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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

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

On being inspired to choose a career in astrophysics:

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

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

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

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

On the brilliance of Albert Einstein:

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

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

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

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

On whether there was anything unexpected during her career journey:

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

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

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

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

On following her own dreams:

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

On whether science has become more inclusive for women:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

17 June, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

Madhurita during a flight on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis's Flight Deck

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis’s Flight Deck

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

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

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

15 May, 2017

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are only limited by our own imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

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

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

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

RW: What did you take away from your internship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RW: What’s your favourite book? 

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

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

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

JB: Never give up on your dreams.

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Eloise Matheson, Telerobotic Engineer, European Space Agency (ESA)

24 November, 2016
Eloise with ESA's INTERACT robot, operated by astronauts on-board the International Space Station (ISS). The Telerobotics and Haptics team aims to validate advanced robotic control developed for future exploration programmes.

Eloise with ESA’s INTERACT robot, operated by astronauts on-board the International Space Station (ISS). The Telerobotics and Haptics team aims to validate advanced robotic control developed for future exploration programmes.

Eloise Matheson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in space. Her passion has culminated in her being based at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a Telerobotic Engineer! She recently shared her story with Rocket Women.

On her path to get to where she is now:

I started working at ESA as a British Young Graduate Trainee in September 2014. This program is aimed at providing experience to recent graduates, allowing them to gain an understanding of the European and international space arena. I was placed in the Telerobotics and Haptics Lab at ESA under the Mechatronics and Automation Section. It’s a really wonderful lab of around 10 dedicated and passionate people. When my traineeship finished a year later, I was lucky to stay on as a contractor which is how I am here today. Working at ESA was always a goal of mine. Having previous industrial experience and a strong academic record helped to achieve this.

On the qualifications she needed to gain to become a Telerobotic Engineer:

By education I’m a Mechatronics Engineer. I completed a combined Bachelor’s degree in Mechatronic (Space) Engineering/Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, Australia in 2010. After 18 months of working and travelling, I started a 2 years European Master of Advanced Robotics (EMARO), an Erasmus Mundus program, which finished in 2014. In this program I studied for one year at Warsaw University of Technology, Poland, and my final year at Ecole Centrale de Nantes, France. It was a fantastic program where I learnt not only technical skills, but also had the unique opportunity to experience different cultures and make friends from all around the world.

My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments.

On her favourite things about her job:

My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments under the international METERON project. METERON aims to test telerobotic technology through a series of experiments from the ISS to robotic labs across the world. For us, the latest of these was INTERACT, an experiment where the Danish astronaut Andreas Mogenson controlled our rover on the ground from the ISS to localise and find a taskboard, before driving there and performing a peg-in-hole task with force feedback. It sounds easy to put a peg in a hole, but it is much harder when you are hundreds of kilometers away, controlling a robotic manipulator over a communications link with a nominal delay of 800ms and the peg tolerance to the hole is measured in micrometers! The experiment was a success, and proved that our control strategies, visual interfaces, haptic feedback and master and slave devices were able to complete useful tasks over a space-to-ground link. It was a very exciting, challenging and rewarding project for us. What I physically do each day changes – ranging from mechanical integration of parts, to testing of electrical circuits, to coding for embedded systems and documenting manuals and other procedures.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be.

On how her interest in space grew:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be. The notion of exploring what is beyond our world, of discovering where humanity came from and furthering the boundaries of known knowledge is, I believe, an entrenched human trait that everyone shares. Working in space helps us to achieve this one little bit at a time.

On whether there was anything unexpected about her career journey that was different to her initial expectations:

To be honest, I’m not sure I had initial expectations of what my career journey would be, except that I knew I wanted to work in space. I’m always planning what could happen in the future, but really, the future is impossible to plan in such detail! In hindsight, the steps that pushed me to be on the path I am now were all fortuitous. Of course it took, and continues to take, a lot of hard work, but I truly believe it’s important to be open to opportunities and make the best of every situation as it comes your way. Perhaps my only expectation is to one day experience what it is to look at the Earth from the outside of it…I fully expect this to be a difficult, but incredibly rewarding, path.

As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it.

On how important are role models to young girls:

I think role models, of either gender, are very important to young girls, so that they can see the myriad of options that exist from working in STEM. As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it. One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world. Just as inspirational was my undergraduate thesis supervisor – he said that if the motivation for a choice was to continue learning about the world, then it was the right choice. Of course having opportunities to meet and interact with women and men working in STEM that are supportive and encouraging of girls working in STEM is vital.

One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world.

On if she had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self:

When I was 10, I think my main goals in life were to be an astronaut OR a parking police officer OR a dermatologist – to me these were all incredibly exciting jobs. As I grew older I found I was good at maths and science, but I equally enjoyed English and music. After high school, I wanted to study science – believing it to be a good path to astronaut-hood, and falling into engineering happened almost by a lucky mistake (it’s a long story involving a potential move to a new city, a high school romance and last minute choices). My advice to my 10 year old self, or any 10 year old, is to listen to your instincts about your choices and know that your interests and dreams will change and that’s ok. It’s also ok to not know what you want to do…but if you don’t know, studying engineering is an awesome option as it probably gives you more choices for career paths after finishing than any other degree.

Don’t think you can’t succeed on a certain career path simply because you don’t tick all the boxes at that point. I failed my first programming course in C at university – I had never coded before at high school. In hindsight I would have changed when I started seeing computers as a tool rather than a box playing music and accessing the internet, but at that time of my life I didn’t know what coding was. Now I see it as a language, and a fairly universal one at that. I finished high school in 2005 – I think there is a huge difference between the online learning facilities that exist for children now compared to then, as well as a shift in educational curriculums putting more emphasis on technical skills. Would I have done things differently? I don’t think so. I’m very happy where I am now. I’m excited what the future holds. Probably the advice my 10 year old self would tell me today is not give up dreaming, not give up on optimism and maintain the strong belief that everything is possible with enough motivation and drive.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Anima Patil-Sabale, NASA

27 May, 2016
Anima suited up wearing a Final Frontier Design Spacesuit for a suborbital flight on the XCOR LYNX spacecraft simulator

Anima suited up wearing a Final Frontier Design Spacesuit for a suborbital flight on the XCOR LYNX spacecraft simulator

Anima Patil-Sabale is on a mission to be an astronaut. She is based in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center and has worked on NASA’s Kepler Mission for more than 3 years, with 14 years of experience in the software industry prior.

Anima was selected as Commander for the HERA VII mission, a 14 day Human Exploration and Research Analog at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She is a First Tier Support Engineer for Hi-SEAS and scientist-astronaut candidate for Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere). She kindly shared her story with Rocket Women.

On how she was inspired to study space:

It all began when I was 7 years old and we had a book fair at our school, St. Josephs Convent in the small city of Jalgaon in Maharashtra, India. At this book fair I came across books that had pictures of the US and Russian spacecrafts, astronauts lying on their backs when launching and Apollo astronauts. On that day I said to myself if I ever want to become something in life it is this – I want to become an astronaut. Now I decided that and saw one of the most difficult dreams of all, but had no way to figure out how I was going to go about making my dream come true. To top that there criticism and taunts I had to face when I would tell people I want to become an astronaut.

On her inspiration and overcoming setbacks:

My only inspiration was Astronaut Rakesh Sharma, India’s one and only astronaut so far [at the time]. Growing up I thought to myself, like him I will become a fighter pilot and then I will have a chance to become an astronaut. I was a good student always amongst the top. I participated in extracurricular activities, was a member of our school’s singing group, participated in dances, debates and speeches. I did great at school and then although India wasn’t accepting women as fighter pilots yet, I was hopeful that by the time I graduated things would’ve changed. The fighter pilot application said they were looking for graduates in engineering or physics. Since my Dad said whatever you want to study it has to be here, so going out of town to study engineering wasn’t an option and hence I decided to do BS Physics. I used to love physics anyways, and astronomy really interested me. I did my bachelors project on the same and I graduated with a distinction. I got the fighter pilot application and even though it said ‘only males’ can apply , I decided to apply anyways, but was defeated in one criteria – I was slightly short sighted and they needed a perfect 20 20 vision. All my world collapsed around me that day, it felt like everything was over now!

I got the fighter pilot application and even though it said ‘only males’ can apply, I decided to apply anyways.

On fighting for an education:

I didn’t know what I was going to do and the summer passed. It was time to make a decision about what I wanted to do next. I didn’t want to do a masters in Physics. My Dad suggested the MCA (MS Computer Applications), a 3-year-old program that had started at our North Maharashtra University in Jalgaon. With only 30 seats it was tough to get into but I got in. Dad wasn’t sure if I should do it as it was a 3-year program and he said there were marriage proposals coming for me, and he could not guarantee that I will be able to complete my degree if they liked a boy who was suitable for me and decide to get me married. My Mom said to him, “She’s smart and ambitious, let her study, we can negotiate with her would be in-laws and husband to let her complete her studies”. That’s how I finally got to do the MCA, a big thanks to my Mom!

On meeting her husband and following Indian cultural expectations:

Dinesh, my husband was a year senior to me when I was studying for my Masters. He really liked me and proposed to me. I asked him to meet my parents if he really liked me. I thought that would deter him, but he surprised me and did come to meet my parents! We got married while I was finishing my first year of MCA. I continued to stay at my parents while I completed MCA, Dinesh stayed at his parents, and we completed our studies. When it was time for me to look for 6 month industrial training and Dinesh was looking for job, we came to Mumbai and after a lot of efforts finally were picked by a small company together.

On moving to the US from India:

After 2.5 years in Mumbai we got the opportunity to come to the US on the H1B visa through the same company. In March 2000, we came to San Jose, California where we started settling in new jobs and making our new home here. In a couple of years I found out there was a NASA centre here, I was seeing the space shuttles launch and I remember watching Columbia launch.

On finding her true goal and the importance of persistence:

Seeing the shuttles launch regularly, knowing about NASA Ames being close, my dream, that had become dormant, started beckoning me again. I saw hope of doing something here so with a full-time job as software engineer and with a 3 year old, I applied and got accepted for my second Masters – MS Aerospace Engineering degree at San Jose State University. While studying I kept applying at NASA, Lockheed, Space Systems – all local Bay Area aerospace companies for jobs. But I wasn’t a citizen and so I wouldn’t get any calls. I kept at it though. By the time I completed my second Masters, I had my second son! I did complete my MS with a decent GPS 3.24 /4 – not bad for a full-time mom and working woman! I completed the degree in 2010 but still had no success in getting even a call from NASA.

On that phone call from NASA:

In 2012 when I was couple months away from becoming a citizen, I got a call from the hiring manager for a position on Kepler Mission. His first question was are you a US citizen and when he found out I was about to become one he called me in for an interview. One interview with about 10-12 scientists, managers and engineers and I landed the job. They liked my Aerospace and Software engineering background. I enjoyed working on Kepler as a Senior Principal Software Engineer in Operations Engineer role. While working on Kepler, I started doing talks about Kepler and NASA. I became a NASA mentor for girls. I was a Cub Scout Den Leader for my boys. I also started coaching my elder son’s Lego Robotics league and I started my private pilot lessons

I was doing these talks so I could guide the younger generation, provide them the direction I couldn’t get growing up.

On sharing her story to guide the younger generation:

When I went to India in summer 2014, on a friend’s insistence and my alma matter North Maharashtra University’s invitation, I did a few talks. The people in my hometown developed an interest in my story and I got more invitations for talks and interviews. It was all humbling and exciting because I was doing these talks so I could guide the younger generation, provide them with the direction that I couldn’t get growing up. Age is one factor against me, I am not getting any younger, I will do what I can to work towards my dream and I will apply to the astronaut program but whether I succeed or not in achieving my goal, I will adhere to my motto of “Guide, Motivate and Inspire” the youth and kids, our future generation. Advise them on career options, paths get them interested in STEM and be an advocate for human space exploration. I have continued to do that. I did several talks during that 2014 trip and during a recent visit in January 2016 in India. I have been doing the same here in the Bay Area in the US.

The interest in my story has grown, after interviewing with the media, a lot of people have been wanting to connect with me. I have created a Facebook page to share my story and to answer questions. I am also putting a website together.

On participating in simulated Mars missions:

Two years ago I got selected for a four month simulated mars mission in Hawaii, HiSeas. Since I couldn’t get a vacation from work for four months I had to let go of that opportunity, but I have been doing mission support for HiSeas since. Last summer I got selected to participate in the HERA (Human Exploration and Research Analog) mission at Johnson Space Center. We were a crew of 4. I was designated Commander and we were in a simulation for 14 days , our mission was rendezvous with an asteroid GeoGraphos. It was a great learning experience and I totally loved it. The tough part was being away from the boys as this was my first time ever being away from them for so long, but they did fine thanks to my husband!

On Being a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM and Project PHEnOM:

Recently, I got selected as a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM – Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere; a project supported by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. During the 5 day training for this project at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University campus in Daytona, Florida, I  trained in aerobatic aircrafts and experienced High-G and Zero-G flights and performed Anti-G maneuvers to avoid motion sickness, nausea and such symptoms that are experienced by pilots and astronauts during such flights. I also trained for high-altitude decompression recognition and recovery in a hyperbaric chamber up-to an altitude of 22000 ft.

After studying about noctilucent clouds and Earth’s upper mesosphere, I  got to perform a flight on XCOR Lynx’s Spacecraft Simulator in a pressurized Final Frontier Design Spacesuit, as a scientist-astronaut candidate, and use the PoSSUMCam to collect science data on the clouds.

I have now been selected to participate as Citizen-Scientist Astronaut in Project PHEnOM – Physiological, Health, and Environmental Observations in Microgravity; it is one of the world’s first commercial human spaceflight research programs, training and utilizing citizen scientist-astronauts and mission support specialists to carry out its mission objectives. I look forward to this training.

This training and experience gives me the skills and confidence to forge ahead towards my childhood dream and putting together a strong Astronaut Application. I have applied to NASA’s Astronaut Selection program and while I wait for the yearlong process to unfold and find out where I stand in the same, I plan on continuing my adventures.

Being a Mom and a wife who’s 40 years now, it has been a tough ride. I faced a lot of opposition from my parents and husband when I decided to do the MS degree and for everything I do that’s out of the norm for a married woman and Mom.

On re-writing Indian tradition and waking up at 4am to reach her goal:

Being a Mom and a wife who’s 40 years now, it has been a tough ride. I faced a lot of opposition from my parents and husband when I decided to do the second Masters degree and for everything I do that’s out of the norm for a married woman and Mom.  I have struggled, argued and stood my ground. I have never failed in any of my motherly duties or duties as a wife, daughter and daughter in law, they have seen this and have come to support me now. I am happy and in a good place as family support matters a lot when you are pursuing a tough dream as this!

I was able to convince parents to let their kids pursue the careers that the kids want and not what the parents want – that is one of the biggest challenges in India and a lot of students were telling me the same right in front of their parents!

I go above and beyond to make them my priority and put my dreams and goals as the last priority. I wake up at 4am everyday, cook lunch, pack lunches for everyone, lay out breakfast and clothes for the boys and then come to work by 6am. I leave work at 2pm and get home by 3pm when my boys come home from school then I can help them with their homework, do the dishes and start cooking. I am my younger son’s cub scout leader, and my older son’s Assistant Scout Master, Lego Robotics coach and an active participant in their activities. When I get time I carry out my flying lessons to become a pilot and I recently became a PADI Certified Open Water Scuba Diver.

I think it’s important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story.

During my talks recently in India, I was able to convince parents to let their kids pursue the careers that the kids want and not what the parents want – that is one of the biggest challenges in India and a lot of students were telling me the same right in front of their parents. It felt like ‘mission accomplished’ when I was able to convince the parents they should allow their child to pursue the field they love because then they will enjoy it all their life. Their work will be something they will look forward to everyday !

I think its important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story.

On her goals for the future:

I would love to contribute to more simulations as it’s a neat way to contribute towards the much needed research for long duration spaceflight. But I also have to stay in my family responsibility and work responsibility boundaries, so I’m doing whatever I can. I have applied to the NASA astronaut program. Whether I succeed or not, I think it’s important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story. I will also have the satisfaction that even though somewhat late in life, I made an attempt towards my dream while enjoying my journey every step along the way.

Anima is passionate about human space exploration, long-duration spaceflight. Anima is also a recent graduate of the Project PoSSUM suborbital scientist-astronaut training program. Anima pursues her motto to Inspire, Guide and Motivate the younger generation and provide them the direction she missed out on while growing up; through her Facebook page. You can follow Anima on her journey towards the stars here.  She is also a proud Mom of 2 handsome boys, and wife to a doting husband.

How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Emma Lehnhardt, NASA

23 January, 2016

Emma Lehnhardt with NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot [L] and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden [R]. accepting an award at NASA HQ Honors Awards ceremony on behalf of her team, who organized NASA's first FedStat meeting.  FedStat is a new initiative to benchmark across all federal agencies and focus on mission performance.

Emma Lehnhardt with NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot [L] and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden [R].
accepting an award at NASA HQ Honors Awards ceremony on behalf of her team, who organized NASA’s first FedStat meeting. FedStat is a new initiative to benchmark across all federal agencies and focus on mission performance.

Emma Lehnhardt discusses her impressive career at NASA, the future of the agency, her initial love for astrophysics before transitioning to space policy and being mindful of her supportive relationship. 

[Disclaimer: The following represents Emma’s personal opinion, not that of her employer NASA]

Q) You work at NASA as an Operations Research Analyst, and previously worked at The Tauri Group as a Technology Analyst. What was the path to get to where you are now? How did you get your job at NASA?

The path started when I was in college & grad school. In college I studied Politics & Astronomy and in grad school I went to George Washington (GW) University and studied space policy. When you do a job like space policy, a lot of people are aiming towards NASA and I thought that after graduation I would go straight to NASA, especially since as I had done an internship at NASA Headquarters in my last year as a grad student. But it’s really hard to get a job in the US Civil Service. So what happened was right as I was graduating I was going to the International Space University and I wanted to make sure I had a job lined up for when I got home. Nothing was happening with the applications that I was putting in with the government and I got a job offer just out of the blue on the spot, a fantastic opportunity with Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm. Booz Allen Hamilton, the government services company, worked a lot with the airforce, with DARPA and NASA. It was a really good first job for me.

I had wanted to go and work for NASA, but here I was consulting for them. I got to do some good projects for the applications division of the Earth Science part of the [NASA} Science Mission Directorate and also work for other government clients, but to be honest I had in my brain that I would always become a civil servant for NASA. It was just a long process to get there. So I worked at Booz Allen for about three years and then went to go and work for The Tauri Group, also aerospace consulting and contracting for NASA for another three years. During that entire time I was trying to get jobs at NASA, and it took that long to get the right match through the USA Jobs process and get hired.

So it was honestly a little bit of luck, but my work at The Tauri Group being an onsite support contractor helped tremendously. Because I got to spend two years doing basically the exact same job that I got to come into as a NASA Civil Servant.

One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

Q) How did you choose to take politics & astronomy? Did you originally wanted to choose both and then figure out exactly which way to go?

That was a complicated decision. I grew up a complete space nerd. My parents’ dining room at home is their library. The table is right in the middle of all these books and they’re all classic science fiction. So growing up I loved space, loved science and got the opportunity to take geology and astronomy during my senior year at high school, which I don’t think a lot of people get the chance to do. I loved astronomy and thought that I wanted to go into that at college and a career.

I noticed that one of the questions that you have on the [Rocket Women] website is about ‘What piece of advice would you give your 10 year old self?’. For me it would be don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t do math. I firmly believed that I could not do math, yet I really liked astronomy. I got to Calc 2 in college and it wasn’t going so well. Right about then I discovered this thing called the Space Policy Institute. I’d also been taking some politics and political history classes, loved those too. I figured that if my college would let me do a major in politics and a minor in astronomy, instead of a major of astronomy, that that would be a really good combo to set me up for space policy in grad school. And they let me do that and switch things around.

One of my astronomy professors in college sat me down and asked me what I thought a career in astronomy was. I think I had very romantic visions of Jodie Foster in Contact, and observatories and seeing the stars overhead at night. And my professor said, “No it’s by yourself with a computer, running simulations with a computer. It’s not this romantic vision that you have. So if you are not actually interested in this maybe you should think of something else.”

There are lots of different pathways to working for an organization like NASA.  We need more STEM graduates, absolutely, and I want to encourage young women especially to pursue those fields, but we also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it.  One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

Q) Can you tell me about when your interest in space grow when you were younger?

I’ve thought about this a lot and tried to figure out where it came from. I’m sure there must have been something younger than this. When I was in high school, my friends and I did not want to eat lunch in the cafeteria. So we used to go to the Astronomy Room, which was open and plastered wall-to-wall with images of Jupiter and Mars. And a big globe of the Moon. I found that really inspiring. My astronomy teacher when I took the class in my senior year of high school was Mr.Gallagher and I think about him a lot. Not only was it an astronomy class, we had star watching nights after school and we had a huge inflatable planetarium that we, the high school students, would take around to the elementary schools and do star shows for the elementary kids. We also went to the Space & Flight Museum in Seattle and I think they must have a Challenger Centre there. The astronomy class did a mock up Mars mission and I think I got to be the Mission Commander. All of that really just became such a firm foundation for everything afterwards.

I’m very fortunate that nobody ever said to me you can’t do X,Y and Z because you’re a girl.

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

It’s very important to be able to visualize someone like you. I honestly can’t picture who it was that I idolized or looked up to as a role model when I was a very young girl. I’m pretty sure they were all fictional characters. One of my professors recently posted on Facebook asking for book recommendations for his young grandson who had just devoured the Harry Potter books and was looking for something next, I went back and looked at the Young Adult and SciFi books that I had read when I was in middle and high school and found to my astonishment that my mother had given me all these fantastic books that resonate with me to this day, I’ve just gone back and re-read some of them, that all happened to have independent, fearless, female main characters. I didn’t know what she was doing at the time but I do now! It’s really important to see characters like Rey in the Star Wars film. I also thought about Ridley from Alien. They’re awesome characters, not awesome female characters.

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

I’ve been trying a lot recently to remind myself where I am, which is in a job that I’ve always wanted to have, and that I’m very fortunate and I’m very proud of myself. Even when I’m having a rough day, everyone has a rough day, I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic team that I love seeing everyday. That’s very helpful. Starting to take yoga about 5 years ago was fantastic and learning to breathe deeply is probably the most important thing. Taking a breath, walking away and then all of a sudden everything feels better.

Having a husband that you can talk through everything with, even silly office drama also helps a lot. We’re very mindful of the partnership that we craft. I really like the word partner and how you think of each other. Theoretical physicist Mary K. Gaillard was recently asked, “What piece of advice do you have for young women?” She said, “Do What You Like. Find A Nice Partner.” And that was it. I read that sentence over and over again and yes that was it! I like to think of myself as Kris’ [Emma’s husband] career manager and he’s my career manager. Every step is discussed and analyzed over glasses of wine.

I got to a point when I was pretty unhappy in a previous job, when I was coming home every day crying and complaining. Kris listened and was supportive but also said, “I can’t help you in this situation. You need to say something to the people involved.” It took months, but I finally did. Now years later I think I’m much better at speaking truth to power and being honest with my bosses when something’s not right. Because you have to make your own happiness. It take a lot time to get there, especially if you’re not naturally contentious. If you don’t good things won’t happen if you don’t speak you’re mind.

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

Not getting to be a government employee right off the bat after grad school was certainly one of them, and the other was meeting Kris [Emma’s husband]. I went to ISU [International Space University] saying, I’m not going to be one of those girls, I’m not going to be an ISU couple. Now 7 years later we’ve just celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. It was unexpected for me, but more a major life upheaval for him having to move the United States. I’ve been in Washington DC now for 10 years and I’m so grateful that Kris was able to come down here, and that he’s had a rewarding career in the field that he wanted here. I think the next phase is going to be driven by his next decisions and that’s only fair. Because last time it was because of me here in Washington DC. It flips flops. People in our generation can have 2 or 3 entirely different careers in their lifetimes. They never know where things are going to go.

An interesting thing the other day when the Forbes 30 under 30 list came out. The website had some infographics where they asked ‘How do you define success?’ and 2% said ‘Wealth’. The majority said the equivalent of ‘Personal well-being’ and ‘Happiness’. I looked at that graphic and I thought that is the one thing I would show to people in my industry, at NASA, who come from a different generation and don’t understand this one. I think that would help them understand it to see that it’s a different way of looking at your life. Sometimes it takes you by surprise.

Another unexpected thing that happened to me was learning how much I like budgets. When I was in my first year in grad school, my professor heard that the Office of Management and Budget was going to have an internship for the summer. He said, ‘You’d be great for this, you should apply,’ and I think I might have rolled my eyes at him because I thought the Office of Management and Budget sounded like the most boring thing ever and do I really want to have my head stuck in an Excel page for all summer long? And I LOVED it and it’s what I love to do now still.

Senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.

Q) You work in Washington DC and we were talking about mentors earlier. Have mentors, both men and women, been influential in your career choices and path?

Absolutely. One of my favourite things to do now is go out to coffee with people and just talk about all of the options on the table. One of the surprising and best thing that I’ve discovered in the last two years as a civil servant is that you really have the opportunity to move around lot. I went on detail [at NASA’s Office of the Administrator] for 5 months, it seems like there’s always another option around the corner, something fantastic. I finally got over the nervousness of asking people for advice and help. People love talking about that. The thing I’ve discovered recently is that senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.

I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”

Q) Has NASA changed at all with the rise of the commercial space sector? 

NASA really has changed. When I started in Washington DC the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program was still relatively new and hadn’t had a lot of successes yet, and there was a feeling within NASA, within the White House that this was a test. This was a brand new way of doing business, we’re not sure about these partners, let’s see how this goes. And now it is so ingrained as a way of doing business, that when we think about our next steps beyond the International Space Station we’re thinking about Public-Private-Partnerships and the Space Act Agreement Model, it’s not just a new and different acquisition mechanism, it’s a new way of thinking about how NASA can accomplish its mission.

We are at a bit of a critical juncture as an agency and over the past 5 months I had the opportunity to work at the Office of the Administrator. I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”. The idea that within ten years’ time, in twenty years’ time with looming huge massive numbers of retirements that the workforce would shift to become just an acquisition workforce is not the vision that we’re going towards, I don’t think. We just need to define our niches where our workforce will still be the technical leaders in the world, in these certain areas. So we will still be an R&D agency absolutely. Especially for the things that there is no business case for, yet. Planetary Exploration for example.

How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic

2 December, 2015
Sirisha Bandla Flying High During A Parabolic Flight

Sirisha Bandla Flying High During A Parabolic Flight

In 6 years Sirisha Bandla has risen from a Co-Op (Intern) to positions including Associate Director of Washington DC based Commercial Spaceflight Federation and her present Government Affairs role at Virgin Galactic. With a background in Aerospace Engineering and an MBA from George Washington University, her passion for space and outreach is paramount. I interviewed her recently to talk about her impressive career trajectory.

Could you maybe tell me a little about your journey from choosing to study aerospace & astronautical engineering to how you became involved in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF)? How did you get started?

How I got to CSF is completely by, I would say, coincidence. I know I’ve always wanted to be part of the space industry since I was little. I think it’s kind of unique in the sense where that I’ve never had that turning point in my life saying YES this is the industry that I wanted to be in. I’ve always wanted to go into space since I can remember. That being said, I also wanted to be an archaeologist or a marine biologist, or whatever movie was hot at that time. Going into space and being to be an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

Going into space and being to be an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

In high school I played the cello and was a debater on the speech team, I liked math, I was good at math; it wasn’t my favourite thing to do. But because I wanted to go into space, I decided to study aerospace engineering at Purdue [University]. Actually [as for] how I got to CSF , after graduating I went to work for a defense company out in Texas and by chance my professor at Purdue that I flew on the Zero-Gravity aircraft with, called me and said ‘Hey this opening came up in DC, I know you’ve always wanted to be part of the commercial space movement. This is probably a good stepping stone, what do you think’. I said ‘Sure’, and I interviewed and that’s how I ended up here. So it wasn’t something I planned at all, I took some chances.

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

I will admit that I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was in High School I looked at the traditional route of maybe being a pilot or at least be an engineer, being great in my field and applying but my eyesight is awful. By the time I reached high school it reached the limit where I could never be a NASA astronaut and I was a little bit disappointed but I still wanted to be in the space industry. My sophomore year in 2004 was when Spaceship One claimed the XPRIZE and when I saw that I was revitalized and refreshed. One of the draws of that was that I didn’t have to go through NASA to go to space, and I could still be a part of something that’s expanding humanity’s outreach into space without going the traditional route. And when I decided there was still hope for me to go into space I joined the commercial space sector.

Who has been your inspiration throughout your life?

It was a combination, I was pretty lucky to have been surrounded by parents and teachers that support their students and encourage them to reach as high as they want to go. It wasn’t ‘Hey Sirisha, reach for space or for the stars’. It was whatever you want to do, you can do it. I think that really shaped how I thought, it wasn’t them telling me to reach for the stars and go above and beyond. It was whatever you wanted to do, there was nothing that prevented you from doing it, if you put your mind to it. I think a message that’s getting increasingly important, and one that really appeals to me about the commercial space side is that women or children in general, don’t need to be engineers, or don’t need to be the best mathematician to be a part of the space industry.

The commercial space industry is very business oriented. We need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

I was speaking to students about space, and this young girl came up to me and said that she really loved space and wanted to be an astronaut, but she wasn’t not really that great at math. It was really discouraging to see that kind of thinking, ‘I’m not good at math, so I can’t go to space or join the space industry’. Whilst math and all the STEM fields are important, I think the messaging that you can do anything that you can put your mind to is very important. Someone that’s passionate about business, or passionate about the arts can be a part of the STEM field. Especially the commercial space industry, it’s very business oriented and we need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

One my favourite quotes is by Sally Ride, “If You Can’t See, You Can’t Be” and inspired me to start Rocket Women. How important do you think role models are in today’s society and are they fundamental to ensuring future generations in STEM?

It’s very important. It’s very easy for someone to tell you and it’s important that message it heard. But it’s not as powerful as having someone there, having someone tangible to show you that that message it true. It’s the difference between hearing about it and actually seeing it, there’s something that I think we’re wired to see. Something physical resonates with the younger generation and myself, rather than just reading something on paper and hearing that you can do it. As an example, my boss at CSF has a daughter that 5 years old, and I actually went and spoke to her class about space and what they can do in space. After the class his daughter came up to me and said that it ‘was so awesome but can girls be astronauts?’ My boss was like yes of course, there’s tons of female astronauts, astronauts can be anybody! She took that to heart and this past weekend she got to meet Sandy Magnus, an astronaut and a woman. It was one thing for her Dad to say, of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be, but there was another facet of it of her actually meeting an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

One of the reasons that his daughter actually asked him if there were female astronauts, was that every time she saw astronauts either speaking at an event or on TV, it was a male. That’s what she got in her head that there weren’t any girl astronauts because of that lack of visibility. So even having some female astronauts speaking to them, it resonates in a different way.

It was one thing for her Dad to say, of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be, but there was another facet of it of her actually meeting an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy [Magnus] really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

What has been the proudest moment for you in your career?

When I was doing more engineering work, I think one of the things that’s a little bit tough about engineering is that you can work on a project that you’re passionate about, but it’s a long way down the road before you see the project come to life. Sometimes engineers don’t even get that moment because programs can be cancelled. But when I was working as an engineer, I did the Finite Element Analysis on CHIMRA, basically the dirt scoop [used for sample acquisition] of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), and now’s on another planet. So one of my proudest accomplishments is that some of my engineering work has landed on another planet. And something about that makes me very excited and proud that I’ve done a small bit to further exploration of our universe.

What was the most difficult phase of your career? Was it transitioning to another role or not achieving something you wanted to do?

Throughout people’s careers they get into ruts or have to re-evaluate their lives, to figure out what they’re doing. And for me I have a MSL sticker on the wall, that was given to me by the project manager at the time and anytime that happens I can just look at the sticker and remember that what I’m doing is something that I’m passionate about and it just takes that one image to boost my morale that day if I’m in a rut.

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

I think it’s definitely changed from when it started. Just looking at the astronaut class, which has gone from all male, to the latest class which is 50/50, which was unheard of. In general of women getting positions in the aerospace sector I think it’s fantastic, because women are excelling in the field and landing jobs just as well as the men. That being said I don’t think it’s a completely equal playing field just yet, I think it’s a better environment for sure and everyone that I’ve ever worked with has been amazing. I’ve never felt that I’m less qualified than the next person and that’s because of the people I work with who are fantastic. But I have run into people that have felt that they didn’t have a problem getting the job, but in the workplace people may make comments or speak down a little bit, because you may be a woman. I think the struggle for our generation is that it’s hard to speak up sometimes, because you’re in a position where you speak up and it’s taken as you’re hardcore feminist and you’re sensitive. I think still with our generation there’re still some lines that you need to make sure aren’t crossed and we need to pave the way for the next generation. Like the previous generation made sure that it’s an equal playing field to get jobs, and now we just need to make sure that that playing field, just in terms or how women are treated is a little more equal. I think that in the US maternity leave is an area of improvement for sure. Even now some of my friends are having babies and that means I’m old! But just from their view, even outside the aerospace sector in the US there’s definitely areas for reform for women.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given or worst?

I think the best piece of advice was to take chances. I think you can get into a position where not everything is ideal and I think there’s times where you should factor in, what’s good in terms of salary you can live off, your happiness in the job, your proficiency. But I think there’s another portion of are you passionate about the job. When I was moving to CSF, which is a non-profit, I was leaving a very stable job to move to DC where I didn’t really know anybody, and hadn’t done anything in policy, but I knew what I wanted to do and how I could definitely help the industry move forward. It was a very big chance that I was taking there but it was one of the best outcomes I could’ve imagined. So I think at that point it was my parents saying that I should take a chance and right now if anything happens you can recover, you’re not done. I think that was the best piece of advice.

On the other hand when I was leaving this company to go to DC, my boss who had been an engineer for his entire life at one or two companies at most, actually had told me in my exit interview that what I was doing was a stupid idea and if I failed I could come back there. That was some of the advice given to me about going to DC too and going into space, I know it wasn’t the most stable or 100% successful decision I could’ve made but I think because of that I will continue to take my chances and follow my passion.

When you’re young you definitely experience as much as you can. I thought it was always a little bit interesting to decide at 18 to choose a degree and decide your career for the rest of your life. Which to me is a little bit ridiculous, because I had no idea how I was going to get into space, because the NASA route had gone away. For other students that unlike me may not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, to choose a degree at 18 seems a little bit ridiculous to me. So outside of that, you take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

Take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

Making these decision by the time they’re 11-years-old, they need to have exposure and role models in different areas of STEM. Really seeing what’s out there and knowing what’s out there so they can make an informed decision is really important. I think schools are trying to do better at that, but there’s so much more we can do. I’m really happy to see that with the rise of social media and connectivity we’re seeing right now, there’s a lot of ways you can transmit that information. You can have astronauts from the ISS speak to young [school] grades and I think there’s so much more potential that can be built on that.

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

I think that every decision I made since I was 10 years old had a consequence, whether it was a good outcome or a bad outcome, I think it taught me something. I don’t think I would go back and change anything, unless I could change my eyesight, but that’s something that’s completely out of my control. If I could go back and give myself some advice, I would say that I’m learning that I had lessons to learn from each outcome whether it was good or bad now. I think that if I was cognizant of that when I was young, even if I failed, I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it. So my advice would be, no matter what, just keep learning. You make a decision that ends up in total failure or you make a decision that ends up in complete success, and you might learn a lot more from the failure than the success. But no matter what, completely take in the lessons from your decisions and keep learning. There’s lots to acquire from skills and knowledge, role models and mentors. You can learn from everyone and everything, and I think that’s very valuable. I’ve gained so many mentors just from being in DC. I learn from my job, but I learn so much more from the people that surround me everyday.