I then started working on my degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace at Washington University in St. Louis. There, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a nanosatellite project through the Air Force, as well as to fly two experiments on NASA’s Weightless Wonder (also known as the Vomit Comet) airplane. It was an amazing few years of school, with NASA internships each summer. I graduated in 2009 and was offered a job in the Safety and Mission Assurance area of JSC, working with space shuttle propulsion. Two years later, when the shuttle program ended, I was lucky enough to take a year off of work and volunteer in Nicaragua to fulfill some other passions of mine. I came back from there in 2012, and have been working in my current group in MCC ever since!

One thing I love about my job is that there isn’t a typical day! I work with the Motion Control Systems of the International Space Station – the systems the ISS uses to know where it is in space.

What does your average day look like in your role?

One thing I love about my job is that there isn’t a typical day!  I work with the Motion Control Systems of the International Space Station – the systems the ISS uses to know where it is in space, what direction it’s facing, and then keeps it where we want it to be. Some days (or nights!) I may be working on console in MCC at the ADCO – Attitude Determination and Control Officer – console, other days I may be teaching astronauts or people who are in training to be flight controllers, and other days I might be running a simulator on the ground. It’s very dynamic. One of my favorite tasks is mentoring our new employees as they work towards their first ADCO certification. Being successful in this role requires both a lot of technical knowledge and a lot of soft skills like teamwork and communication. I love the challenge of helping each individual trainee to achieve their potential, and the joy of celebrating with them when they do.

I actually wasn’t scheduled to be on console for Hurricane Harvey. I was planning for a quiet, wet weekend stuck at my house.

The WFCR (Training Mission Control Room) - now the Flight Control Team's Sleeping quarters

The WFCR (Training Mission Control Room) – now the Flight Control Team’s Sleeping quarters

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

I actually wasn’t scheduled to be on console for Hurricane Harvey. I was planning for a quiet, wet weekend stuck at my house. However, the person scheduled to work Orbit 1 (the night shift) lives about 30 minutes away. He was super proactive and tried to come in over 2 hours before his shift, but the roads were already flooded where he was. I live just a few minutes from NASA, and got a call from my manager at about 9:15pm on Saturday night asking if I could cover the shifts. I had already thrown some clothes in a bag just in case, so I added some food, grabbed my pillow and suitcase, and rushed over to work. The shift didn’t start until 11:30pm, but I could tell the weather was just about to get bad. I am so thankful my coworker was so proactive and tried to come in so early, because I was able to safely get in before the weather got too bad.

With that being the worst night of the storm, no one in Houston slept. Adrenaline definitely kept me awake as we saw more and more reports of flooding around us.

That first night, I was worried about how awake I’d be since I hadn’t been able to sleep shift to prepare for nights. However, with that being the worst night of the storm, no one in Houston slept. Adrenaline definitely kept me awake as we saw more and more reports of flooding around us. FCR-1 (the flight control room we fly ISS from) is in the middle of a big building, and it was a bit surreal because we couldn’t even hear the storm – I never saw it with my own eyes.

That shift, the hardest part was not being too distracted by the surrounding events and being able to focus on ISS operations.

That shift, the hardest part was not being too distracted by the surrounding events and being able to focus on ISS operations. After that, I set up a cot in the front of the WFCR (where we flew Shuttle from – now we use it for training) and tried to sleep. That’s basically how the 4 days went – work the shift, try to get as much rest as possible, and try to check on friends and family without losing focus on work. I was lucky to have two other people from my discipline also in the building, so we were able to trade off either at normal shift handover times or whenever needed to make sure folks were as rested as possible.

That’s basically how the 4 days went – work the shift, try to get as much rest as possible, and try to check on friends and family without losing focus on work.

The whole experience was a bit surreal. But, as I told my mom on the phone one day during it, I was probably in the safest place I could possibly be, and I was dry. I tell people who try to thank me for what I did that the people who they should thank are the first responders and folks who were out rescuing people. They put their life on the line. I simply did my job in order to make sure ISS was safe, and allow the rest of Houston to focus on the hard work.

Cards with well-wishes from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to the Mission Control Team and Astronauts

Cards with well-wishes from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to the Mission Control Team and Astronauts

What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from MCC-H during Hurricane Harvey? 

The hardest part for me was definitely maintaining focus. It’s very important to be focused on the task at hand when on console, because we have to be ready to react in an instant if there is a malfunction in order to keep the crew and vehicle safe. Usually, it’s not hard for me to be focused on console, but it was really hard during Harvey. I constantly had other worries – wondering what the latest alert on my phone would say, wondering the status of my house, wondering if all my friends were safe and dry. It was hard to put that all aside. I was able to do it while on console because that’s my job, but I will say that I didn’t sleep well during the days because my mind was just racing and I kept wanting to check in on people. My roommate did an amazing job keeping me updated on the status of the house and checking for any issues, which was a huge relief. It would have been much more stressful if she hadn’t been home and able to give me updates.

Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?

Probably both. One thing I have always loved about my job is the shared mission and the teamwork, as well as the high standards each person is held to. This experience just made me appreciate that even more. We have a document called the Foundations of Flight Control, which is the basis for how a flight control must act – tough, competent, responsible, etc. I saw my colleagues demonstrate every single one of those virtues during Harvey. Nobody complained, nobody shirked their responsibility. It was an amazing display of teamwork, and just strengthened my admiration for the whole MCC team and my gratitude for having the opportunity to do this job.

Personally, the experience of being at MCC just helped me realize how important each small piece of the puzzle is. In the grand scheme of Houston and what Harvey did, the work I did was miniscule, but it was important and my duty was to do it. I appreciate the importance of doing the task assigned to me well even if it feels insignificant even more than I did before. I also had a really cool experience corresponding with a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL during my time in MCC.

A friend of mine who also works at NASA was visiting her fiancé, and his sister teaches this class. When they were talking about the storm at school, she told her students that people were staying in Mission Control around the clock to keep ISS safe during the storm. The kids wanted to make some cards, which my friend sent to me. I was able to forward them to everyone else staying in MCC as well as the astronauts on ISS, and I think the well-wishes brightened all of our days. I wrote a letter back to them the next day to thank them. I hope that we were able to inspire some of the students, and I am constantly grateful to be in a position to interact with kids and help them dream big.

Messages of good luck from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to NASA's Mission Control Team in Houston and Astronauts on-board the ISS

Messages of good luck from a 4th grade class in Naperville, IL to NASA’s Mission Control Team in Houston and Astronauts on-board the ISS

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

This is a hard question because I seriously love my job and find a lot of it rewarding. One of the most rewarding, though, was changing the way we did Soyuz undockings in order to be more efficient with propellant usage, and then seeing that be executed successfully and bring astronauts home safely. It’s cool to see the little marks we can leave on the space program, and I hope I’ve been able to make the ISS a little better in the past five years. Of course, working Soyuz undocking and landing shifts is very rewarding because they end with three people safely back on planet Earth.

Working Soyuz undocking and landing shifts is very rewarding because they end with three people safely back on planet Earth.

The former NASA Space Shuttle Flight Control Room where the Mission Control Team slept in cots, to keep the International Space Station flying during Hurricane Harvey

The former NASA Space Shuttle Flight Control Room where the Mission Control Team slept in cots, to keep the International Space Station flying during Hurricane Harvey

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

Oh gosh – I think 10 year old me probably could have used a lot of advice! :) If I had to pick one piece, I’d say don’t lose sight of the people involved in whatever you do. I have found that every rewarding part of my career has involved other people either working with me on a team, working on something to help other people, or helping other people in their own career or life. I love engineering and I’ve always been super curious about the world around me, but keeping the focus on the people is what makes it rewarding and makes you easier to work with and more likely to network with the right people.

I designed a patch (the motto, “to the stars through water” is courtesy of our Flight Director Anthony Vareha) for our Hurricane Harvey Ops Team. NASA’s big into mission patches, and this experience sure felt like a mission. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates for our mission this past week.