Meet Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA Scientist
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars, and is Deputy Director of Science Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a regular contributor on Science Channel’s How the Universe Works and, in her off-hours, Michelle often puts on about 30 lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. She also hosts her podcast, Orbital Path with Michelle Thaller, where she takes a look at the big questions of the cosmos and what the answers can reveal about life here on Earth.
“The weird thing is that I never think of myself as “girl”. I’m a scientist.”
What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing your specific field?
It is really powerful and wonderful to pay attention to what you, personally, are interested in more than other things. In my case, it was space: stars, planets, galaxies, stuff like that. But maybe you like dinosaurs, or treating sick people, or designing clothing or flying planes. But whatever it is, remember that you are already good enough to be whatever you want to be, just the way you are. It is a total myth that you need to be somehow special or different to be a scientist (I HATE it when people say “Oh, you must be so smart.” Yes, I’m smart, but there are so many people who are smart in their own ways and great at whatever they do.) Never waste energy suspecting that you don’t have a special talent, you aren’t naturally brilliant at math, or anything like that. That’s not how it works. If you want to, you can absolutely learn to do this. You are good enough already.
Also, don’t be worried at all when things don’t come easily. That does NOT mean that you don’t belong in the field you’ve chosen. I love math, but it seriously took me three tries to understand this one sort of complex calculus called differential equations. I got a D in the class the first time I took it. Some people in my group got a single bad grade and assumed they would never make it as a scientist. Two more times through the class, and it finally made sense. I just needed a bit more time. Hopefully your life will be long enough that taking a little extra time to learn something won’t even be noticed. I got my doctorate when I was 28. Would my life have been so much better if I’d gotten it when I was 27? I highly doubt it. Learn at your actual, real pace. You can’t force it.
You have to pace yourself and not burn yourself out. I never, repeat NEVER, studied all night. I don’t think I can. After 2 am, seriously, is anything new going into my brain? Better to get some sleep. I hear about grad students working themselves sick, and I wonder what they think they’re doing. Yes, you can work very hard for short bursts of time, but the human mind and spirit can’t sustain that without limits. Don’t let your life become just a slog of work and worry. Take care of yourself. This has to be done deliberately; it doesn’t just happen. Make and grow friendships. Take walks. Have a hobby outside work. Get enough sleep. Take responsibility to be the one that takes the best care of you. You will be a better scientist, and a better human, for that effort.
Talk about the challenges you faced as a trailblazer in your field … or … Tell us about a time where you failed and how you overcame it?
Wow, there are so many lies we, as a culture, tell ourselves. Do the right things, work hard, and you’ll be successful! And when you fail, think if it as a learning experience, pick yourself up and move on! None of that worked for me. I think the whole concepts of failure and success don’t really pan out in real life. ALL of life is a constant mixture of both. There has never been a moment when I felt totally successful without some little pang of thinking that I hadn’t done something right, or maybe all this could fall apart at any minute. And there also hasn’t been a moment when I felt so much a failure that I was totally worthless with no hope of redemption. I always trusted myself, even if just a little bit, to figure my way out of this. There is no destination here; you are never going to really FEEL totally successful. Stop trying for that; it’s not going to happen.
“Even when I completely fail at something, that doesn’t go away. I can still be proud.”
People look at my career and think I’m successful; I know that. And I feel bad about it because I’ve screwed so many things up and I haven’t gotten to where I had hoped to go in my career. Everyone you see from a distance and think is successful is fighting feelings of insecurity and failure. Really. Forgive yourself for the mixture of success and failure that your life will be –that all of our lives really are. At the same time, I am honestly, deeply proud of some of the things that I have done. Even when I completely fail at something, that doesn’t go away. I can still be proud. Don’t kick yourself for that pride either. Allow yourself to approve of yourself, both when you’re feeling weak and also when you’re feeling strong; when you succeed and when you fail.
Where do you anticipate the next big opportunity for girls in your field and what can they do to position themselves for success?
The weird thing is that I never think of myself as “girl” (or as a “woman” now). I’m a scientist. There is nothing different about me for being female, and no special opportunities or ways to position myself except as a “scientist.”
In science, a LOT is going on. I think we will discover places in the solar system that have microbial life today. Places like Europa or Titan or Enceladus. Maybe Mars. A big growth field will be scientists trained in multiple fields like astronomy and biology. The Earth’s climate is rapidly changing, and we have to be ready for what that means. We need a lot more Earth scientists and environmental scientists to study the effects we have on our environment. I believe there will be a lot of changes coming in physics, and those changes may spill over into how we design computers –quantum computing.
“But even more than specific scientific topics, you can position yourself for success in science by learning how to really pay attention to the people around you.”
But even more than specific scientific topics, you can position yourself for success in science by learning how to really pay attention to the people around you. How are they feeling? How is the group working together? Are there break-downs in our process, how we communicate, how we work together? Thinking about these things will make you a better member of a group, and a better leader. In order to succeed in science, you also need to be good at writing, making strong cases for why your work is important (much of a scientist’s career is spent searching for funding. That is just the way the job works, and it’s best to accept that and get good at it.) Practice speaking in public any chance you get, join the debate team. These skills are just as important as learning math or chemistry. Be willing to take on positions that may not seem a perfect fit for you or that you don’t feel you have the right experience for. You will learn. Trust yourself to figure it out. Seriously, after 25 years in science, I almost always did, in the end, figure out what I needed to do. So will you. You are fabulous.
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Celebrating Women in Science
February 11th is International Women & Girls in Science Day, so please join us in honoring these amazing women by sharing their stories and reminding every girl interested in STEM that with the desire, access, and a little persistence, they can do anything!
To read more about our tribute to the Women of Science, click here.