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Engineering

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does your average day look like in your role?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media

Rocket Women Featured At The Bluedot Festival, Jodrell Bank, UK

16 July, 2017
Vinita Marwaha Madill representing Rocket Women at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK!

Vinita Marwaha Madill representing Rocket Women at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK!

I’m excited to share that Rocket Women featured at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in the UK last weekend! The festival is an amazing culmination of science, technology and music, with headliners including Orbital, Alt-J and the Pixies, alongside well-known science communicators including Helen Keen, Tim O’Brien, Chris Lintott, Angela Saini and Helen Czerski. The aim of the Bluedot Festival is to explore the ‘frontiers of human advancement, celebrate science and the exploration of the universe’, alongside exploring the ‘intersections of science, culture, art and technology’!

I had a fantastic day at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank talking about How To Be A Rocket Woman & sharing the stories of Rocket Women featured here, in addition to taking part in a Space Quiz later in the day with comedians Helen Keen & Steve Cross! I’m extremely grateful to everybody that came to listen to my talk. I’m excited to encourage the next generation to follow their dreams in STEM through Rocket Women & hopefully increase the number of young women especially, that choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) & space.

Why is this important? Well, in the UK, one in five schoolchildren would need to become engineers to fill the upcoming gap in engineering. This is coupled with the fact that female engineers in the UK only make up 9% of all engineering professionals! We need to empower young women to be Rocket Women & reverse this trend. Moreover, humanity is only going to reach 50% of its potential if we only have 50% of the workforce working on the world’s hardest engineering problems. Imagine what the world would look like if it reached 100% of its technological potential?

Vinita Marwaha Madill presenting 'How To Be A Rocket Woman' at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, UK

Vinita Marwaha Madill presenting ‘How To Be A Rocket Woman’ at the Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank, UK

Thank you MCR Live for the interview!

Thank you MCR Live for the interview!

It was amazing to meet 8-year-old Chloe after my talk and hear about her space goals! She's a dedicated and inspiring young lady! (Image credit: Claire Mainstone)

It was amazing to meet 8-year-old Chloe after my talk and hear about her space goals! She’s a dedicated and inspiring young lady! (Image credit: Claire Mainstone)

Inspiration

Confidence Is The Missing Key Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration

Illustrations To Inspire Girls In STEM

14 April, 2017

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

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

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

Opening Doors

Opening Doors [Total Jobs]

Opening Doors [Total Jobs]

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

Looking Beyond The Labels

Looking Beyond The Labels [Total Jobs]

Looking Beyond The Labels [Total Jobs]

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

Jobs For The Girls

Jobs For The Girls [Total Jobs]

Jobs For The Girls [Total Jobs]

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

Smashing The Sterotypes

Smashing The Sterotypes [Total Jobs]

Smashing The Sterotypes [Total Jobs]

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

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

Remembering The Pioneers [Total Jobs]

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

Finding Inspiration

Finding Inspiration [Total Jobs]

Finding Inspiration [Total Jobs]

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

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

Options For Girls

Options For Girls [Total Jobs]

Options For Girls [Total Jobs]

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

Opportunity Knocks

Opportunity Knocks [Total Jobs]

Opportunity Knocks [Total Jobs]

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

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

Inspiration, Science Spotlight

Inspiring The Next Generation During British Science Week

17 March, 2016

Britain's first astronaut, Helen Sharman, with High Tunstall College of Science students in Hartlepool, UK,  launching its STEM initiative. [Hartlepool Mail]

Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, with High Tunstall College of Science students in Hartlepool, UK, launching its STEM initiative. [Hartlepool Mail]

This one’s for the Brits.

British Science Week (11-20th March) is being celebrated around the UK this week, organised by the British Science Association. Fortunately, I’m in the UK at the moment and excited to be attending events, especially those focused on space. One popular event in particular, out of the thousands planned, is the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, the ‘largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK’, through a combination of ‘exciting theatre shows, interactive workshops and exhibits, as well careers information from STEM professionals’. The event runs from 16-19 March 2016 and I’d highly recommend anyone, especially young people, with an interest in STEM to attend!

But why is it so important to inspire the next generation to consider science and engineering?

Well, looking to the future, there is a ‘massive skill requirement for engineering‘ upcoming over the next few years. According to a recent report released this month, one in five schoolchildren would have to become an engineer to fill that gap in the UK. With only 15% of UK engineering graduates being female and only 2% of engineering professionals, encouraging more girls to pursue engineering will help to fill this gap, ensuring that they make up 50% of engineering talent.

But we need more engineers and scientists as a whole. Which is why events such as British Science Week and organisations including Stemettes and STEMNET are so essential, and why Rocket Women exists. Inspiring the next generation to consider a degree in STEM isn’t just a nice idea, but a goal that we need to focus on to ensure the UK, and similarly other countries around the globe, have the talent to fill an increasing need for STEM skills in the future.

Update: An event that I couldn’t miss during British Science Week was the Scanning The Horizon: Space Travel Through The Ages event with TV presenter Dallas Campbell and BBC Horizon Editor Steve Crabtree. It was amazing to see footage from the Horizon’s space archives and I even got to do my first on-camera interview for the British Science Association!

Horizon's recent film about British astronaut Tim Peake's training

Horizon’s recent film about British astronaut Tim Peake’s training

Being interviewed for the British Science Assciation at the Scanning The Horizon event (with BBC's Dallas Campbell on the left)

Being interviewed for the British Science Association at the Scanning The Horizon event (with BBC’s Dallas Campbell on the left)

Inspiration

Goldieblox Aims To Disrupt Perfect Beauty Standards

6 November, 2014

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.

Goldie Doll Figurine Comes Complete with a Hammer, Red Chucks and 45-foot zipline! [Goldieblox]

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’.