Dr Sian Proctor is an American explorer, an analogue astronaut, a Geoscientist and a science communicator.
Dr. Proctor is a Geology, Sustainability and Planetary Science professor at South Mountain Community College. She was the education outreach officer for the first Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) Mission, a NASA funded analog mission for human spaceflight to Mars – Sian talked to Rocket Women about her journey to the space industry.
What was your experience with the Hi-SEAS mission?
I felt very fortunate to be selected for the very first Hi-SEAS mission, I learned about it through a friend, she posted it on my Facebook saying, “You love food and you love space; you should go live in this mars simulation.” It was one of the things where your friends who know you well send you crazy opportunities, especially when they know you will sign up for them.
I am always up for an adventure, I filled out the form and sent it in. I was pleasantly surprised when they selected me because for one, I am a teacher so I didn’t apply for a traditional research role, instead, I put myself down for an outreach officer role. In the application, I highlighted that they need somebody who can communicate the science that is happening in the Mars simulations, and I will be able to do this whilst also running a cooking contest. Basically, explaining ways to take this exciting new Mars Analogue and share it with the public. Luckily, the principal investigators valued this and crew diversity so I ended up getting selected.
I put everything on hold to go and live in a Mars simulation for four-months with people that I did not know. It was a great opportunity, because I really do love food and with this experience, I ended up writing my Meals for Mars cookbook. It enabled me to do my own YouTube show for the first time. I did my Meals for Mars cooking show while living in the Hi-SEAS habitat. It also got me thinking about how to be a good science communicator.
It was an amazing experience, I put everything on hold to go live in a Mars simulation for four-months with people that I did not know. Also, it was a great opportunity, because I really do love food and with this experience I ended up writing my Meals for Mars cookbook. It enabled me to do my own YouTube show for the first time, I did my Meals for Mars cooking show while living in the Hi-SEAS habitat. It also got me thinking about how to be a good science communicator.
What was the hardest part?
I am novelty driven, so I like doing new things. After you have mastered how to live in the habitat and get along with your crewmates, it becomes routine, and there’s a chance you can get bored. Hence, you have to continue to look for novelty within the system you are living in, especially when you cannot do anything else.
The challenges I set for myself were all new things I hadn’t done before, so they challenged me to be creative for the entire four-months so boredom didn’t set in.
Kind of like COVID-19, you have to keep looking for novelty in your current situation so that you do not go crazy. For me, it was the fact that I had to cook all these recipes that people submitted, I had something new to do. I had to look at what they submitted and if they were not using the exact ingredients we had, I had to figure out how to modify the recipe and cook enough for me and my crewmates.
The other difficult part was astrophotography. I probably went out the second most from the habitat. I would go out at night by myself in my space suit and my photography equipment. It’s pitch black with no street lights and I would use my flashlight to set up my equipment in the dark, in my spacesuit, trying to do astrophotography. The challenges I set for myself were all new things I hadn’t done before, so they challenged me to be creative the entire four-months so boredom didn’t set in.
Why did you decide to become a geologist and a professor?
I had graduated from undergrad with an environmental science degree – I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and ended up moving home to become a video editor for the news. After working there for a couple of years in New York, I wanted a change. I wanted to move to the West and marry a cowboy, so I decided to apply to grad school.
I had to figure out what school would take me into their masters program with an undergrad in environmental science. It had nothing to do with wanting to be a geologist, I applied to four different schools and all with different programs. Utah State was civil engineering, the University of Wyoming was water resources, Arizona State University (ASU) was geology and the University of Washington was environmental science. I got an offer from all of them and ASU had the best deal.
I went out to the West with the purpose of wanting to relocate, in the end going to grad school and becoming a Geologist was the best decision I ever made. I decided that I wanted to become a Professor when I started at ASU. I was a Teaching Assistant when I started – I was handed me a lab manual and told to go and teach geology. Well I did not have a degree in geology, but I went and taught these labs anyway. In the process, I fell in love with geology and teaching.
My inspiration for teaching is my students, my current students at the Community College are not science majors, so for me, it is all about inspiring them to fall in love with geology, kind of how I did. It’s not necessarily just about geology it’s about falling in love with the Earth and how we live and interact with our environment.
How were you inspired to teach?
My inspiration for teaching is my students – my current students at the Community College are not science majors, so for me, it is all about inspiring them to fall in love with geology, kind of how I did. It’s not necessarily just about geology it’s about falling in love with the Earth and how we live and interact with our environment. I have students that come back years later to tell me how my class was their favourite. Some students also come back to ask for advice. I spoke to one student recently who isn’t a science major but she wanted to get my opinion on going to grad school and that makes it all worth it. It’s the fact that I have an impact on my students’ life, it’s about being able to inspire and mentor one person at a time.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
Career-wise, my proudest moment so far has been becoming a finalist for the astronaut program, because it was unexpected. I did not think I would get that far, it got down to a ‘yes-no’ phone call from an astronaut. I could have easily talked myself out of applying just by thinking that I’m just a Community College professor, why would they take me.
So instead of letting that voice in my head say ‘No they will never pick me’ I actually went for it. This led to so many opportunities in my life and I would not be an analog astronaut today had I not applied for the astronaut programme back then. These are the kind of ripple effects we don’t often see or anticipate. As devastating as it was to get that ‘no’ phone call it was the fact that I put myself in the position and I took a chance that made a difference in the end.
Individually, my proudest moment was getting a PhD and becoming Dr. Proctor because that was a struggle. They talk about all the issues with being the only black female person of colour in higher Ed. These struggles are real I remember wanting to quit and walk away from my PhD after six years of working on it because of the struggles I was facing with the people that I was working with.
When I went to my committee members and told them ‘I am done, I am not doing this anymore’ most of them said ‘Yep, see you later’. It could have been anyone but they were white men, well established in geology, they probably thought I couldn’t hack it, thinking there was fundamentally something wrong with me, rather than thinking that it might be something wrong with the system.
I approached the only female on the committee about quitting, she literally said, “Absolutely not,” and she was not my primary adviser. But she took me as her student and a year later I was Dr Proctor. She gave me an office, she provided support, we had weekly meetings and it all clicked into place. All because she provided the support I needed that I wasn’t getting elsewhere.
For fun, getting a pilot’s license is also another proud achievement because solo flying a plane and doing my cross-country ride was awesome. It’s the thrill of doing it correctly and surviving to tell the tale.
Tell us more about your TV appearances
In 2010, the year after applying to the astronaut program, I was invited to be on a reality TV show called the ‘Colony’. It was a disaster show on the Discovery Channel. On the show we demonstrated and explained scientific ideas such as how to build a water filtration system. or how to render biofuel.
This show was all about building things in an apocalyptic world to survive, it was full of science and educational components. I used that opportunity to do more science communication, I have always wanted to be a black female version of Bill Nye the science guy.
After I did the Colony, I auditioned to host a show called the STEM Journals, although I did not get the part, the director really liked me and invited me to shoot some segments. After Hi-SEAS, my friend Kate, said, “They’re looking for people to be on this new show by Stephen Hawking called ‘Genius’, you should apply!’ I got selected and ended up going to England to shoot that.
Now instead of saying I want to be the black female version of Bill Nye, I say I want to be the Oprah Winfrey of science.
Unlike the Colony which was more of a reality show, Genius was more like a documentary show. Then that just rolled into all kinds of offers and now I have done six shows. This gave me the immense confidence to start my own shows. Now instead of saying I want to be the black female version of Bill Nye, I say I want to be the Oprah Winfrey of science.
That’s why I started my show ‘Space Snacks’. I realised I was waiting for other people to offer me a show when I could just create my own show – especially in the time of COVID-19. I’ve got the tools to do a Facebook live or YouTube live show and I know a large number of people that I can interview or interact with.
That’s the thing, we’ve always been waiting for other people to give us the permission to live the life we want to live and do the things we want to do versus just figuring out how to do them on your own. That’s where it becomes more empowering when you figure out how to do these things yourself.
Science communication comes in multiple ways – during the time of COVID-19, I was thinking how do I give back, how do I contribute and Space Snacks was my way of contributing with a fun positive message. I’ve also been giving out science postcards through Twitter and Instagram to people all around the world. It’s my way of connecting with everyone. I have physically mailed over 300 postcards to people around the world. I am now making my own postcards to send out, they’re specialty postcards that encompass my love of space and people of colour. Giving out postcards is my way of thanking the individuals doing science. For example, I reached out to individuals on Twitter using the #blackinstem hashtag to send them postcards and thank them for their contribution to society and for all the amazing science they do.
In the end, our life is about the series of connections we make with the people that come in and out of our lives, that’s what makes our life special.
What was your PoSSUM experience like?
The PoSSUM experience was amazing and the thing that I liked the most was meeting the people. In the end, our life is about the series of connections we make with the people that come in and out of our lives, that’s what makes our life special. Another favourite was the aerobatic flight, I have always loved aviation – hence, going up in an Extra 3000, doing fun aerobatic manoeuvres and feeling the G’s was amazing.
The space industry is becoming more inclusive – especially given what’s happened during the summer. It has made people more mindful about the struggles of being black in America and that language matters, actions matters and intent matters.
How do you think the space industry has changed over the years for women and people of colour?
The space industry is becoming more inclusive especially given what’s happened during the summer. It has made people more mindful about the struggles of being black in America and that language matters, actions matters and intent matters.
The space I want to live in, what I call the J.E.D.I. Space, is: JUST, EQUITABLE, DIVERSE & INCLUSIVE. How do we foster this kind of space? I’ve been doing a lot of professional development on myself such as taking Loretta Whiteside’s Space Kind course. Just because I’m a person of colour does not mean I do not have my own issues and bias, so how do I become ‘Space Kind’? I have been thinking about how I can improve myself so that as a science communicator I can become more authentic.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to come into the space industry?
Space is fun, innovative, futuristic, cutting edge and it allows you to imagine the world we want to create and live in. My motto is: Space2inspire – there are so many ways that we can, as individuals, inspire those within our reach and beyond, space is one of those ways.
Interview by Priya Patel, Rocket Women Social Media Manager & Contributor