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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty, Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI)

9 July, 2017
Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty speaking on-stage

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty speaking on-stage at the University of Waterloo, Canada

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty’s career has spanned continents. Beginning in Nigeria with a space law background, her high achieving career trajectory has included a PhD in Space Law at McGill University to presently researching the link between space and climate change in her current role as a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada! Timiebi was also recently awarded the IAF Young Space Leaders award in 2017. She talks to Rocket Women about her achievements, space law, how her family shaped her career and the one piece of advice she’d give her 10-year-old self.

RW: Congratulations on your IAF Young Space Leaders 2017 award! How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry & law?

Thank you. I know that there are literally millions of people who do amazing and necessary things everyday and don’t get the opportunity to showcase their passion and talent. I am very grateful that my work has been recognized by the International Astronautic Federation.

Not only did I not imagine having a career in the space industry, I didn’t imagine that I would have had such a wide array of experiences in the industry. I have worked as a consultant for Euroconsult, a boutique consulting company in Montreal, Canada that serves the space sector, I have worked at the Nigerian Space Agency in Legal Affairs and International Cooperation, I was executive director of the World Space Week Association coordinating the global response to a UN declaration that World Space Week should be celebrated from October 4-10 each year.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear “space law is a real thing? Tell me about it!” By sharing my story with others, people share their stories with me, so I’ve met a lot of people I ordinarily wouldn’t have met through being in the space industry.

I have been a researcher in space issues doing a PhD in Space Law at McGill University and researching the link between space and climate change in my current role as a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. I’ve also had the opportunity to support space initiatives such as the New York Centre for Space Entrepreneurship and act as Associate Chair for the space policy, law and economics department of the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program.

What I love best about this career choice is interacting with smart people who do things that I can’t, like build rockets and satellites and the inspirational and wow factor of space. I get to have really cool conversations with people because space is such a great conversation starter. I can’t tell you how many times I hear “space law is a real thing? Tell me about it!” By sharing my story with others, people share their stories with me, so I’ve met a lot of people I ordinarily wouldn’t have met through being in the space industry.

RW: Did you need any specific education or training in order to qualify for your current role?

I currently work for a think tank that makes a difference in today’s world by bringing clarity and innovative thinking to global policy making, focusing on governance of the global economy, global security and politics, and international law. The required attributes for my job are reading and writing skills, creativity to come up with new ideas, public speaking as there are lot of presentations and relationship building and networking to share ideas and to influence.

While I worked as a consultant during my PhD studies, doing a PhD was a good way to develop all these skills. One of the best things that I did was to write regular opeds for a newspaper on space issues as they affect Africa and this was really useful for my current job because I had to learn how to communicate clearly to a general audience, in an actionable/call to action manner, which is different from academia. For my role as associate chair at ISU [International Space University], a PhD is not required, rather creativity, teaching and mentoring and organizational skills, but it demonstrates an interest and commitment to the area which gives a bit more credibility with the students.

Having started my career in Nigeria and with a space law background, people are often surprised that I have been able to have all these exciting international experiences! I think most people think that because space law is such a niche area, that it would be hard to find work.

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty

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

Having started my career in Nigeria and with a space law background, people are often surprised that I have been able to have all these exciting international experiences! I think most people think that because space law is such a niche area, that it would be hard to find work. However, I think that most people have to be creative about what they do when they take the path I’ve taken. There are not many jobs with the tag  “space law” in the description and nationality can be an issue with finding work.

My ability to connect with people is what has set me apart, not necessarily knowledge of law or technical skills. I’m ultimately a communicator and my passion for space policy is my story.

I was born in the UK so it is easier for me to get over the nationality issue but I have found that my ability to connect with people is what has set me apart, not necessarily knowledge of law or technical skills. I’m ultimately a communicator and my passion for space policy is my story. Working on my post-doctoral fellowship in international environmental law with a focus on climate change has taught me how to better communicate to non-space people, which I think is very important. Sometimes space people are so used to talking to themselves that they are not persuasive and can seem out of touch when they speak to non-experts, many of whom are key decision makers and influencers.

Sometimes space people are so used to talking to themselves that they are not persuasive and can seem out of touch when they speak to non-experts, many of whom are key decision makers and influencers.

 RW: What does an average day in your job look like?

There’s quite a bit of travel involved in my work but core to my everyday are the following 6 steps. Read a lot, think a lot, write a lot, find someone to share my idea with and see what they think, Incorporate their feedback. Repeat. In my work there is not really someone on top of you, so you have to be a self-starter, and keep yourself on track. It is really great to have the freedom that I have. I also have to look for opportunities to present my work, and stakeholders that would be interested in it.

If I take my experience, my Dad was a fantastic role model but I was always thinking he was on my case and pressuring me, like many immigrant parents. Now I see all that he tried to do for me and exposed me to and how he has tried to live his life as an example.

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

Role models are so important however, it takes a special child to realize the exposure they have and make use of role models that out there. If I take my experience, my Dad was a fantastic role model but I was always thinking he was on my case and pressuring me, like many immigrant parents. Now I see all that he tried to do for me and exposed me to and how he has tried to live his life as an example. One of the defining people he put in front of me was a math tutor when I was 14. Before I met this math tutor my grades were poor. Not because of lack of intelligence but simply lack of effort.

In a few short months, with this math tutor my grades went from C’s to A’s. I attribute this to one single factor. The math tutor built my self-confidence and made me feel like I was important and worth investing in. He taught me so much that went beyond math and spilled in to all my other subjects and my sense of self-worth. I’ll never forget during one of our tea breaks, I was slurping my tea, and he said to me “Timi why are you slurping your tea? Don’t you know you are too special and important not to have good manners?” That may seem like a trivial example, from a retired very British man, but I always left my math session feeling slightly better and more refined in some way.

For me, I’ve always been inspired by what I do, and it just so happens to pay the bills. I have been able to get recognition for the things I do and inspire a few people along the way.

So many young girls grow up like I did feeling like they are not important or will not make a difference in life, even when they are as lucky as I was to have supportive parents. How then is it for children who do not have a stable home life, nor have someone fighting for them or have examples of people who are successful. By successful I don’t just mean material wealth as a measure of success but knowing how to define success holistically. For me, I’ve always been inspired by what I do, and it just so happens to pay the bills. I have been able to get recognition for the things I do and inspire a few people along the way. I’ve received 4 awards in the past 2 years after overcoming tragedy and know my purpose. I have married my best friend someone who is my number one cheerleader. These things make me feel successful.

I come from a family of achievers. The Aganaba clan are doing interesting things so I don’t have to look far beyond my immediate and extended family to get inspired. I lived with my cousin Tukeni Obasi for a year and she opened my eyes to what hard work looked like.

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty with her husband Jean-Moise Jeanty

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty with her husband Jean-Moise Jeanty

RW: How did your family help to shape your career path?

I come from a family of achievers. The Aganaba clan are doing interesting things so I don’t have to look far beyond my immediate and extended family to get inspired. I lived with my cousin Tukeni Obasi for a year and she opened my eyes to what hard work looked like. My dad, Dr Tari Aganaba has always encouraged me that the world is my oyster even though there have been set backs along the way.

When I doubt myself, he [my husband] is always there to remind me that he is my number one cheerleader. At the dinner table, he asks me questions like, “What will you win a Nobel peace prize for?”

Now I attribute my success to my husband Jean-Moise Jeanty. When I doubt myself, he is always there to remind me that he is my number one cheerleader. At the dinner table, he asks me questions like, “What will you win a Nobel peace prize for?” He keeps me on track with my walk with God and on my personal goals.  It doesn’t sound politically correct to say this but I think that the narrative that young women hear that they don’t need a man is unhelpful. While you should not be defined by your relationship status and should not feel any less of a person because you have not found the right person or are not looking, finding my partner has brought joy and wholeness to my life and being a loyal, humble and supportive wife is something that I continuously strive to achieve. Thank you baby for being you!

RW: What else did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always wanted to be lawyer because I hated the idea of people being mistreated and felt called to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.  Unfortunately, my law undergrad experience did not live up to the legal drama TV shows, nor did working in a law firm. I am thankful I found space law because the international aspects of it, as well as diplomacy which sparked my new-found passion in law. However, I’m now more drawn to public policy because law is simply one tool in the tool box to meet specific objectives that impact society.

I graduated from primary school at 10 and was about to start secondary school. I was young and had no idea of my value. I had no idea that I could be someone of influence, or someone that could inspire others. I would tell myself that I am important and that I can do anything that I put my heart to.

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

I graduated from primary school at 10 and was about to start secondary school. I was young and had no idea of my value. I had no idea that I could be someone of influence, or someone that could inspire others, or someone that could find purpose through taking a road less travelled. I would tell myself that I am important and that I can do anything that I put my heart to. I would tell myself that I have the voice that can speak for the voiceless and that if I stay grounded, God will perform amazing things through me.

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.