I’m excited to share that Rocket Women was mentioned in ELLE UK as one of “The Smartest Girl Squads To Bookmark Now“! We have some fantastic company including Stemettes, Nasty Gal and Soapbox Science! Thank you ELLE UK, and I hope that the advice that I post here inspires others to work towards their dreams in STEM.
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 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 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.
A year after Russia sent it’s first female cosmonaut to the International Space Station (ISS), a group of six Russian women are currently undergoing an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon. The accomplished women, with expertise in backgrounds including biophysics and medicine, entered a suite of wood-panelled rooms on October 28 at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems to simulate the mission. The psychological effects of spaceflight are being tested, with a team of doctors and psychologists remotely monitoring the study.
The institute has previously undertaken a 520 day isolation mock mission, Mars 500, in which 6 male candidates lived in similar conditions, simulating a mission to Mars. Another older analogue study with a mixed crew ended early after two male crewmembers fought and one male crewmember attempted to kiss a female crewmember.
One of the most challenging parts of the all-female Russian mock mission may have occurred before it had even started, during the pre-study press conference. The institute’s director Igor Ushakov remarked, “We believe women might not only be no worse than men at performing certain tasks in space, but actually better.” His casual derogatory remarks continued with, “I’d like to wish you a lack of conflicts, even though they say that in one kitchen, two housewives find it hard to live together.” A potentially inspiring endeavour for women in space was unfortunately reduced to a sterotypical comparison of being a housewife and not being good enough for spaceflight. His remarks deepening the fact that a lack of self-confidence in one’s ability is an internal barrier that women battle around the world. When Canadian Space Agency (CSA) retired astronaut Dr.Julie Payette was asked what her biggest challenge in the pursuit of her goals, she admitted that it was “Fear and doubt I wouldn’t perform as needed.” Dr.Payette admitted that it had been her biggest challenge and it had taken a lengthy amount of time to convince herself that she was good for the job, even once she was selected and in training.
The institute director’s remarks continued to set the tone for the press conference, where the 6 women, all experts in their fields, were asked by the press how they would cope without men or makeup for the next week. When the subject being inquired into moved to how they could possibly cope for 8 days without shampoo, the women sarcastically remarked back to the press, “I don’t know how we’ll survive without shampoo. Because even in this situation, we really want to stay looking pretty.” The media’s line of questioning is similar to that faced recently by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th cosmonaut(!) and the first female cosmonaut on the ISS. Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission how she would style her hair in the microgravity conditions on the ISS and how she would continue to bond with her daughter during her 6-month mission. The then head of Russia’s space agency’s remarks about Yelena’s mission of, “We are doing this flight for Russia’s image. She will manage it, but the next woman won’t fly out soon.”, do little to inspire hope in the numbers of Russian women in space increasing in the near future. Though by choosing to conduct a study with 6 female candidates simulating a mission to the Moon, Russia will gain additional results that may help with this issue and hopefully inspire young Russian girls to realise that they can be a cosmonaut too.
After launching to space on both NASA’s Space Shuttle and then the Russian Soyuz rocket, Sunita (Suni) Williams will be the first female NASA astronaut to fly onboard the new US commercial vehicles being developed. Suni, who holds the record for the longest EVA (spacewalk) time by a female astronaut, was chosen along with astronaut colleagues Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley to be the first 4 NASA astronauts to fly aboard the future Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Boeing and Space X were awarded contracts by NASA in September 2014 worth $4.2 billion and $6.2 billion each respectively, to develop the next generation of crew transportation to low-Earth orbit. The crew selection announcement was made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden with the selected astronauts including Suni to begin training with the commercial carriers this year.
Coinciding with the announcement, Suni appeared on stage with fellow NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg to present an inspiring keynote address at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference (ISSRDC).
Get to the starting line
Suni discussed career advice for aspiring astronauts, emphasizing that “Understanding how things work and being an engineer led me to become a helicopter pilot and eventually to JSC. The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. Some of those things when I was young I would’ve considered a failure, but you just need to get to the starting line.” Karen added that her older sister used to laugh and say it was cute when she said she wanted to become an astronaut. However after an internship at NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center she knew that it was the career path for her ,“and here I am”.
Don’t forget the things you learned at Kindergarden
Suni’s next piece of advice was, “Don’t forget the things that you learnt at Kindergarden”. She recalled the experience of living on the ISS with “people from different cultures and backgrounds, people from all over the world”. Suni’s first mission to the ISS as part of a Soyuz crew of 3, was with an American and Russian, with her most recent with only Russian cosmonauts. She highlighted the international nature of spaceflight through her experience of training with an ESA astronaut and acting as backup crew for a Canadian & Russians. Suni described the sometimes stereotypical view, especially outside of North America that, “Canada, you think just above, is close to being American, but it’s very different.” She also sometimes forgot that her Japanese crewmember was from Japan, as he went to school in US. She described her 6 month missions on the ISS as “a marathon not a sprint”. She discussed the fact that astronauts have to prepare for any incidents that happens on the ISS when the crew are asleep, with the ISS systems and controllers waking the crew up at night if anything was happening. Before her flight she wanted to make sure she was prepared. Discussing the nuances of international work culture, her Japansese crewmate, Aki Hoshide, wanted to “just work Japanese style” Amusingly Suni finally got him to stop working by putting on the TV show Family Guy at 6pm.
Karen added that her philosophy was to “Always do your best. Always clean up after yourselves. Admit you’ve made a mistake”. She described astronauts on the ISS as being a “Jack of all trades up there, including scientists. For some science, we get the experiment rack up and running and leave it alone. Sometimes we get to talk to PIs (Principle Investigators)” which is her favourite time. She said that during her work on the ISS she was “always thinking about the people on the ground and doing her best, knowing how important that experiment is to that person”. Karen admitted that once she “changed up” the wrong igniter in combustion rack and delayed their research for a long time, feeling so awful afterwards.
She went on to describe a popular topic fielding questions. “Urine collections is a technique.” Her first time attempting this “was a disaster, I made a mess, and used so many dry wipes than allocated. By end it was easier with a hose and I got better with it.” But she missed the first data point for the research and knew that “data means so much to them”.
Stop and look at the foliage every now and again
Suni’s 3rd lesson to the audience was to “Stop and take a look at the foliage. Just take a moment out and enjoy the journey”. She depicted coming back to Earth on the Soyuz as “Anti climatic when you’re leaving the ISS and closing the hatch, in long underwear and doing leak checks.” You think “something’s exciting’s going to happen, then undock and sit there for whole orbit with the list of tasks in front of you.” She empathetically depicted the “ride home” as spectacular. “Your face is this close to the window and us knuckleheads are close to the fire. Russians in the middle seat. I was in the left seat, starting and stopping the procedures, not wanting to mess it up.” After deorbit burn she described the crew seeing pink outside the window and the window cover dramatically burning off. “The pyros are going off, we can’t talk to the ground. Then things calm down, the parachute deploys and you’re the walnut bouncing around.” Suni hoped the commercial crew that she had recently been selected to fly with, takes a note and learns from the Russians. Suni’s advice was to enjoy the time in space and the journey, mostly enjoying the work with the scientists on the ground.
Karen added that she wished everyone on Earth had 90 mins to see the view from the cupola on the ISS. She exercised on the ARED below the cupola, for an hour every single day. “I just took for granted that I was over the tip of South America again, 240 miles up. How many things on Earth that are magnificent that we take for granted very single day.“
Suni and Karen described that for girls to be interested in STEM and a career in space, videos from a female astronaut’s perspective were very important, even those describing how to wash your hair in space. The HAM radio project was also surprisingly impactful, taking up a tiny slice of an astronaut’s overall training. Suni stated, “We have a whole bunch of things to do, do a spacewalk, grab a visiting vehicle. The HAM radio is 5 minutes and we speak to 10 kids. Sometimes it’s super clear. We get a report afterwards on how many people were at the event and how much time the kids took to prepare. There’s 1000 kids at an event which is pretty impactful. When you’re flying around, doing science experiments there are 1 or 2 people on the ground that are watching. You start to forget there’s a whole load of other people out there and it really chocked me up. HAM radio was huge and public events. When you’re talking to a screen, you don’t know how many people are down there. It’s better for me when it’s down there. I get really nervous when there’s a lot of people and I’m on a big stage.”
She summed up the sole reason for her outreach activities, “We’re trying to inspire the next generation”.
Who inspired you when you were younger? Your teacher? Your parents? If you’re a student, who inspires you now to make those difficult decisions about your future? 1000 girls in high schools around the world are about to get the chance to be inspired and ask their questions to 1000 women in STEM through the impactful 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program, an incredible new initiative from the Global STEM Alliance (GSA). The GSA is ‘an international initiative of more than 90 partners and 50 countries—a collaboration of governments, corporations, educational institutions, and nongovernmental organizations—working together to assure the next the generation of STEM innovators’. The program is currently calling for female mentors in STEM fields GLOBALLY to sign up to the program, which will run from September 2015-September 2016. As having been a mentor myself for girls, I can tell you that it’s extremely rewarding and means a lot to each and every girl that you can impact, a reason why I started Rocket Women. Girls that sign up to the program will be able to directly contact a successful woman currently working in a STEM field to mentor them, along with an entire network of mentors and mentees globally!
If you’re a women working in a STEM field and would like to make a meaningful impact to the future of a girl, SIGN UP!
If you’re a girl considering a STEM career but don’t quite know how, SIGN UP!
Girls decide at the age of 11 to move away from sciences, making the work of this program critical to inspire these girls around the world. Essentially it’ll provide them with tangible female role models, allowing them to speak to someone who has already achieved career success in their STEM field and understands that they’re make the hardest decisions in their education. The numbers speak for themselves. Only one in five UK A-level physics students are female, a figure that has not improved in 20 years. STEM subjects also accounted for 35% of the higher education qualifications achieved by women in 2010/11, a decrease since 2006. This program and others are increasingly important to show the next generation of girls that there is a bright and exciting future for them in science!
If you’re wondering what to buy your 9 year old niece for Christmas this year, then look no further.
Goldieblox, the company founded by Stanford engineer Debra Stirling, has added to their mission to ‘disrupt the pink aisle’ by releasing a new doll and campaign against ‘Big Sister’. Their previous ad campaign earned them an ad slot during the 2013 Super Bowl.
In their new ad, girls dressed in strappy heels and pink dresses, line up to take pretty, skinny Barbie-esque dolls from a conveyor belt, with ‘Big Sister’ on screens conveying in an Orwellian overtone, “You are beauty, and beauty is perfection.”
One girl in the line-up however, doesn’t conform to pick up a doll from the conveyor belt, but destroys the screen using a hammer and alters the machine to create Goldie, a doll with blonde curly hair, red ‘Chucks’ and a hammer. The ad with the tagline, “Other dolls are built for fashion, Goldie is built for action”, should help to promote brains over beauty, essential at a time when girls decide by the age of 11 to move away from science. Something that Disney’s Frozen Elsa doll and Barbie are lacking. A recent study also suggested that playing with Barbies has an effect on young girls’ ideas on their place in the world and limits their sense of what’s possible in the future.
If I personally had to name the biggest obstacle that I had to face during deciding on a career path it would be overcoming preconceived ideals. I’d always known that I wanted to work in the space industry, however it wasn’t a career path that was expected for a girl, especially at an all-girls school. I had to prove to others around me and to myself that it was possible. If the Goldie doll helps to mould attitudes at a young age and encourages girls to study STEM, opening up the possibilities of a science or engineering-based career, I think it’ll make a difference in the career decisions young girls eventually make. It’s a fantastic gift idea with the doll being released just in time for Christmas!
Here’s my older post on Goldieblox’s previous ad and the importance of ‘Being Inspired Young’.
During the Tech Leadership Conference I had the pleasure of meeting Dr.Anita Sands, a visionary female leader in tech and business. Dr.Anita Sands is not only an atomic & molecular physicist (PhD), she was also the youngest ever Senior Vice President at the Royal Bank of Canada, where she served as the Head of Innovation and Process Design. In addition to helping transform Citigroup’s $20B global operations and technology organization, as Managing Director and Head of Transformational Management previously in her career. She is a remarkable women with a equally outstanding background.
During her session Anita explained the presence of a “massive skill gap” in the current workforce and a lack of age diversity in the boardroom. With the average age of directors at 58, Anita discussed the need to to bring a mindset of how social and disruption will affect a company and its industry. Without diversity on boards its possible for company’s to miss the fact that their “competitors are not who they think they are” and ensure that they “create a capacity for change”.
In 2012 Concern Worldwide, the international humanitarian organization, honoured Anita with their Women of Concern award, for her leadership, contribution to public service, and empowering women throughout the world. During her session Anita described her seven “M”‘s for leadership and successful enterprise innovation:
1) Mindset: The need to have a Global Mindset from the get-go. “Innovation is a mindset”
2) Market Validation: Company’s CID/CTO should tell you whether tech works well as part of production development.
3) Market Analysis
4) Make a A Client: First client
5) Mentoring – Sales Capability and Sales client: Learn to scale
6) Management: Founder is usually an engineer and great product focus- good for first step. Need a new management team and CEO to scale. Need a board that can take you to the next level- surround yourself with that team.
7) Money: Lastly and importantly
In summary, essential traits for a successful company were to focus on your customers, disrupt yourself and build out process innovation.
The Tech Leadership Conference also featured other excellent speakers including Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing The Chasm, Dave Caputo, CEO Sandvine and Scott Bedbury, Global Brand Builder for clients including Nike, NASA and Starbucks.