Episode 15: Planetary Science with Divya M. Persaud (ft. Abigail Harrison)

In this episode we learn all about space science! We start the episode off by chatting about some recent Nobel Prize winners (and how collaborative science involves more than just a few superstars). Next up, we learn about Mae Jemison: astronaut, educator and doctor. We interview Divya M. Persaud, a planetary scientist, writer, composer and all around wonderful person! Finally, we wrap the episode up by chatting with Abigail Harrison, founder of the non-profit The Mars Generation.

Listen to the episode by clicking the ‘play’ button on the SoundCloud file below, or download directly from iTunes or SoundCloud (or your favourite podcasting app!). See below to find all of our links posted in the shownotes, and the full transcript of the recording!

Shownotes

Discussion:

Nobel Prizes

Canada’s newest Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland, ‘just wanted to do something fun’

Wikipedia rejected an entry on a Nobel Prize winner because she wasn’t famous enough

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Goes to a Woman for the Fifth Time in History

The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science

British physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell donates $3-million prize to boost diversity

Poems of Space: Pioneering Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell Reads “Halley’s Comet” by Stanley Kunitz

 

Past scientist:

Mae Jemison read from Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky

 

Current scientist:

Divya M. Persaudimg_1963

Twitter: @Divya_M_P

Facebook: Divya M. Persaud 

Website: divyampersaud.wordpress.com

 

Next generation:

Abigail Harrisonastroabby

Twitter: @AstronautAbby

Website: astronautabby.com

The Mars Generation

Twitter: @TheMarsGenmars gen

Website: themarsgeneration.org

 

Follow us on social media!

Twitter: @SuperwomenSci

Instagram: @SuperwomenScience

Facebook: Superwomen in Science Podcast 

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Transcript:

Cordon & Nicole: This is Superwomen in Science!

C: I’m Cordon, and I’m a music therapist.

N: And I’m Nicole, I’m a neuroscientist.

C: We will be discussing the past, present and future of women and non-binary people in science,

N: highlighting a variety of scientific endeavours, as well as issues in science today.
Today, we’re talking about planetary science!

N: Welcome back to our 15th episode! We have a really great episode for you and we’re really excited for you to listen, so we hope you enjoy!

C: Yeah! Sorry, again, it’s been super delayed, but it’s because we have exciting news…

N: Most of the delay is my fault –

C: No

N: – because I was finishing up my Master’s. Which still is not technically submitted to the university but it has been approved, my thesis has been passed, and so basically everything has been finished and I’m very very excited

C: [claps]

N: So I’ve finished my Master’s in Neuroscience.

C: Yay!

N: (laughs) Thank you friend.

C: I’m making an on mic commitment that I might cut out (laughs) but we are going to try our hardest to make our second half of the season, so our next five episodes, really consistent.

N: But it is so much fun to be back podcasting, and we’re so excited! So thank you to everyone for your support and for your patience and, yeah, for listening.

C: So today we thought we would talk about Nobel Prizes. And obviously, this came up because of the Canadian woman Dr. Donna Stickland who won the Nobel prize in Physics! So she is the third woman to win the prize in physics, and the first Canadian!

N: Mhm! And we also have news about another woman, Dr. Francis Arnold, who shared the 2018 prize in Chemistry. So we’re going to talk about these two amazing women today, and Nobel prizes in general.

C: Yeah. So Dr. Strickland conducted her prize winning research in 1985 while she was working for her then PhD supervisor, French physicist Gérard Mourou at the University of Rochester in New York State. So to learn more about her specific research, there’s a really great article in the Globe and Mail, which explains it all to you.

N: Mhm. It is really cool. It’s all about lasers, good old physicists and their lasers. And it’s actually the same technique that’s now used in laser eye surgery? So that’s really cool, I didn’t know that. So now she has a Nobel Prize. And it’s exciting because she is a Canadian, and so lots of people sent it to us, we were very excited to hear. And she’s currently working at the University of Waterloo, so very close to home for both of us, which is just exciting.

C: Yeah, so when she won obviously everyone was very very excited, but there was a little bit of turmoil around it for a couple of different reasons. So the first one was, someone brought it up that during one of their Wiki edit-a-thons someone tried to create a Wikipedia page for her, before she won, and it was actually rejected, because she wasn’t famous enough.

N: Mhm, and this is fairly common. So if you’re not familiar, there are a couple of efforts going on recently of people creating Wikipedia pages for women in science because of the underrepresentation online. And so this is also fairly common of sometimes someone will write an article and then it will get rejected because they’re not “notable” enough, or something. So, obviously Dr. Donna Strickland has done some pretty incredible research and is fairly notable, and so, yeah, we’d just like to continue to see people creating Wikipedia pages, and just increasing representation. So shoutout to all the people who are organizing edit-a-thons around the world!

C: Yeah! That’s awesome. Another point that was brought up around Dr. Strickland was that she’s not actually an associate professor at Waterloo University. So there was a little bit of outrage about this – she did come out with a statement saying that said she never actually applied to get a tenure track position. So there is the one side that she didn’t really want to, and then there is also the systemic issue of women not actually applying as much as men. So a lot of things around that, but she has actually applied and is now a tenured professor at the University of Waterloo, so that’s really great.

N: And so the other woman who won a recent Nobel prize, Dr. Frances Arnold, so her prize was in Chemistry and it was for “directed evolution of enzymes”, which is pretty incredible. And yeah, both of these are really exciting, because sadly, although it is 2018, there haven’t been that many women recognized for Nobel Prizes. So Dr. Donna Strickland was the third woman ever to win in Physics, and the first Canadian, and Dr. Frances Arnold was the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. So, it is sadly a novel thing, I suppose. But the women have been here, we’re doing awesome science, and so it is fairly exciting once there is recognition.

So I will say, so many people were sending us these things and I did feel a little bit… I don’t know, just apprehension, or trepidation, just boosting the news, because I kind of feel a little… questionable about Nobel Prizes, you know what I mean? I sometimes feel a little… not great about everyone focusing just on who wins the Nobel Prize.

C: Yeah. And Ed Yong actually wrote a really really great article about this in The Atlantic. He makes some really great points that instead of honouring science, Nobel Prizes kind of distort its nature and overlook a lot of important contributors because research isn’t made by one single scientist.

N: Mhm. But the way that Nobel Prizes kind of distort it to make it look like it’s one single genius in a basement making a discovery, when really what science is right now and what we want it to be in the future is this open, collaborative, team-based thing. And a quote from Ed’s article is:

“Yes, researchers sometimes make solo breakthroughs, but that’s increasingly rare. Even within a single research group, a platoon of postdocs, students, and technicians will typically be involved in a discovery that gets hitched to a single investigator’s name. And more often than not, many groups collaborate on a single project.”

And so there was also, like the people who won last year for the Nobel Prize – 3 men won for a project that had 3 full pages of authors for the paper, that were working on that. So how do you highlight like one of the many.


“Nobel Prizes kind of distort it to make it look like it’s one single genius in a basement making a discovery, when really what science is right now and what we want it to be in the future is this open, collaborative, team-based thing”


C: Yeah. Or even 3. And there are a lot of examples of people doing really great science, and doing the work and not getting the credit. So a key example is Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars in her grad studies, but was denied the Nobel Prize, which was given to her supervisor, instead of her.

So one really great thing to come out was that Dr. Strickland was given a Nobel Prize for her graduate work, and she shared it with her supervisor. And it was actually her first published work, which is really really cool. Really cool change.

N: Mhm. So yeah, as you mentioned, Dr. Jocelyn Bell is one of those infamous cases of her work was attributed to her male colleagues [for a Nobel Prize], but since then, in 2018 Dr. Bell was given a $3 Million grant for that original breakthrough that she was originally denied a Nobel Prize, and she donated it, in it’s entirety to encourage diversity in physics. So, how wonderful is that.

C: Yeah. So she says that the money will go to the Institute of Physics to fund graduate scholarships for people from minority groups, including women, members from ethnic minorities and refugees.

N: And so she has a quote to BBC where she says “people from minority groups bring a fresh angle to things that people from minority groups bring “a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. A lot of breakthroughs come from left field.” So just a wonderful reminder that let’s stop just focusing on the single people who have made it, and let’s increase opportunities for everyone.

C: Yeah.

N: And later in our episode, we have a young woman who is extremely invested in both planetary science and art, which is extremely relevant to what we’re talking about right now, because Dr. Jocelyn Bell has had a history of mixing her science, which is also space science, and art. So on the wonderful site Brain Pickings, which is curated by the fabulous Maria Popova, which sidenote, I really encourage you to check out if you haven’t, it frequently talks about the intersection of science and art, and other really wonderful things.

But this one article was centered around the idea poetry and space science, and it reviews the book Dark Matter: Poems in Space which was edited by Dr. Jocelyn Bell. So the book contains 113 poems which were all collected by Dr. Bell, that are inspired by astronomy. So the BrainPickings piece also touches on an excerpt from a lecture that Dr. Bell gave on astronomy and poetry, and it includes the audio from the poem Haley’s Comet, which was written by another Nobel Laureate Stanley Kunitz.

C: Another great quote from this article was from the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, that she actually wrote in her diary in 1871. So she said, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry”

N: Mm. That’s a really great quote. So we really encourage you to check out this wonderful piece by BrainPickings, and also if you have any examples of combining art and science or poetry and science please send them our way and we’d love to share them with our listeners.

~Musical Interlude~

N: Today, we’re reading about Mae Jemison, who is an astronaut, educator and doctor.

Mae Jemison always knew she would go into space. She was born in 1956 in Alabama and grew up in Chicago. She was obsessed with the Apollo missions but noticed that there was no one who looked like her going up into space. However, the fictional TV show Star Trek featured people of different genders and races working together. This had an impact on young Mae, and Lieutenant Uhura became her role model.

Mae went to Stanford and double majored in chemical engineering and African-American studies. She went on to Cornell and became a medical doctor. She worked in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Liberia for several years. She continued working as a doctor until it was time to chase her space dream. Mae applied to NASA and became an astronaut.

In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space. On the spae shuttle Endeavour, she took an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority flag, a West African Bundu statue and a poster of Judith Jamison dancing. She wanted African and African-American culture to be represented in space and no longer left out.

The following year, she left NASA and started numerous companies, including her own technology consulting firm, the Jemison Group Inc. Mae is the founder of the BioSentient Corporation, which creates devices that will allow doctors to monitor patients’ day-to-day nervous system functions.

The technology and problem solving to get humans in space created inventions that we use today on earth. Mae was inspired by this and became principal of the 100 Year Starship project. The goal is to make sure human beings will be able to travel to the next solar system within the next 100 years. This project will also inspire new solutions to materials, recycling, energy and fuel, just as the space race did. Dr. Mae Jemison still has her eyes on the stars while helping solve problems here on earth.

~Musical Interlude~

C: Today we have a wonderful interview that we hope you’ll enjoy with Divya M. Persaud. So Divya is a planetary scientist, writer, and composer. With an ongoing focus in remote sensing for planetary geology and geophysics, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Space & Climate Physics at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the UK.

N: So in this lab, she is developing methods of Mars image data fusion and automated feature recognition for surface geology ahead of the ExoMars 2020 rover launch. Divya holds a B.A. in geology and music composition from the University of Rochester and is an alumna of the NASA Academy.

C: Divya is also the poet of the upcoming book do not perform this, which won an Editor’s Choice Award (‘Great’ Indian Poetry Collective, 2018), and two self-published collections, color (2016) and de caelo et tellure (2015).

N: She is additionally the composer of the self-produced song cycle/album THEY WILL BE FREE (2017). Her writing and music incorporate her polymathic background and transcend form to discuss memory, human connection, and the double-diaspora experience.

C: She is the best (laughs) and we’re super honoured to have her on the podcast. It’s a super great interview and we hope you enjoy.

C: Well thank you so much Divya for being with us we’re super excited to finally get you on the podcast. Before we start we just have one question for you: do you wear a labcoat?

Divya: Do I – I do not wear a labcoat, contrary to stock photos of astronomers, I do not wear a labcoat.

N&C: (laughs)

N: That’s very timely [at the time #ScientistsWhoSelfie was trending], so good to know! So if an astronomer is not wearing a labcoat, can you briefly explain, or just break down some misconceptions about what the field of astronomy is?

D: Yeah. So I’m actually in planetary science, which is a subsection of astronomy that intersects with geology, physics, astrophysics, all sorts of disciplines, chemistry, really exciting upcoming field because so many fields are involved. But I think some misconceptions about planetary science are that you can define it? I think it’s such a diverse field where everyone from computer scientists to engineers to statisticians and geologists, even artists, come together and work on these complex problems of space exploration. So I think that is the biggest misconception, that there is one way to be a planetary scientists that we all look at data, we all do analysis, we all use one software maybe, that we all do missions, we’re all part of one mission, etcetera. So, yeah, other misconceptions: we’re not all astronauts… that’s a sad misconception (laughs), wish we were! And I think one misconception about astronomers that I think tends to get me, and I think this covers all fields of astronomy, is that we’re loners. And especially in space exploration, everything we do is part of a team, even if you’re working alone day to day, you’re always relying on someone at another university, or you know, a different government agency in a different country, it’s very very interconnected and extremely exciting in that regard, and I don’t think there’s a way to be absolutely isolated in the things we do. So, yeah!

C: Awesome.

N: Mhm, that’s wonderful.

C: So, since there are so many different ways to be a planetary scientist, what specifically do you do?

D: Yeah, so my background is actually geology, I did my undergraduate degree in geology and then my research background is more geophysics, in application to planets. So right now I’m doing my PhD in planetary imaging for mars. So what that involves is figuring out new, novel ways to take the images we get from planetary missions like mars rover, mars orbitors, and putting them together in a way that geologists like me can actually work with that data and understand what’s going on at the surface of a planet. So what that involves is a lot of computer science, so because my background is geology I’m learning quite a bit of programming, software development, etcetera, combined with optics, physics, a geological understanding of what’s happening on mars… I’m hopefully gaining a holistic vision of how we put our eyes on mars, and how we can take those images back and put them back in a framework that human eyes can understand, I think that’s the best way to think about it.

C: That is so cool.

N: Yeah, that’s incredible. Super impressed. So what specifically got you interested in science, and even specifically this current field – what drew you into planetary science?

D: Oh, man. So it started when I was 4 years old, and I collected rocks all the time, and one day I asked my mom “how do I do this for a living?” and she said “it’s called geology”. And throughout my childhood I’d borrow books from the library, and read about geology, and my family was really supportive, they’d take me to events, buy me rock samples, you know, listen to me rant about some very mundane pebble I found behind the house, etcetera.

N: (laughs)

D: A big part of it was really my family’s encouragement, which I’m really grateful for. But then my sister was actually interested in astronomy when we were growing up, extremely interested in astronomy, so we would do family activities around that, and I was pretty much disinterested in astronomy and space growing up, until I watched a Discovery channel special on the Cassini mission in middle school. I’d come home from school and put this on, and I learned about the Cassini mission which had a component called the Huygens probe, and the Huygens probe was deployed in 2005 and landed on Saturn’s moon Titan and took pictures of it’s descent and then on the ground. And one of the most striking things was on the ground there’s this beautiful photo of these rounded pebbles in the foreground, and gentle slopes in the distance. And geologists took one look at this and said, “it looks like a river environment on earth”. So I was watching this on TV and I was just so upset. I was like, ‘why haven’t we learned about the Cassini mission, that we’ve landed on Titan, in school?’. And I’m still angry about that (laughs). That anger is a big reason behind why I’m so passionate about planetary science, because, you know, we’re all part of the project of space exploration. So in that moment I thought ‘ok, I love geology, I want to do geology, and once I’m a good geologist I want to do planetary geology, and apply all that knowledge to planets’. So that was the plan, so I made NASA my homepage (laughs) on my computer in middle school, and I read all these articles about space missions and everything, and early in high school I apply to this program called NASA inspire. It was an online learning community, it was a forum, it was a national program where students would talk to each other about space, and it was moderated by NASA scientists and engineers, and there would be webcasts and events, it was actually really wonderful. So I did that for a couple of years, and then through that program I applied for a NASA internship, it was a high school program, it was really excellent, where you would live close by to the NASA center, and essentially do a research project, geared for high school students but still fairly rigorous. So I applied for that and I won a position, and that was my junior year of high school. At that point I was still like ‘I want to do earth science for 10-15 years and then I’ll think about space’ (laughs). And I landed a project with an instrument team on the Messenger mission, which was a mission to Mercury that ended a few years ago but was launched in 2011. So I got there a month after the first data starting coming back, and I was like ‘ok, this is pretty cool, I guess’ (laughs). And by the end of the summer I was like ‘ok, I could be convinced to do this!’ The next year I was like ‘uhhh I’m still interested in earth’, and the people I worked with – and I’m downplaying it, I had the time of my life. So I went back the following summer, and I started my degree in geology, and I was still thinking ‘maybe I should start thinking about space’, and so I applied for a lab position and I got to work with meteorites. So, that started a long journey of denial of me saying “no, I’ll do planetary science in the future”, and me just continually ending up, by luck, doing planetary science. And so one day I decided, ‘ok, you know what, I’m good at this, I’ve done this a few times, I think I should just do it’ (laughs). And I guess that’s my story.

N: That’s awesome. And it’s so cool to hear your journey through science, especially when you started discussing how the field is so broad, I was wondering, how do you possibly end up where you are, so that’s really cool to hear your story.


“And so one day I decided, ‘ok, you know what, I’m good at this, I’ve done this a few times, I think I should just do it’ (laughs). And I guess that’s my story”


C: Yeah. So you’re also an artist – how did you get interested in the intersect of your science and your art?

D: (laughs) Yeah, I guess it starts when I was 4 years old (laughs)

N: That was a big year!

D: Yeah, it really was! I really really wanted to be a writer and a painter when I was a little kid. So my grandfather taught me how to read and write using poetry, and so did my mom. So I was really interested in poetry as a kid, I thought it was so much fun, I’d read all these kids poetry books, and we had a really great art program in my elementary school that got me extremely interested in visual art. So my whole plan was to become a famous author and use that money to fund my science (laughs), which is the cutest thing ever (laughs). And I never let go of it, and it got to a point where I had to make decisions about classes I would take in high school, and my philosophy became ‘you know what, I’m going to do this as long as physically possible, until someone really steps their foot down and says no, you have to choose’. And that just got me here. I think at the end of high school I started picking up poetry again, and then in college I did a music major in first person cello performance and then composition, and I was still writing really actively, I found a great group of friends who were interested in both science and art. I guess having a passion in both of those things you have to say ‘what really is fundamentally the difference between these two things’, especially when people are constantly telling you “you know you’re going to have to pick at some point. You’re going to have to pick a side of your brain to follow, or philosophy of the way of looking at the world”, if that’s how you define the difference between science and art. And it became more and more ridiculous to me, because I take so much of what I do in writing, for example, the concept of telling a story is the same way I approach research, right? What kind of story can I tell? What kind of questions do I want to answer, and how does that fit into a bigger narrative, even. Which I think is extremely important for staying motivated in science, because sometimes you’re doing really tedious and almost like it’s not worth anything, and then you think, ‘ok, what is the bigger picture here? What am I setting up for the future? What are students going to take from this, 20 years down the line?’, and it grows into something bigger. And writing has given me that specific perspective. And science, itself, has given me a lot of the analytical tools to do things like composition, where originally I was doing cello but then I started getting really interested in music theory, and how we can use numbers and spatial relationships, and you know that was a crossover that was extremely easy, and I started using musical notation software, playing with electronic music and stuff, and all of those ideas of understanding sound from the most physical component came from my interest in science. So again, it slowly became a ridiculous distinction to me, when science and art really are just creative ways of trying to understand the universe and make something out of that, and relating it to people. And I think that’s why I’m so interested in science communication and outreach, because that’s what art is, you know, it’s communicating your ideas in a way that a person can understand, and in a way that a person can creatively read them.

N: Yeah, that’s –

C: I don’t think anyone can say it better than that.


“So again, it slowly became a ridiculous distinction to me, when science and art really are just creative ways of trying to understand the universe and make something out of that, and relating it to people” 


N: Yeah, nope, I was just going to say the same thing. So beautiful. Do you have an influential person, theorist or theory that shapes your work?

D: Oh man, my scientific work or my artistic work?

N: Either!

D: Either? Ooh, it’s tough, I try not to latch on, you know, don’t meet your heroes kind of thing, I mean I have a lot of scientific heroes despite trying to maintain that philosophy. I think for science, I mean it’s cheesy, but it’s my sister. She sat me down when I was 4 or 5 years old and said “the universe is expanding!” and that blew my mind, and that affected me to my core. That absolute wonder and terror has never left me. And the way she also felt compelled to share her energy and love for space in that kind of way, and guide me in that kind of way, showed me the sort of the generosity that is needed to do space science, where again, space science is a project for everyone. And I really try to think about that often and hold that dear to me.

And I think for art it might actually be the same thing. Like I said the idea of sharing what everyone has a right to and sharing your perspective and your energy and love – because I think when you keep your energy and love to yourself, is it really there if you don’t express it?

C: Awesome. That’s the word of the day.

N: Yeah. I think we’re both just like… I really loved what you said about the generosity of the science and having that be an integral part. That’s such a beautiful perspective, and that’s so needed.

D: Thank you. And I also want to say that my commitment to try to remember to be generous in science comes from a lot of people who have taken a chance on me, and I think that’s something I really love about space science, is that most researchers don’t let go that innate curiosity and need to share that with other people. Some of the most kindest, generous people I know are in space science, you know, they’re the people I just walk into an office and ask a question and they’ll give me 2 hours of their day, explaining what they do, and I’m so grateful for that and I try to kind of channel that energy into what I do.

C: We’ve kind of touched on this briefly, but is there anything that really drives or motivates your work in science and art?

D: Mhm, you know I was telling someone this yesterday, and it’s sort of this speech I do, but this idea that being in planetary science and space science, and there are so many ways that we touch people and that makes it worth it in itself, but the thing that we do, there’s no other way to look at it than the purest spirit of curiosity, right, I’m looking at Mars, I’m not saving a life – not to postulate it in that sense, but I’m getting to play with the fundamental questions of the universe, and that’s my job. And it humbles me, but it also blows my mind, it’s absolutely fun – the biggest, most expensive candy shop that we get to play with (laughs). I don’t know, I try to bring that kind of humour, as much as it is humility, into whatever I’m doing. I step back from what I do everyday and say “gosh this is so much fun” (laughs). And that, aside from the serious aspect of sharing space with everyone – you know, the solar system belongs to everyone, and I get to be a part of what brings it to everyone, honestly, that really gets me up in the morning, thinking “gosh, this is almost silly that I get to do this”.

C: That’s a great motivation though. It just shows how much you love your work, which is really nice.


“I’m getting to play with the fundamental questions of the universe, and that’s my job. And it humbles me, but it also blows my mind, it’s absolutely fun – the biggest, most expensive candy shop that we get to play with (laughs). I don’t know, I try to bring that kind of humour, as much as it is humility, into whatever I’m doing. I step back from what I do everyday and say “gosh this is so much fun” (laughs).”


N: In terms of thinking about the next generation, who want to kind of follow your footsteps, what all do they have to do, or what would you advise someone going on the same path?

D: Ooh, that’s something I consider a lot. Trying to think – because the field is changing so rapidly and when I started, you know, getting my foot in the door, in when was that – 2011 – so many things from 3D printing for space, going from a hypothetical situation to 2 years, 3D printing on the ISS. So just technologically speaking it’s rapidly evolving, and you’re seeing new academic programs in planetary science specifically where 10-15 years ago you would just do a degree in physics or geology and find your way to space science, and I think it’s incredible but I also feel like an old man (laughs) trying to give advice to these young people, where even what I went through is completely different than what they’re going to go through in college. I think what ties us together across generations is find what you love, find the avenue that you love most that gets you doing space science. Don’t necessarily say “oh, ok they say I have to do physics, I have to do engineering” – do what you love and find the way to apply it to science, because there’s so many opportunities. You could be an anthropologist, and a space scientist. I know so many visual artists who did graphic design and work at JPL visualization department, who do critical work for the mars rover team. There’s so many ways to get into it, and I think if you don’t find a way that you love to get into it, it’s not going to work. And I think that’s true of any field but especially space, being so diverse, so rapidly changing – don’t necessarily buy into the narratives of I have to do this, this, this, check off this tick box, find your own journey. I think other than that – ugh there are so many things I would say (laughs). Be curious but be actively curious. Again, space scientists are very generous, so I would say, email them if you see them in the news, read their paper, send them an email. Go visit your university physics department. Reach out to these people, because we are people, and I think space science suffers from this idea that we’re just headlines, and huge things, and I think if you think about say NASA, it’s just sort of this monolith that you enter and don’t leave, and it’s this black box, and you don’t know how they do it, but they just do it and it’s magic. Which is great, it’s exciting but I think that was the most important lesson of getting to intern at NASA, is being like ok, they’re just people, they’re human beings and they have really diverse ways of getting to NASA, you know, they went to college, and then did their PhD 30 years later, or didn’t do their PhD, or started out as stay at home moms. Seeing the diversity of the people who are doing space science is critically important. And then also, making sure you understand how space science is done. Because I think what comes with the black box is the thinking ‘we go from A to B’, you know, we do a little bit of science and then all of a sudden we have this huge result, but it’s decades of really hard work and you know, I have to be blunt about that, because that’s not for everyone, and it’s good to be aware of that. You know, there are people who conceptualize missions in their 20’s and they’re 60 when it comes through. And you just have to be patient and really stick to something, but you just have to be aware of that. So, yeah, that’s what I would say (laughs).

C: Yeah, that’s great advice. So what are your hopes for the future of women in planetary science?

D: Hopes for the future? Oof. I think one big philosophy of space science is hope. I think that – we’re trying to reach other planets, and learn about them, and we need a lot of hope. But my hopes, more materially would be that planetary science finds its space among the private space sector, the space exploration companies that are emerging, where I think we’re struggling to find a balance between ‘ok these are the people building rockets, these are the people who need rockets, these are the people who are going to need the data from the things in the rockets’. I think that’s going to be a really big challenge for the next 5 years, if not decade, where we’re having a space race but it’s not necessarily attached to what the scientists are doing on the ground. Where as in the last space race scientists were pretty involved, we were doing the geology up on the moon, but we’re not necessarily having that conversation again today. So I would really hope to see the conversation grow and for us to develop a greater partnership with our space companies and the current space race. And also make sure that scientists can have a voice in where that’s going and what that’s doing.

And my other hope is that – and I keep saying that the solar system belongs to all of us, and that’s something I say a lot, because it does, right. No one person or no one group of people or research group has a plan for space, we all live in space. And I really hope that space exploration comes to represent that a little more, getting more women, more people of colour in science in the West, getting more countries involved in space exploration and share that. If we have a space race it’s not a political event, it’s a communal event, it’s a way to bring together people in the spirit of say the international space station. And making sure that we’re doing it for the right reasons, in the name of peace, in the name of solidarity, in the name of community. And I think that’s my greatest dream for planetary science, to find itself part of that greater quest and to stay committed to it.


“I keep saying that the solar system belongs to all of us, and that’s something I say a lot, because it does, right. No one person or no one group of people or research group has a plan for space, we all live in space”


N: That’s beautiful. So if people want to hear more of all these beautiful thoughts, where can people find you online? Social media, website…

D: Yeah, I have a website, I don’t really put my thoughts on there, just sort of updates. So that’s my full name, DivyaMPersaud.wordpress.com, that’s D-I-V-Y-A-M-P-E-R-S-A-U-D.wordpress. And then I also have a facebook page, with that same name. And then I also have twitter – that’s Divya_M_P, and that’s where I put more of my thoughts. But I’m hopefully going to be doing more science communication writing on my website in the future, so stay tuned for that.

C: Yeah, this was a great interview. Thank you so much for meeting with us.

D: Thanks so much for talking with me!

C: It was wonderful.

~Musical Interlude~

N: Ok, and for our last section of the podcast, we have a really inspiring young woman who is just doing incredible things for the next generation of space scientists. So Abigail Harrison, in 2011 and at the age of 13, she began to speak publicly about her dream of becoming the first astronaut to mars. Her work over the years as an international STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) and space ambassador has led to a following of over 1 million people on social media. So, already, really cool person, Astronaut Abby, but to add on to that, in 2015 when she was only 18 years old she founded the Mars Generation.

N: The Mars Generation is a non-profit with the support of an advisory board of astronauts, engineers, scientists and hundreds of thousands of online supporters. So the non-profit has reached over 25 million people in its first 2 years of operation, with its work to educate and excite kids and adults about space exploration and STEM education

C: She has a lot of great experiences to speak on so we hope you enjoy her interview and learn a little bit more about the Mars Generation!

C: Abby, thank you so much for being with us! We’re really excited to talk to you. So to start, can you briefly explain what the Mars generation is to our listeners.

Abby: Absolutely. And thanks for having me today. So the Mars Generation is a non-profit that I started about two and a half years ago which focuses on exciting and inspiring people about space exploration and STEM education. So that’s science, technology, engineering and math. And then also supporting young people who are pursuing careers in those fields.

N: So wonderful.

A: Thank you!

N: And you created that when you were 18, correct?

A: I did, yeah. My first month in college we launched the Mars Generation.

C: Oh my goodness.

N: That’s amazing.

A: It was a busy month!

C: I bet.

N: I can imagine. So what led you to create the Mars Generation? What’s your motivation and inspiration behind this project?

A: Well there’s a really interesting back story behind it actually. When I was 15 years old I was invited to Kazakhstan, to Baikonur Kazakhstan, by an Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano with the European Space Agency, who was launching on a soyuz rocket for 6 months on the International Space Station. He had asked me to be his earth liaison. So earth liaison is a role that had never been even thought of before, which was this idea of an astronaut partnering with a student to share his experiences living and working in space with different groups than he was able to reach. So especially being able to reach out to young and teenage girls with this exciting message of space exploration and hope for our futures basically. So he asked me to help him with that and I spent 6 months after his launch visiting classrooms and speaking at conferences and events, and publishing a lot of stuff online, and running different social media channels, and just curating a lot of information and exciting content for people to get involved with space exploration. And after that I continued to do a lot of space and STEM outreach because it seemed like it was such an important and valuable thing to be doing, I didn’t want to let that go just because there was no longer a formal partnership with an astronaut in space. So over the next two and half years I continued to do space and STEM outreach and when I went to college decided to formalize it into a nonprofit where I was able to invite a lot more people to be a part of this, basically mission that looks to better all of our futures.

C: Wow, yeah that’s incredible.

A: Thank you.

C: You’re welcome! If someone wants to join the Mars Generation, what’s involved. What do they have to do?

A: We have programs and ways that pretty much anyone who wants to, can be involved with the Mars Generation. It can be anything from being a sponsor or a member all the way to being a teacher who helps to use our materials and what not in their curriculum. Or even just joining one of our social media channels and keeping up with us there. We’re super excited to have everyone be involved. We especially are looking to target young people so we have a student space ambassador program where we have over 1500 students from around the world, and that’s between the ages of 14 and 24 who are going out there and doing outreach in whatever way suits them and their communities. And we try and support them in that. So if you think that you’d like to be involved with the future of space exploration or you want to help promote an interest in STEM, you can go ahead and go to themarsgeneration.org and we have all of our programs listed there. You can also find us as the Mars Generation on pretty much any social media channel, and you can find me as Astronaut Abby once again, on all of the social medias.

N: You’ve been really active on social media with your title of Astronaut Abby which is so cool! You’re just crushing it. But what are your hopes for the future of space exploration and for STEAM?

A: My hopes for the future of space exploration are that we continue to push our boundaries and that we continue to ask ourselves what’s possible, and then go farther than that. So one thing that I really really expect and hope to see within our lifetimes is setting human bootprints on other planets. So specifically Mars and then potentially exploring other areas in our solar system as well. I think that that’s a really valuable goal and something that’s very realistic for us to believe that will happen within our lifetime. I also really hope to see a lot more people involved in STEM and the space industries, and especially to see a lot more women and young women come up and start to fill these positions that are becoming available.

N: Love it.

C: Yeah, awesome! Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about the Mars Generation or joining your organization, or about Astronaut Abby?

A: I think that the most important message that I can send to people out there is that the Mars Generation and also my personal platforms as Astronaut Abby are not just for people who have an interest in science, or who already have a foothold in science or STEM. They’re for everybody because science and STEM are a part of all of our daily lives and it’s something that we can do as a hobby. And we often times don’t realize or we forget that STEM can be a part of our lives even if we’re not officially scientists or engineers or what not. So I would really encourage everyone who’s listening to go ahead and seek out the Mars Generation and take a look and consider joining us.

C: Great.

N: That’s wonderful. Couldn’t agree more. Thank you just so much for coming on the podcast and for sharing your message with all of our listeners. And thank you for all of your work that you’re doing to promote science and exploration, and just outreach in general. It’s wonderful.

A: Thank you so much to everyone who’s listening and also especially to both of you for having me on. I really am in awe and have so much respect for the important work that you’re doing as science communicators and feel very honoured that I get to share in it with you.

C: Oh thank you. We’re honoured that you agreed to come on (laughs with Nicole).

C: Thank you so much for list

C: Thank you so much for listening to the superwomen in science podcast!

N: Just a reminder that we’re reading from Rachel Ignotofsky’s book Women in Science

C: And a big thank you to our amazing guests Divya M. Persaud and Abigal Harrison.

N: Make sure to follow us on Soundcloud or itunes to hear our podcast as soon as we put them out! So just search us in the podcast section, download, rate, and subscribe!  And if you feel like leaving a review of our show it would really help us, to help other people find us!

C: You can find us on Facebook at Superwomen in Science Podcast and on twitter @ Superwomensci and on Instagram at @superwomenscience.

N: A transcript of this episode and every episode can be found on our website superwomeninscience.wordpress.com!

C: Tweet us if you’re a space scientist or if you want us to talk about your field of science!

N: Thanks again everyone!

(Fade out with bloopers and music)

One thought on “Episode 15: Planetary Science with Divya M. Persaud (ft. Abigail Harrison)

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