Interview with one of NASA's newest astronauts, Jessica Watkins

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Jun 9, 2017, 5:00 PM EDT

On Wednesday, NASA announced its new class of astronaut candidates (AsCans), the first since 2013. The applicant pool was unprecedented—a record 18,300 people applied, which is more than NASA has ever had to field for any astronaut application process. Somehow, the organization whittled the pool down to these 12 amazingly qualified people — seven men and five women from diverse backgrounds and fields of study.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to talk to Jessica Watkins, one of the lucky (and also very hard-working) people to be selected for NASA's 2017 astronaut class. Jessica is a 29-year-old geologist from Lafayette, Colo. She attended Stanford University for her undergraduate degree and then went to UCLA for her doctorate in geology. She's worked extensively with the Mars Curiosity rover team. She's also a genuinely lovely person.

Jessica, first of all, congratulations on your selection.

Jessica Watkins: Oh, thank you so much! I'm so excited to be here.

First, I'd like to talk about you being a woman in STEM. We at Fangrrls are so interested in encouraging young girls and young women pursue these careers. Do you have any advice for girls who might be interested in a STEM field?

Yes, absolutely! So particularly for young girls and women, I would really strongly encourage the idea of persistence. I think it becomes really important to stick with it even if it doesn't end up panning out the way you originally intended or it starts to get a little tough. That has really served me well throughout my life.

Also, in terms of advice, I would say get a mentor, ideally a female mentor, although male mentors are great as well. That is something that has really pushed me to this point in my life. I've been really grateful and lucky to have the mentorship support that I've received from a lot of my teachers and professors and supervisors. That's been something that's really important for me, and I think help with that idea of persistence, having a mentor who can continue to push you and encourage you in a STEM field is really helpful.

Do you think lack of mentorship opportunities holds young women back from being in STEM? Or is it something else?

I think that part of the issue of getting women interested in STEM comes on an exposure level, and I think that that's improving, and certainly we've seen a lot of improvement in recent years. I think that it starts pretty early in girls' development when they are young and in school, giving positive exposure to science and engineering and math, goes a really long way. So things like after school programs, summer camps, those types of activities, have had a really large impact on me and I think have served young girls really well and get them interested in STEM early.

I think retention is maybe a separate issue, and that's where more of the mentorship piece of it comes into play. I think that there a lot of mentorship opportunities, it's just a matter of people taking advantage of those, both from the mentor side and from the mentee side. I think those systems are in place, we just need to continue to take advantage of them.

As you might have been able to guess by my name, I'm Indian American. Representation in our institutions and our entertainment is so important to me, which is why I'm happy with the racial and ethnic diversity in this new astronaut class. I'm excited by what this new crop of astronauts looks like. Can you talk a little bit about your experience on that front?

Yes! Absolutely, I certainly agree, I'm very excited about the diversity on this team, this amazing group of people. I think that says a lot about NASA and their goals towards creating a diverse workforce. The team at NASA is just an amazing group of people, and so to continue to bring in more diversity is just making NASA even more spectacular.

I think the thing about diversity is that it allows for experiences that may not be exactly the same to bring different things to the table. And then the other side of that, as you kind of mentioned, is the idea of being able to be a face to others who may not see people who look like them in STEM fields in general, and doing cool things like going to space. I think that's really important for that exposure, as I mentioned earlier, for young girls. It translates as well into racial diversity, that that type of exposure at a young age and also the stores of persistence become important.

Now, let's talk about your personal experience. You're a geologist (with very impressive credentials). What got you interested in geology?

I grew up always knowing that I wanted to be an astronaut. It was always the dream and the goal, and so when I went to college at Stanford, I actually came in as a mechanical engineering major because I thought that was what was necessary in order to reach that goal. And the first year and a half or so of classes as a mechanical engineer, I just didn't love it. I didn't have a passion for it and it wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And so I kind of changed paths, really, and found geology as a means of studying space.

I knew I wanted to continue studying space, and so I found the idea of geology, and of planetary geology, as my means of doing that. And so I think that's been an important thing for me to remember in my life, that persistence pays off and that the path may change, and the path for me definitely did change, but the goal didn't, and when one door is closing another is opening.

You said that you've wanted to be an astronaut your whole life. Did you basically plan your career around wanting to be an astronaut from a young age?

Somewhat. I certainly wanted to keep that door open. One thing that people have said to me, advice that had been given to me about being an astronaut, was that you want to make sure you are passionate about and fulfilled by what you do in your career, outside of being an astronaut.

Because the selection is so rigorous and the statistics are so small, you want to pursue something that you really love and that you would love to do for the rest of your life, and so I definitely did that by pursuing Mars geology. It was important, of course, to be in a STEM field because that's the way that you meet the basic requirements to be an astronaut, but I certainly wanted to build a career that would be fulfilling otherwise.

What has your work on the Mars Curiosity rover been like?

My day — my current day — has basically two pieces. In the first half of the day, there is a daily planning process for planning what the rover is going to do the next day. So we have a large international team of scientists that all get on the phone and have a phone meeting. As the data comes down from Mars from the day before, we get an idea of where we are and what we're nearby. And so we're looking at those images to see if there's something interesting and where we want to go next.

As scientists, we decide what is the most interesting thing to go investigate and how do we want to go interrogate it. What instruments do we want to use. And then there's a process of deciding on that and sending commands to the rover to actually execute that the next day. And then the second half of my day is analyzing my data that has come down from Mars, so analyzing those images and compositional data that we've received from the rover, and trying to understand and put together a picture a history of Gale Crater, where the Curiosity is.

NASA's astronaut candidate class for 2017: From left to right, Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Robb Kulin, Jessica Watkins, Loral O'Hara; back row, left to right, Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Matthew Dominick, Warren Hoburg, Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, and Raja Chari.

You'll start your astronaut training in August. Do you know what to expect?

I'm super excited about the two-year AsCan training process. It'll be super diverse—there's a wide range of skills that we'll be learning. It'll be kind of like drinking from a fire hose! We'll be learning about the International Space Station systems, there'll be robotics training, space walks in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, learning the Russian language, and flight training. It'll be so cool to have people with different expertise in each of those areas and have us all learn from each other, so I'm really looking forward to that process.

What are your personal goals, now that you're an astronaut candidate?

One of the things that's important to me moving forward is representing the people that have gotten me here well. I want to make sure that I bring the expertise and contributions that is my part of this team and just make sure that I learn from the others that are around me. And I think that as we move into this time of expanding our presence in the solar system, there's a lot of exciting opportunities, and I would be happy to participate in any of them.

You may be one of the first astronauts selected to represent the United States and the world by setting foot on Mars. What does that feel like?

[Laughs] The word that comes to mind is certainly honored to be considered in that type of role. I would certainly love to be able to be a representative for the amazing people who have gotten me to this point, including family and friends, as well as colleagues, especially in the planetary geology field and represent what they have contributed to the field and helped me get here. It certainly is a little bit overwhelming but I'm excited about the opportunity.

We're so grateful that Jessica took the time to talk to Fangrrls about being an astronaut candidate.

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