“The most challenging thing for any student is believing in themselves. I was no different.”
THE SKY IS NOT THE LIMIT
In November 2016, 20th Century Fox’s promotion for the premiere of Hidden Figures was well underway. More than 54 years after John Glenn became the first American to safely reach and return from orbiting the Earth, Hidden Figures finally told the amazing, true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the African-American mathematicians who played pivotal roles in that and many more NASA missions that helped the United States win the race to the moon.
Soon after the movie’s premiere on Christmas Day 2016, yet another groundbreaking achievement for women of color in STEM would come to light. On January 4, 2017, NASA announced that astronaut Dr. Jeanette Epps would become the first African-American crew member to serve on the International Space Station (ISS) when her mission was scheduled to launch this spring. Unfortunately, Dr. Epps’ mission into space will be delayed, but her dedication and hard work before and after her astronaut training began has cemented her as a worthy role model for all Nerds, but especially girls and girls of color.
NASA selected Dr. Epps as one of 14 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class in July 2009. She was to serve as a flight engineer for the upcoming ISS Expeditions 56 and 57 later this year. Dr. Epps earned her Bachelor of Science in Physics from LeMoyne College in 1992, and a Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland in 1994 and 2000, respectively.
Learning about Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson’s heroic story, no doubt, inspired more young girls – particularly girls of color – to explore more math, science, and engineering activities, and maybe even consider STEM subjects as viable options for long-term study and careers. When it was announced Dr. Epps would become the first African-American to serve on the ISS, yet another generation of curious girls and girls of color were further empowered.
Understanding this important moment in the history of Women in Science, Raising Nerd reached out to Dr. Epps hoping to get on her radar for a Nerd Profile. Despite being in the middle of her rigorous astronaut training, she graciously accepted our request! After reading our Q&A, we think you’ll agree that, like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson before her, Dr. Epps is a true inspiration that will help ensure no mighty girl’s story stays hidden.
Raising Nerd: As kids, most if not all of us fantasized about flying rockets into space, but you’re actually living that dream. When did you know you wanted to be a research scientist and an astronaut? Did your parents influence your decision to pursue science (or any other particular subject)?
Dr. Jeanette Epps (aka Astro Jeanette): I knew that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer at the age of nine because of my older brother Michael. I didn’t think that I would ever get selected to be an astronaut.
Although there were no scientists or engineers in my immediate family, my family influenced me. They encouraged all of my crazy ideas and supported me and my sister through them all.
RN: What activities/hobbies did you enjoy while growing up and why?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : As children, my mom was very protective of my sister and me so we spent much time near our home. I think that this helped with our imagination and desire to be more adventuresome. Growing up, I enjoyed many different activities like tinkering with things to figure out how they worked (I wasn’t always successful in putting them back together, however), reading, watching anything that was science-fiction based, and any activity that was outside.
RN: Who were your early mentors? How did they inspire and encourage you to pursue a career in science or to become an astronaut? Who are your mentors today?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : I would say that my teachers were my heroes. I was very fortunate to have teachers who encouraged me to do whatever I desired. They always seemed to challenge me to do more. Today, my mentors have been people in the astronaut corps, like Clay Anderson and Greg Chamitoff, as well as flight directors, like Royce Renfrew.
RN: What kinds of books did you like to read as a kid? What books do you enjoy today?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : I liked reading mysteries or adventure stories as a kid. One of my favorite books was called The Cricket in Times Square, where a cricket lived in and explored [the subway station in] Times Square. Today, I love many different types of books, but mostly science-fiction – old and new. I’ve recently read books by Ann Leckie and Isaac Asimov.
RN: What was most challenging for you as a student/growing up? What is the biggest challenge for you today as a scientist?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : The most challenging thing for any student is believing in themselves. I was no different. It is difficult to see how to make big dreams come to fruition. As an adult, I see that being consistent, working hard, and taking calculated risks paid off. No longer a student and having worked in private and government industries, I’ve seen the biggest challenge is being patient. It has been six years since I completed the astronaut candidate training and I continue to train.
RN: Can you tell us a little about your research at Ford Motor Company that earned you a patent and provisional patent before joining NASA?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : While at Ford I worked on applying smart material technology to vehicles for safety devices and vibration reduction. The project that I worked on that I was most proud did not include my name on the patent. It involved mechanically attaching magnetostrictive actuators to the suspension control arms to reduce vibrations into the Lincoln LS for smoother ride. Other projects involved making planar to convex mirrors for use in vehicles or satellites.
RN: You’ve also worked as a Technical Intelligence Officer with the CIA. What led you from CIA to NASA?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : While I worked at the CIA, astronaut Leland Melvin, whom I’ve known since 1994 while attending graduate school at the University of Maryland, called and said that I should consider applying for the 2009 class. As a kid, I was told that I could become an aerospace engineer or an astronaut. I knew I could become an aerospace engineer but I never dreamed I would be selected for the astronaut program. Although I wasn’t sure I would be selected, I had to apply at least once to see what would happen.
I believe that timing and opportunity are big factors but we have no control over these things. All we can do is be prepared when opportunity knocks.
RN: What’s been the most difficult part of astronaut training and your preparation for living on the ISS and how have you persevered? What’s been the most fun?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : The most difficult is waiting and the most fun has been training. We train in Houston, Russia, Japan, and Germany. All training is intense but gratifying when complete.
RN: You also served as an aquanaut in NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program. What does it take to get into the program to become a certified aquanaut and why do astronauts participate in the NEEMO program?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : NEEMO is a great analog for living in Space so all astronauts have an opportunity to do it. I wanted to do this because I’ve come to love scuba diving and I can’t wait to live in Space.
RN: What would you say is the most important quality or skill for an astronaut (or astronaut-to-be) to have or develop? Any advice on how an aspiring astronaut might begin to develop/hone such a skill or skills?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : I believe that being adaptable and flexible is the most important. Working and living with people from various countries and cultures is easy for people who have these characteristics. Being a smart person without being able to get along with others is a non-starter.
RN: What’s been most fulfilling about the research and other work you’ve done for NASA?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : As astronauts we do not get the chance to do research as I did at Ford Motor Company and the CIA. We are the audience for many who are doing research. However, we do focus on maintaining technical skills via research presentations, journals, etc. Our main job is training. All of the training that I’ve done has been the most fulfilling since it is training that I could never get outside of being an astronaut or a pilot. Spacewalk and T-38 jet training has been amazing!
“Not all kids are the same, so it’s hard to predict what will work for every child. I believe that the best thing parents can do is expose their kids to many things.”
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe failure is just an important part of the learning process. Can you tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment? How did you use that event as a way to help motivate you for, or propel you to, future success?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : My biggest failures have occurred when I allowed others to influence my confidence. Once I completed graduate school, I learned much of the negativity was designed to keep me from finishing. When I finished, I wondered why I ever doubted myself. I was diligent to seek mentors and tutors, I worked hard to understand concepts, and I completed all required tasks.
On the research side, a failure is not really a failure because you learn something.
RN: What learning resources and hands-on experiences (online media/content, apps, books, museum exhibits, camps, events, etc) would you recommend for parents looking to inspire, encourage, and challenge their kids to pursue STEM/STEAM fields, particularly for parents who’d like to inspire not-quite-there-yet Nerds (i.e., kids who don’t know yet what they’re passionate about)?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : Not all kids are the same, so it’s hard to predict what will work for every child. I believe that the best thing parents can do is expose their kids to many things. Also, my mom didn’t limit my imagination nor discourage me even though she wasn’t a scientist or engineer. As my mom did, I would recommend encouraging and supporting a child’s interest.
The next two are from our Nerd cub reporters:
Lightning McQueen, 8: What does it feel like to be in a space suit? Is it comfortable when you spacewalk?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : The Space suit used for spacewalks weighs about 310 lbs. It is your “space vehicle” when outside of the International Space Station. It provides pressurization, removes carbon dioxide, provides oxygen, and provides cooling. It is somewhat cozy when you’re not moving around so much but, it can become a 6-hour workout. It’s not exactly comfortable, but it’s manageable [so that you can] get the job done!
RocketteGirl, 10: What kinds of foods do astronauts eat while on the ISS? How do you prepare them? Which ones are your favorites? Least favorite?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : NASA, the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities) provide and prepare the food that [astronauts] eat on the International Space Station. About half the food is dehydrated, some are in cans, and some are in packets that can be heated. [They] have foods like goulash, sweet and sour chicken, rice, mashed potatoes, and many other good things. The dehydrated foods only need hot water added and we have a warmer that looks like a suitcase to heat packets and cans.
RN: Do you have any words of inspiration/encouragement particularly for young girls/girls of color out there who often have been discouraged from entering STEM fields, either directly or because, unfortunately, they continue to see relatively few others like themselves in technical fields?
Dr. Jeanette Epps : The most important thing that I would tell young women of color is to not take on unnecessary battles. If someone has a problem with the color of their skin or gender, it is the problem of the person who has the issue, not theirs. They should ignore all the noise that is designed to keep them from achieving their goals. They should focus on their goals and only take on issues about which they are passionate.
Check out these links, if your Nerds are interested in finding out what it takes to become a NASA astronaut:
Or they can simulate the experience at a kids’ space camp:
- US Space & Rocket Center Space Camps
- Space Center Houston Day Camps
- Kennedy Space Center – Camp Kennedy
- Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students
- Space Camp Scholarship Opportunity #1
- Space Camp Scholarship Opportunity #2
And more camps hosted by other regional air & space and science centers, like this one at the Virginia Air & Space Center.
Or Nerd parents can try out a camp for themselves: Adult Space Academy
And, if you want to see the ISS, remember to just look up!
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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.