Sharing life lessons on succeeding in STEM

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Photo credit: NASA JPL

I recently had a homecoming of sorts: The chance to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and speak at their Women in STEM luncheon. I began my science career at Caltech – the academic home of JPL – studying astrophysics, and later served as NASA’s chief scientist. So it was gratifying to return to my roots as a student, researcher, scientist and leader, and share some lessons I learned from those experiences with the amazing women of JPL. 

As a graduate student at Caltech, I learned the value of calculated risks. Following a theoretical hunch, I asked my thesis advisor to use an X-ray detector in space to point to a collapsed binary star – an expensive undertaking. The star was in the midst of a visible accretion event; even though I wasn’t positive moving the detector would yield new data, I took a risk, gave my thesis advisor a resounding “Yes!” when he asked whether moving the satellite was worth it, crossed my fingers, and waited. The risk paid off: I had the joy of seeing the theories I had studied confirmed. And I learned the importance of being confident in understanding the work of those who came before. 

But it’s also important to be confident in your own journey, a lesson I learned as NASA’s first female chief scientist. I brought scientists to Headquarters to talk with the NASA Administrator, and stayed true to the scientific vision I believed would be best for the agency. And I was credited with “bringing science back to NASA” HQ, and helping shape a new vision for scientific exploration. 

As director of NSF, I work to incorporate all the life lessons I’ve learned so far to foster our country’s efforts in discovering and building the next frontiers of science. This includes working on efforts like INCLUDES, a NSF initiative that explores novel approaches to broadening participation in STEM, and working to scale those approaches. 

I told the JPL Women in STEM attendees to keep charting their own courses, their own scientific journeys, by letting wonder and curiosity drive their path. It’s the same advice I give to students and young scientists across the nation: You are the next pioneers and trailblazers, whether in science or some other field. Those who came before and those who follow are counting on you. So take risks, for all of us.