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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.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

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

Trailblazing Astrophysicist Sophia Nasr on her career in astrophysics, overcoming societal barriers, realising her own dream and the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self.

On being inspired to choose a career in astrophysics:

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

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

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

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

On the brilliance of Albert Einstein:

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

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

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

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

On whether there was anything unexpected during her career journey:

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

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

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

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

Sophia graduating from York University, with a B.Sc. in Astrophysics with Specialized Honors. Wearing a custom dark matter print dress from Shenova Fashion! The dark matter print is from the Millennium Simulation. #GeekChic

Sophia graduating from York University, with a B.Sc. in Astrophysics with Specialized Honors. Wearing a custom dark matter print dress from Shenova Fashion! The dark matter print is from the Millennium Simulation. #GeekChic

On following her own dreams:

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

On whether science has become more inclusive for women:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

17 June, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

Madhurita during a flight on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis's Flight Deck

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis’s Flight Deck

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

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

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

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

Inspiration, STEM TV & Movies

Seat 25: A Story of Determination

8 January, 2017
Seat 25 - Faye Banks, played by Madeline Cooke, imagining a journey to Mars [Seat 25]

Seat 25 – Faye Banks, played by Madeleine Cooke, imagining a journey to Mars [Seat 25]

“This is the story of an ordinary woman. But like all ordinary people, she’s capable of doing something extraordinary. This is Faye.” – Seat 25

What would you do if you won a seat on a mission to Mars? Would you leave everything behind to follow a life-long dream?

Seat 25 is set five years after NASA has found liquid water on Mars, all contact has been lost to the planet due to changes in the Martian atmosphere. However, entrepreneur Michael Macmillan is ‘preparing the first manned mission to the Red Planet, with a seat reserved for an ordinary person willing to do something extraordinary’.

And that person is Faye. Faye, a British woman in red with a seemingly normal life, “a life Faye has weaved for herself, one tiny web lost among billions of tiny webs all covering a vast planet.” Faye was inspired by space when she was young, especially by the first British astronaut Helen Sharman. Her love for space seemed to have been sparked by a teacher’s comment at school, “What was so remarkable about Helen Sharman, not only was she the first Briton in space, she was also a woman. How many of you girls will leave such an impression?”

“Mars is breathtaking. One hundred years ago astronomers were looking up at the canals, convinced that intelligent life was living there. And here we are now, looking up at that same planet convinced that any time now it’ll be us up there.” – Faye Banks, Seat 25

Throughout the film Seat 25 we follow Faye’s journey as she learns of her chance to go to Mars and subsequent agonising decisions of whether to leave her carefully constructed life behind. Less than 30% of speaking film roles are given to women in Hollywood, making it no surprise that lead space and sci-fi characters are predominantly male. Seat 25, directed by Nicholas Agnew, provides a refreshing take on the space genre, depicting a relatable and inspiring female character finally realising her dreams and taking a chance.

Seat 25 - What Happens When You Win A One Way Trip To Mars? [Seat 25]

Seat 25 – What Happens When You Win A One Way Trip To Mars? [Seat 25]

Rocket Women had the fortune of speaking to Madeleine Cooke, who plays Faye Banks in Seat 25 along with co-producing and co-writing the film.

What inspired you to write SEAT 25?

Nicholas who co-wrote the screenplay and myself both wanted to make a film about space and in particular the exploration of other planets and worlds and this is something that really interests us as people. The basic story for SEAT 25, the idea that someone could win a ticket to Mars was inspired by Mars One and their competition to Mars. I read an article in a newspaper about someone who was now in the ‘Mars 100′ and was hoping to be eventually chosen and win the competition. It made me wonder about the type of person would be willing to leave earth forever and start a new life on Mars? What would be there reasons? How might winning affect them? We have also more recently been greatly inspired by SpaceX and their plans for Mars. Elon Musk in particular was big inspiration for the character of ‘Macmillan’ in SEAT 25 and is a bit of a personal hero.

It was also extremely important to me that the central character be a women as women in both film and science are so terribly under represented. I would love to think that SEAT 25 and the character of ‘Faye’ captured young women with ambition and encouraged them to dream big.

What were your aims behind the project?

The idea of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is something that really appeals to me as a screenwriter so it was very important to have a relatable person like ‘Faye’ as our central character. It was also extremely important to me that the central character be a women as women in both film and science are so terribly under represented. I would love to think that SEAT 25 and the character of ‘Faye’ captured young women with ambition and encouraged them to dream big.

I love the scene where Faye discovers her space toys and posters from when she was young. Were you interested in space or science when younger as your character Faye was?

You have found me out! Yes that part in particular had a lot of me in it and as a screenwriter I think you can’t help but put a lot of yourself in your characters to an extent. Certainly for me there is a lot of me in ‘Faye’. I have always been fascinated with space and as a little girl I dreamt about leaving earth and visiting other planets. The Apollo missions were also inspirations for SEAT 25 and greatly inspired me as a child.

You both co-wrote and co-produced Seat 25, impressively along with playing the lead role of Faye. How did you balance these during the film’s production?

I loved playing the character of ‘Faye’ and I was able to balance my other roles really due having an such a great team of people working with me and Nick on SEAT 25. There was only really 4 of us working on SEAT 25 but everyone was hard workers and were all very passionate about the project which was incredible.

The brilliant Seat 25 recently won awards for Best Feature Film and the Jury Prize at the Raw Science Film Festival in LA, the Best Feature Film at the Birmingham Film Festival and an award for the Best British Film at the London Film Awards in January 2017! Make sure you catch this movie at a film festival near you soon! (Seat 25 is due to open the Vault Film Festival on January 28th in London)

Scholarships, STEM Programmes

Opportunities For Canadian STEM Students To Attend European Space Agency (ESA) Conferences

7 January, 2017

If you’re a Canadian student studying science or engineering and would like to attend a European Space Agency (ESA) hosted conference in Canada, then apply now for this incredible opportunity.

Attending conferences is a great way to for students to ‘forge valuable ties with professionals and other students from all over the world who share their interests. Students will have a chance to talk to professionals, learn from their expertise and be exposed to the latest science discoveries from those missions’. Students will also be ‘full participants in the conferences, lending the workshops and plenary sessions a new energy and outlook that are greatly appreciated.’

Successful applicants will get the chance to attend The Fourth Swarm Science Meeting & Geodetic Missions Workshop, in March 2017, hosted by the European Space Agency (ESA) in Banff, Alberta and The North American Cryosat Science Meeting, in March 2017, also hosted by ESA in Banff, Alberta.

The deadline for applications is 27th January, 2017. Good luck! Click here for more information about the Student Participation Initiative and to apply.

Inspiration, Media

Rocket Women Celebrates World Space Week

10 October, 2016

Rocket Women Is Celebrating World Space Week With Little Green Radicals [Little Green Radicals]

Rocket Women Is Celebrating World Space Week Partnered With Little Green Radicals [Little Green Radicals]

We’re excited to announce that Rocket Women has partnered with Little Green Radicals to celebrate World Space Week 2016 (4-10th October), a global event supported by the United Nations! Little Green Radicals are a London-based, organic and fair trade clothing company with a fantastic “rocket to the stars” line that we love! The line is mainly unisex, but there are also rocket dresses just for girls, promoting the idea that rockets are not just for boys, they’re for everyone!

“This season’s range is about dreams, and at Little Green Radicals we girls to dream without limits – you can be pilots, doctors, engineers, astrophysicists or astronauts, and this season we to encourage girls to explore their possibilities.  By creating a rocket to the stars dress, we hope to see far more girls growing up and reaching for the stars. As this week is World Space Week, and we have a very special guest blogger, Vinita Marwaha Madill, who has worked at the European Space Agency and NASA, as well as being an Operations Engineer for the International Space Station at the German Aerospace Centre. Her website Rocket Women is a platform for her advocacy for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and we ask her to talk to us about her journey to the stars…”

“Space has always intrigued me. I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station in the early 90s. She was, although I didn’t know it yet, a role model to me. She showed me at a young age that my dreams were possible. I’m lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me at that age who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space.”

Read more of Rocket Women’s guest blog for Little Green Radicals here.

Media

Honoured To Be Featured On The Prime Minister of Canada’s Instagram Account

11 May, 2016

I’m truly honoured to be featured on the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau‘s Instagram account discussing the importance of education.

I hope it inspires others to follow their dreams and aspirations!

‘Gaining an education in physics and engineering has allowed me to follow my dreams and work in the space industry, specifically on human spaceflight. Through my education and related internships, I’ve been fortunate to contribute to projects including a spacesuit, worn on the International Space Station (ISS), that aims to improve spinal health in space and work in Germany’s version of Mission Control.” -@vmarwaha Getting early work experience is crucial to building a career. That’s why #Budget2016 doubled the size of the Canada Summer Jobs program for students, helping create nearly 70,000 jobs a year for young people in each of the next 3 years. « Mes études en physique et en génie m’ont permis de réaliser mes rêves et de travailler dans l’industrie de l’aérospatiale, plus spécifiquement en lien avec les vols spatiaux habités. Grâce à mes études et aux stages qui s’y rattachaient, j’ai eu la chance de contribuer à des projets, par exemple un projet de combinaison spatiale, portée dans la station spatiale internationale (SSI) pour améliorer la santé vertébrale dans l’espace, et de travailler à la version allemande du contrôle de mission. » -@vmarwaha Il est essentiel d’acquérir rapidement de l’expérience de travail pour faire carrière. C’est pourquoi le #Budget2016 double le montant du programme Emplois d’été Canada pour les étudiants, aidant ainsi à créer près de 70 000 emplois par an pour des jeunes, pour chacune des trois prochaines années. #EducationCan

A photo posted by Justin Trudeau (@justinpjtrudeau) on

Media

Rocket Women Featured In Tease & Totes

4 April, 2016

“Wanting to be an astronaut, I printed out the astronaut candidate guidelines from NASA’s website when I was 12 and glued them to the inside cover of my school folder, as a daily reminder of how to reach my goal and set my focus on achieving them. Those guidelines set the direction for my career.” 🚀🌍 Awesome @vmarwaha is today’s #WednesdayWoman. From a young age, she knew what she wanted to do and she’s been 🚀 ever since. To read her inspiring story, and her advice for #womeninstem, please click on link in bio 💫 #inspiration #motivation #rolemodel #stem #space #nasa #astronaut #qotd #physics #quote #engineer #girlboss #girlpower #rocketwomen #ISS #explore #science #ilooklikeanengineer #femalefounder #inspire

A photo posted by Tease + Totes (@teaseandtotes) on

Rocket Women is honoured to be highlighted in Tease + Totes in their “Wednesday Woman” feature.

“This week’s Wednesday Woman is Vinita Marwaha Madill ~ Space Consultant, Founder of Rocket Women, and advocate for women in STEM. Vinita has a diverse range of experience in the space field which includes designing spacesuits for the European Space Agency (ESA), working as an Operations Engineer for the International Space Station (ISS) at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) where she guided astronauts through experiments on the ISS, and where she was involved in astronaut training. “

Tease+Totes is founded by tech stalwart Danielle Newnham, and her twin sister and fashion buyer, Natalie Bardega, with a mission to ‘marry the worlds of fashion and technology for social good’, through empowering statement tops and interviews. “We strongly believe in empowerment being the key factor for women and kids to achieve their potential, and that fashion is the best medium to transport that message far and wide.”

Read the full interview here at Tease+Totes or the highlights below.

“Newnham: Can you tell us what you were like growing up and what first sparked your interest in space?
Marwaha Madill: I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station. She was, although I didn’t know it yet, a role model to me. She showed me at a young age that my dreams were possible.

I’m lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me at that age who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me greatly, taking me to the National Space Centre in Leicester, UK on the weekends to experience space hardware firsthand and thankfully let me spend hours reading about space.

I’m also fortunate to have realized my passion at a young age and told my Physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control. Throughout my education, this drive was supported and 12 years later led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany’s answer to NASA’s Mission Control.

Newnham: What have been the biggest obstacles, if any, you have faced as a woman pursuing a career in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Marwaha Madill: 
The biggest obstacles initially were knowing that I could successfully undertake a career in STEM and being able to have my questions answered about what such a career entailed. Allowing girls access to women in STEM is key. With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many do not realize that a career in STEM is an option. Their future options can be influenced by a decision they make at a very young age. Positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their educations or career.

To encourage more women into engineering you also also need to inspire them when they’re young. Girls at the age of 11 decide to leave STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects at school severely limits their options for working in other fields later. Girls need to be allowed to be creative and inquisitive from a young age, rather than being told to play with toys that are seen by many as more appropriate for young girls is key. At 8, I was learning to programme the VCR and encouraged to read voraciously about science. The key is to initially spark an interest in STEM and then to allow that to grow over years, overcoming gender bias, especially in the early years and secondary school. There are an increasing number of companies helping parents to encourage girls when younger and avoid toys that are infused with gender stereotypes, including Goldieblox which allows girls to build and become engineers.

Read the full Tease + Totes article here.

Inspirational women, Media

Rocket Women Featured By Fast Company

26 January, 2016

Vinita Marwaha Madill Featured In Fast Company's Piece On Women In Space

Vinita Marwaha Madill Featured In Fast Company’s Piece On Women In Space – Seen here on-console supporting International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Cologne, Germany [Fast Company]

I’m excited to share that Rocket Women and myself were featured in Fast Company’s recent article “Women In Space Seek More Women In Space“.

The Fast Company piece details:

Prominent women in STEM are ensuring their stories are part of the narrative about space careers—with the explicit goal of attracting more.

Vinita Marwaha Madill, a consultant in space engineering and STEM outreach and the founder of Rocket Women, a website focused on women and space, likewise wants to encourage more women to enter the field. Madill’s career has included stints as an Engineering Manager leading the Intelligent Transportation Systems Engineering Team in Canada, and as an International Space Station operations engineer at the German Aerospace Center, among other things.

On Rocket Women, she posts interviews with women around the world in STEM fields, especially space-related, as well as advice to encourage girls to become involved in STEM.

Rocket Women Featured By Fast Company

Rocket Women Featured By Fast Company

“Watching Helen Sharman’s Soyuz launch on BBC News at a young age, and knowing that there had been a British female astronaut, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger,” Madill says. “I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human space flight. And eventually I did. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a female British astronaut, and maybe there could be again. It was possible. Through featuring advice and stories of women in STEM, I want Rocket Women to give other girls and women that same realization.”

Other women featured include Natalie Panek, Mission Systems Engineer at MDA (Canada) and Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (USA).

Read the full article here