Navajo Roots Trailblaze a Path to Mars
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Aaron Yazzie's headshot

Aaron Yazzie continues to set his sights higher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With a Diné (Navajo) background, he earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, and as a Mechanical Engineer with a focus on Sample Acquisition and Handling at NASA, Yazzie designs mechanisms for acquiring geological samples from other planets.

Diversity in STEAM Magazine had a chance to talk with Yazzie about his Native American background and how it influenced his journey to NASA.

DISM: Can you tell us about your background and journey to becoming a mechanical engineer at NASA?

Yazzie: I was born in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. I was born to parents who were 1st generation college students in their families—families that have had traditional Diné upbringings. Their first language was Dinébizaad (Navajo Language), their first known homes were our traditional Diné Hooghan (Navajo Hogan Houses/Dwellings). They learned the English language in elementary school, where they were the first generation in their family forced to attend school by the US government. From that unique beginning, and from that early-childhood culture shock and trauma, both my mother and father made it through an educational system rigged against them, graduated high school, and went to college—the first in their families. My mother earned her degree in education—she became a high school level math teacher. And my father received a degree in civil engineering—he became an engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation. Both of them have been pioneers of Indigenous achievement in higher education and STEM careers. They may not be known and recognized by the larger Native community as STEM pioneers, but they are certainly my inspiration and the trailblazers to my career at NASA.

I grew up in Holbrook, AZ, a small border town to the Navajo Reservation. My brothers and I grew up, and attended school in the Holbrook School District, where we all graduated proud “Holbrook Roadrunners.”
Growing up, I didn’t have any examples or role models who went to prestigious private schools or went on to work at places like NASA. I knew I wanted to transcend the expectations of my family and my hometown, which is why I always strove for the highest grades in school, participated in all the school leadership positions and sought out all the high school summer enrichment programs. These are the programs that ended up transforming me from a self-doubting minority student into a solid college applicant with some awareness of my self-worth. They gave me the confidence to apply to, and to eventually be accepted to, Stanford University—an event that changed the course of my life.

Making the transition from small-town public school to prestigious private college was a big challenge. Nothing about my time at Stanford was easy, whether it was the rigorous academics or the constant financial struggle. Not to mention being separated from a tight-knit home community like the Navajo community for the first time. I was forced to learn quickly how to adapt, persevere, and overcome many challenges during my time at Stanford. Thankfully, there was a supportive community of BIPOC students who were going through the same challenges as I was. We all supported each other and made it through—not only graduating, but each of us moving on to do incredible things.

I was hired by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mid-way through my senior year at Stanford. I was heavily involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society from the time that I was a high school freshman. I grew from there to be president of my high school AISES chapter, then became the Stanford AISES chapter president, and then National AISES Region 2 Student Representative. Along the way I received a 4-year scholarship from AISES to attend Stanford, and while there, I received 2 NASA internships through AISES. One placed me at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and one at NASA Glenn Research Center. By the time I was ready to look for a job, AISES had helped give me a college education, 2 NASA internships, and a job opportunity with one of the most prestigious engineering institutions in the world. I met the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory recruiter at the AISES National Conference in 2007. From that interaction, I received an on-lab interview, and was hired soon after. I have been working as a Mechanical Engineer at NASA JPL for 12 years and counting.

DISM: Tell us about your significant milestone – when NASA’s InSight lander touched the surface of Mars. What were you feeling, and how was that experience?

Yazzie: NASA InSight was the first mission I worked on where I was tasked with leading the design and delivery of space flight hardware. Up until this point in my career, I supported missions as a test engineer or support engineer. When InSight successfully launched into space, it was the first time something I designed—something I touched with my own hands—went into space. And when it landed on Mars, it was the first time I sent something to another planet. I was completely thrilled, and overwhelmed with emotions when I saw the first set of pictures of my hardware on Mars. Considering where I came from, this achievement was monumental!
Being an engineer from a remarkably underrepresented community in STEM fields, it is a constant struggle to overcome imposter syndrome. I did not think I was a thriving or even adequate engineer at NASA. It’s a shame that it took an achievement like sending something to Mars to convince me that I belonged in my field, and that I belonged at NASA.

DISM: Can you tell us more about “Mars 2020”? What is the mission? How has the experience been?

Yazzie: Currently, I am the lead engineer for the Mars 2020 Drill Bits. We are sending the Mars 2020 Rover “Perseverance” to drill rock samples and save them in hermetically sealed tubes, so that we can eventually bring those samples back to Earth in future missions to determine if life exists on Mars. Additionally, this mission will study the history of rocky planets and conduct experiments that will pave the way for humans to travel to Mars. It’s really incredible to be part of another historic NASA mission. I’ve grown so much as an engineer—now sending my second flight hardware to Mars, but also being able to lead a team and be a mentor for the first time in my career. I’m very proud to have successfully delivered my parts to the rover, and very excited for the Mars 2020 launch in July 2020.

DISM: How has your Navajo background influenced your career?

Yazzie: Coming from an Indigenous background, I have a deep appreciation for the advancements of my family and ancestors before me. Considering that Native Americans weren’t granted basic civil rights in this country until 1968, it is remarkable that our people have not only overcome this historic oppression, but have been able to thrive and advance. I reflect on my own family, where as recent as one generation ago, my parents spoke no English, but learned in a small amount of time that education was the modern way to advance their people. My own academic achievements and this career I have been fortunate to achieve has all been made possible by the advancements of the Navajo people who have come before me. And it is for them that I use my privilege and platform to continue on.

DISM: What advice would you give to Native Americans wanting to pursue engineering?

Yazzie: Be resilient. It’s almost guaranteed that along your STEM journey, you will look around and not see very many others like you, from backgrounds like your own. But please understand that there are people in all directions of your life that are there to help you. Those before you, who want to help you succeed through mentorship and wisdom. Those beside you, who are on your same journey. And those behind you, who see you as an inspiration and role model. Recognizing that you have a full circle of support and inspiration will help you achieve any and all of your goals.

Is Tesla really worth $500 billion?
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graphic of elon musk with pink and orange background and tesla label

By Rory Cellan-Jones for BBC News

It was the week when Elon Musk soared past Bill Gates to become the world’s second richest person, as Tesla’s value topped $500bn.

On Tech Tent, we ask just why investors think the electric car company is worth so much more than it was a year ago. At the beginning of 2020, Tesla was valued by the stock market at around $80bn – and even then, sceptics thought that was a high price for a business that was barely profitable.

(Image Credit – Getty Images)

Throughout the year its shares have soared, and its valuation climbed above $500bn on the news that the business was going to be included in the S&P 500 index of leading companies.

Just to put that into context: Tesla is now worth more than Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai, GM and Ford put together.

‘You’re being too rational!’

I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and those businesses, some of which are undoubtedly ailing, made a combined profit of more than $50bn last year.

This year, Tesla is on course to make something like $1bn. So to believe the current valuation, surely you have to have some confidence that its technology and its market dominance will deliver a 50-fold increase in profits over the not too distant future?

“You’re being too rational!” Passion Capital’s Eileen Burbidge told me when I put it to her that Tesla’s sky-high share price simply didn’t add up.

“All it means is that the people who are buying the stock at this price believe they’re going to be able to sell it at a higher price.”

Eileen’s work as a venture capitalist is all about putting a value on companies which are at a much earlier stage than Tesla – and she tells Tech Tent that this is often a similarly irrational process, dependent on the mood in the wider market, and not just the qualities of individual businesses.

Tesla’s many fans will rightly point out that it has sent the automotive industry in a new direction, has unique battery technology with many other applications, and has a visionary leader.

But that was all true at the beginning of 2020 when it was worth a mere $80bn.

A short-term bet

“There are clearly no business fundamentals that point to a five-six times increase in its valuation just since the beginning of the year,” Eileen Burbidge told me. But she returns to her point that investors are making a short-term bet.

“I would like to think that the markets are fundamentally rational at the end of the day. I think the question is one’s time horizon. These buyers – they really believe they’re going to be able to sell at a higher price. And so far, by the way, they’ve been right.”

It is foolish to try to apply too much logic to short-term moves in shares. When asked by his editors why prices were rising, one legendary Fleet Street stock market correspondent used to reply “more buyers than sellers”, giving the opposite answer when the market was falling.

Just like a bottle of 1945 Burgundy, or a Picasso, or a tiny flat in London or San Francisco, Tesla’s “value” is whatever someone is willing to pay for it, however irrational the price may seem.

Nevertheless, one person who should know said months ago that the electric car company was overvalued, tweeting on 1 May: “Tesla stock price is too high imo”.

Who says? Well, it was Elon Musk himself – and the tweet knocked $14bn off the company’s value.

Since then, the share price has increased fourfold – but, hey, what does he know?

Read the original article at BBC News.

Stressed out? Blame bad technology
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By Reuters

There is no question that we are all more dependent on technology than ever. So what happens when that tech does not work?

In the past, Emily Dreyfuss used an old-school strategy: She yelled.

When Amazon’s Alexa spat out wrong answers or misunderstood questions, Dreyfuss let the virtual assistant have it.

“I used her as a scapegoat for my feelings,” said Dreyfuss, a writer and editor for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “When you have a non-sentient and annoying device in your home, who isn’t doing what you want, I talked to her in not the nicest terms. And my husband ganged up on her, too.”

Tech frustrations like this have happened to all of us. Your wifi is always dropping out. Your passwords do not work. Your laptop crashes, and you lose everything you were working on. Just reading about those possibilities could be enough to raise your blood pressure.

Technology can damage our state of mind, and new research is bearing that out: Computer giant Dell Technologies, in partnership with neuroscience firm EMOTIV, put people through a gauntlet of bad tech experiences, and then measured their brainwaves to gauge their reactions.

Test subjects had trouble logging on, or had to navigate sluggish applications, or saw their spreadsheets crash.

“The moment people started using bad technology, we saw a doubling of their levels of stress,” said Olivier Oullier, EMOTIV’s president. “I was a bit surprised by that, because you rarely see those levels going so high. Tech stress had a lasting effect, Oullier added. “People don’t relax back into calmness quickly. It takes a long time.”

Company bottom lines have suffered along with the mental health of employees. Constant frustration with bad tech affects how staffers handle their daily workloads, especially younger workers. Gen Z and Millennial test subjects saw a whopping 30% productivity drop as a result.

“Bad experiences affect you regardless of computer literacy,” said Cile Montgomery, who leads customer experience initiatives for Dell. “But young people seem to be even more impacted, because they expect technology to work.”

Read the full article at Reuters.

The Problem With Technology
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computer technologies UI by Artificial intelligence (AI) hand touching low poly icon

By Forbes

What company these days doesn’t want to adopt the latest technology? Many companies today are like the proverbial kid in the candy store, reaching for the latest tools that come with shiny buzzwords like “AI” and “machine learning.” But while embracing technology can bring a lot of positive changes, the right technology is needed — not just the latest one. And all too often, companies lack solid criteria according to which to choose their tech stack.

I will share some observations of common shortcomings of technologies based on my experiences working with banks, insurers, telecoms and companies. Having worked with them and heard their experiences, I’ve come to identify the types of technologies that are more likely to provide a high ROI.

Here are some of the most common technology pitfalls, as well as the characteristics of technologies that are more likely to deliver. Despite high expectations, many technologies:

1. Are Static And Inflexible

Many tools are great for a limited time and then quickly outgrow their purpose. For example, portal apps, which are web-accessible tools that deliver additional services, are time-bound and not future-proof. Core systems also frequently have this issue. They become such an ingrained part of a company’s backend that they are cumbersome and expensive to adjust, let alone replace.

2. Promote Painful IT Siloes 

Many technologies are not easily integrated and thus promote siloes. For example, the analytics team may be able to generate business intelligence insights in the form of quarterly reports. Yet by the time these reports become available to the larger organization, they are already less relevant. Technology that isn’t real-time, that doesn’t make information widely available and actionable in the moment loses its purpose. Systems that don’t speak to each other in a holistic, timely way make it harder for different teams to coordinate their efforts. Ultimately, these IT siloes hurt end-customers.

3. Serve As Mere Point Solutions

Point solutions may be based on the latest technology, but they won’t be effective if they overlook the context of the greater problem or journey. For instance, an organization may allow customers to begin a process online, but then divert them to a physical location to complete it. Such technology will only frustrate customers. Imagine the frustration of customers who are able to add an e-signature to their documents, but must print and mail those documents — breaking the digital flow.

Continue to the full article at Forbes.

20 worthwhile conferences for women in tech
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women in tech graphics

Diversity is a hot topic in the tech industry — and because it’s discussed frequently, it might be easy to feel like things have already changed. But according to a recent Women in Technology report from IDC, only 42% of women feel their employer offered equal pay, compared to 75% of men who feel the same.

Additionally, 56% of women feel that women are underrepresented in STEM fields in their organization compared to 26% of men. Women also feel that their workplace is more geared towards men (45%), that there is a lack of support for women in STEM (33%) and

                                                                                                                 (Image Credit – CIO)

that taking time off for family will impact their career opportunities (35%).

Whether you already have a strong network of women colleagues in your industry or if you’re looking to expand your community, there are a number of conferences designed for women in STEM fields. And most of these aren’t just for women — they’re open to allies and anyone who supports diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Here are 20 tech conferences that aim to connect women and other underrepresented groups in technology to build a more diverse community in the tech industry.

Black Women Tech Talk

The Black Women Tech Talk conference is dedicated to founders and offers “self-enriching sessions, networking and one-of-a-kind experiences.” The three-day event includes keynote speakers, sessions on how to practice self-care as a founder, how to balance your personal life and career, and other workshops specific to being a female founder. The retreat also includes less traditional sessions and perks such as free hair and makeup appointments, group yoga sessions, and other networking and social events that give attendees a chance to mingle.

Global Women in Tech Awards

The Women in IT Awards & Summit is a one-day event covering topics such as blockchain, AI and machine learning — there is also an awards gala at the end of the conference. Award categories include CIO of the Year; Advocate of the Year; Entrepreneur of the Year; Future CIO of the Year; Business Role Model of the Year; CTO of the Year; Rising Star; and Diversity Initiative of the Year. The NYC and Silicon Valley conferences were held virtually in 2020 — dates and location for 2021 haven’t been announced yet.

Grace Hopper Celebration

The Grace Hopper Celebration was co-founded by Dr. Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney in 1994 and is now the world’s “largest gathering of women technologists,” according to the event website. The conference is named after Admirable Grace Murray Hopper, who is considered the one of the first computer programmers — her work is directly responsible for the development of COBOL.

Read the original article and learn more about tech conferences for women at CIO.
Farmworker turned astronaut Jose Hernandez urges kids not to give up
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Astronaut Jose Hernandez in spacesuit smiling holding his space suit helmet

Former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez spent most of his youth working the fields.

So many kids have struggled with remote learning, but Hernandez wants them all to know when it comes to their future, the sky’s the limit.

As a young boy, Hernandez picked fruits and vegetables alongside his family.

“We spent nine months in California, three months in Mexico, but those nine months I went to three different school districts,” he explained.

The family settled in Stockton. Jose couldn’t speak English until he was 12 years old, but STEM subjects spoke to him.

“I gravitated towards math because 1 + 3 is 4 in any language,” Hernandez said.

When he was ten, Jose told his dad he wanted to be an astronaut, so his father laid out a five-part recipe for success.

First, set a goal. Then recognize how far away you are from that goal.

“The third thing is you have to draw yourself a road map to know where you’re at to where you want to go,” Hernandez added. “And then I asked what’s the fourth? He said you’ve got to get an education.”

The University of the Pacific grad called hard work the fifth ingredient.

But his path was a difficult one.

“NASA rejected me not once, not twice, not three times but 11 times. It wasn’t until the 12th time that I got selected,” he said.

Hernandez would blast off with the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2009.

“It’s a ride that even Disneyland would be envious of because you go from zero to 17,500 miles an hour in eight and a half minutes,” he recalled.

Jose worked on the International Space Station during the 14-day trip, which covered 5.4 million miles.

“I wish we had a frequent flyer program,” Hernandez laughed.

He circled the globe 217 times but remains a down to Earth guy who tells kids how to realize their own dreams.

“Hard work and perseverance and not being afraid to dream big,” he said.

Continue on to the NBC 7 to read the complete article.

New type of atomic clock keeps time even more precisely
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A newly-designed atomic clock uses entangled atoms to keep time even more precisely than its state-of-the-art counterparts. The design could help scientists detect dark matter and study gravity’s effect on time.

Atomic clocks are the most precise timekeepers in the world. These exquisite instruments use lasers to measure the vibrations of atoms, which oscillate at a constant frequency, like many microscopic pendulums swinging in sync. The best atomic clocks in the world keep time with such precision that, if they had been running since the beginning of the universe, they would only be off by about half a second today.

(Image credit – Science Daily)

Still, they could be even more precise. If atomic clocks could more accurately measure atomic vibrations, they would be sensitive enough to detect phenomena such as dark matter and gravitational waves. With better atomic clocks, scientists could also start to answer some mind-bending questions, such as what effect gravity might have on the passage of time and whether time itself changes as the universe ages.

Now a new kind of atomic clock designed by MIT physicists may enable scientists explore such questions and possibly reveal new physics.

The researchers report in the journal Nature that they have built an atomic clock that measures not a cloud of randomly oscillating atoms, as state-of-the-art designs measure now, but instead atoms that have been quantumly entangled. The atoms are correlated in a way that is impossible according to the laws of classical physics, and that allows the scientists to measure the atoms’ vibrations more accurately. The new setup can achieve the same precision four times faster than clocks without entanglement.

“Entanglement-enhanced optical atomic clocks will have the potential to reach a better precision in one second than current state-of-the-art optical clocks,” says lead author Edwin Pedrozo-Peñafiel, a postdoc in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

If state-of-the-art atomic clocks were adapted to measure entangled atoms the way the MIT team’s setup does, their timing would improve such that, over the entire age of the universe, the clocks would be less than 100 milliseconds off.

Read the full article at Science Daily.

Grant to make STEM education more accessible to students with disabilities
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FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington has received a National Science Foundation grant of $96,377 to engage rural students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning through accessible makerspaces.

The innovative UMF incubator makerspace, Maine-Makerspaces for Abilities Driving Entrepreneurship (ME-MADE), is in the Mantor Library Learning Commons. It is available to the university community, with plans to be open to members of the public of all abilities and disabilities.

                                                               (Photo credit – Courtesy UMF)

A makerspace is an area that contains materials and tools for people to work together to learn, collaborate, create and share. They provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent as they engage in STEM.

Over a 16-month period of the NSF planning grant, UMF and its partners, the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and the Mt. Blue Middle School, will focus on creating a shared vision that will be supported by a range of activities, including, outreach to grades kindergarten to 12 schools throughout the state.

The NSF grant will build on the progress of a three-year, $300,000 grant received from the University of Maine System’s Maine Economic Improvement Fund in spring 2020. The MEIF is the state’s investment in University of Maine System research and development that benefits the people of Maine. The UMF project was recognized as having the potential to provide a positive economic impact for Maine by fostering entrepreneurship in the region.

Read the full article at Sun Journal.

Cultural Brokers Build Bridges for African American Women in STEM
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by Danielle Ferguson, Ed.D., Researcher, American Institute for Research (AIR)

Dr. Danielle Ferguson, now a researcher at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), focused her dissertation on African American Women in STEM: Uncovering stories of persistence and resilience through an examination of social and cultural capital.

In this article, Dr. Ferguson shares some of what she learned from her research.  

There have been many calls from researchers to increase the diversity of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field (Archer et al., 2015; McGee & Bentley, 2017), especially including the participation of more African American women. The lack of representation of African American women and other people from diverse backgrounds could be viewed through multiple lenses but diversity could only improve the global competitiveness of the United States. Furthermore, STEM careers provide economic benefits for individuals because they are amongst the fastest growing career path and provide higher salaries than other careers (Pew Research Center, 2018). 

Many teachers, professors, researchers, and others have answered this call to action by creating programs at the institutional level to increase the interest, participation, and retention of African American women in the STEM field, such as the Defense STEM Education Consortium program at Morgan State University. But what happens to African American women after they enter STEM careers? According to the eight successful African American women with a terminal degree in the STEM field, who were interviewed as part of Dr. Ferguson’s research, their experiences in their STEM careers are not what they expected. They feel undervalued, face both sexism and racism, and lack the guidance and support that they need to advance in the field. 

In order for African American women to be successful once they enter the STEM field, they need guidance and support. Glen Aikenhead (2001) argued that learning science is a cross-cultural event for non-white students, therefore success in the field requires a cultural broker. A cultural broker is someone who relates to an individual’s culture and the culture of science and can help individuals build a bridge between the two cultures. Cultural brokers offer individuals, including African American women, strategies for success in their field by providing them with specific feedback for how to advance in their field, introducing them to key people, and helping them navigate cultural borders by showing them how to leverage their cultural capital in the STEM fields. They encourage African Americans to bring their full selves to their careers while also assisting them in being successful in STEM. 

Cultural brokers spend time building relationships with African American women. They offer them authentic opportunities for professional growth. For example, instead of only suggesting that these women attend professional conferences, cultural brokers provide them opportunities to participate in projects that they can present at conferences. Additionally, cultural brokers help African American women understand the importance of attending professional conferences is networking with prominent researchers in the STEM fields and assist them in making important connections with these individuals. Cultural brokers assist African American women in getting articles published in peer-reviewed journals by modeling the process and connecting them with others with whom they can collaborate, since publications help individuals build prominence in STEM fields. Cultural brokers listen to African American women. They do not downplay the hardships that they face but work with them to find solutions to overcome the barriers. Furthermore, they advocate with and for African American women. In summary, the role of a cultural broker is to go beyond providing African American women with information but to assist these women in building bridges between their experiences and perspectives and the experiences that are valuable in STEM fields.

If we truly believe that increasing the diversity of STEM fields is beneficial to individuals and our nation, we cannot continue to encourage African American women to pursue STEM careers then leave them scrambling for opportunities once they arrive. We cannot continue to provide mentorship that requires these women to detach from their identities and culture. We have to become cultural brokers for these women to help them bridge the gap between their culture and the culture of science by providing genuine opportunities, support, and listening to these women. Trial by fire can no longer be a rite of passage in STEM, especially for African American women. 

References: 

Aikenhead, G. S. (2001). Integrating western and aboriginal sciences. Cross-cultural Science Teaching, 31, 337-355. 

Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillion, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2013). ‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’: Primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations. Pedagogy, Culture & Society 21(1), 171-194. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681366.2012.748676

Ferguson, D.S. (2016). African American women in STEM: Uncovering stories of persistence and resilience through an examination of social and cultural capital (Accession No. 10158857). [Doctoral dissertation, Morgan State University, Baltimore]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.  

McGee, E. O., & Bentley, L. (2017). The troubled success of Black women in STEM, Cognition and Instruction, 35(4), 265-289.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07370008.2017.1355211

Pew Research Center. (2018). “Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity.” Retrieved from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/women-and-men-in-stem-often-at-odds-over-workplace-equity/

Dream Flight
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NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps trains in a spacesuit within a mock International Space Station model at NASA's Johnson Space Center

Astronaut Jeanette Epps will make history as the first black woman to live and work with a crew in space.

By Monica Luhar 

It was always her dream to one day go up in space.

Little did astronaut Jeanette Jo Epps know she’d be making history while doing it.

In August, NASA named Epps, who turned 50 on November 3, to NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, which marks the first operational crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).

The mission, expected to launch in 2021, will mark Epps’ first space expedition while also making her the first African-American female astronaut to live and work onboard the ISS in a crewed flight for a six-month duration.

“I think many people dream of becoming an astronaut, most, however, never pursue it. My life has been geared toward it indirectly with the hope of becoming a viable candidate. However, it wasn’t until Spring ’08 that, because of the encouragement of a close friend, I realized that I would be a viable candidate and that I should apply,” Epps said in a NASA interview.

Epps will be joining NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada on a six-month long mission to the ISS. The flight will follow strict protocol and NASA certification after a successful uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 and Crew Flight Test with astronauts.

Shortly after the flight announcement, Epps tweeted out her excitement for joining the expedition with her NASA colleagues:

Epps, right, spoke about her time in space at a STEM day session with students at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington. Photo credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

“I’m super excited to join Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station. I’ve flown in helicopters with Sunita flying and I’ve flown in the backseat of a T-38 with Josh flying, and they are both wonderful people to work with. So, I’m looking forward to the mission,” she tweeted.

Former NASA astronaut Mae Carol Jemison became the first black woman to travel in space after being selected to NASA’s astronaut program in June 1987. She was followed by astronaut Stephanie Wilson, while Joan Higginbotham was the third black woman to venture into space.

While this will be Epps’ first space expedition, it is not her first mission. In 2017, NASA assigned Epps to be a flight engineer to the International Space Station in mid-2018 for Expeditions 56 and 57.

She would have become the first African-American space station crew member, the first African American to launch aboard the Russian Soyuz vehicle, and the 15th African American to fly in space. But in January 2018, NASA ended up backtracking on its decision for reasons unknown.

But now Epps is back in action and is slated to make history through her first spaceflight to the International Space Station.

The Path to Space

The inspiration for a career in space exploration was embedded in Epps as a child. She was born in Syracuse, New York, as one of seven children to Henry and Luberta (née Jackson) Epps, Mississippians who moved to Syracuse as part of the Great Migration.

She and her twin sister, Janet, both excelled in math and science, and when Epps was 9-years-old, it was her brother who inspired her to pursue a career in space.

“My older brother came home from school at Rochester Institute of Technology when I was 9 and he took a look at my sister’s and my grades. He said, ‘Wow, you guys are doing great. You can be anything you want to be, an astronaut, whatever,’” she told a group of students, as reported by The Star Telegram.

But the journey to getting there wasn’t always a linear path; Epps dabbled in several different careers before becoming an astronaut for NASA.

Official Astronaut portrait of Jeanette Epps
Photographer: Robert Markowitz

She previously worked for Ford Motor Company, where she was responsible for research surrounding automobile collision detection and other systems that led to the success of a provisional patent and a U.S. Patent for her research. She also worked at the Central Intelligence Agency for seven years as a Technical Intelligence Officer before becoming an astronaut with NASA and working in the ISS Operations Branch to troubleshoot issues to support space station crews.

She received her Bachelor of Science in Physics at LeMoyne College, and her Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland.

In 2008, Epps had a conversation with a friend who encouraged her to apply to the Astronaut Corps. In an interview with Parentology, Epps said, “I never thought that they’d actually select me, but they did.”

In 2009, Epps was selected as one of 9 members of the 20th NASA astronaut class.

“I was truly shocked because of the caliber of people I met during the interview process,” she said upon hearing that she was chosen. “I met some of the most amazing inspirational people. It is a huge honor to have been selected!

During her graduate school career, Epps served as a NASA fellow and wrote many journal and conference articles discussing her research.

“Her graduate research involved extensive testing of composite swept‐tip beams, comparative analysis of analytical models and experimental data for shape memory alloys and the application of shape memory alloy actuators for tracking helicopter rotor blades,” according to NASA.

Inspiring Future Astronauts

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, topped by a Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lifts off
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, topped by a Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, lifts off from Space Launch Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Epps knows all too well the importance of encouraging students who are interested in STEM and other career avenues to follow their dreams, no matter the hurdles.

She was recently invited to speak to youth at Weatherford High School about her experience as an astronaut and her excitement about the upcoming NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman on the moon by 2024.

Epps told students about the training she received at NASA, as well as her previous career path. She also shared her excitement as one of 13 female astronaut candidates that could be the first woman to land on the moon.

“You never know, as long as you’re in the program. That would be fantastic…It would be otherworldly,” Epps told students, as reported by The Star Telegram.

She explained that a historic trip to the moon could help uncover more answers about the Earth and the solar system. “It can be a way point to getting to Mars. We can stop there and we refuel and go on to Mars,” Epps told Business Insider in an interview.

When she’s not researching or thinking about space, Epps’s earthly hobbies include scuba diving and reading. “Other hobbies that I have, when I am not working, include traveling, reading, and trying as many new things as I can!”

NASA has had many interesting developments and upcoming projects like Asthros and Euclid, and others underway. For astronauts currently in space, many were able to safely cast their vote from the ISS in time for the 2020 presidential election. Astronaut Kate Rubins tweeted, “From the International Space Station: I voted today — Kate Rubins.”

Epps, center, answers a question along side of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, right, during an interactive STEM discussion with students at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

In 2016, the film, Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, shed light on the importance of STEAM as well as workplace discrimination, segregation, and other barriers that faced African-American female mathematicians and engineers. Many African Americans in STEM played an important role in the space program at NASA and helped shape the future of space exploration.

Representation and diverse leadership in STEM are key. The UPS recently posted a report discussing the need for more black women in STEM leadership: “Without a stronger commitment globally to diversity and inclusion in STEM, companies will continue to miss out on—or lose—talent that could bolster their business performance, and ultimately, their bottom lines.”

According to Catalyst, in 2017, 11.5 percent of science and engineering employees in the US were women of color. Currently, only 17 African-American astronauts represent NASA.

While women of color have been historically underrepresented in STEM, Epps is committed to moving the needle.

“The NASA mission has always inspired me because I have a great desire to help further our understanding of the world we live in and the universe,” she said in a NASA interview. “I pursued a career in science and technology in an effort to contribute. I also have a desire to encourage young students to pursue careers in science and help contribute because I believe everyone can help and has a part to play!”

With Epps sets to make history on the International Space Station in 2021, as well as potentially becoming the first woman to set foot on the moon, the sky’s the limit for African-American innovations in STEM from earth and beyond.

 

The Importance of Cybersecurity Education & Industry Diversity
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By: Olu Ibrahim, Founder & CEO, Kids in Tech

October was National Cybersecurity Awareness Month and this year; it took on new significance as we continue to navigate this digital-first COVID era. As we rely on technology and the internet to support our daily lives, safeguarding our online presence is more essential than ever and requires dedicated attention.

We are grateful l for the experienced cybersecurity professionals who ensure that our data is secure and safely

(Image Credit – Data Center Knowledge)

exchanged, especially pertaining to the protection of already strained businesses.

Despite the fact that organizations across industry are rapidly adopting emerging technologies and new regulations are being passed, cyberattacks are increasing, evolving, and gaining more sophistication. Given the ever-changing threat landscape, all sectors need educated, trained professionals who possess the right combination of technical skills, business savvy and analytical capabilities to seamlessly implement cyber risk management initiatives.

The shortage of qualified personnel is visibly apparent with the number of unfilled cybersecurity roles on the rise. A new report from Cybersecurity Ventures estimates there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2021 (up from 1 million in 2014) with 350 percent growth in open cybersecurity positions from 2013 to 2021. 

In order to close the talent gap and effectively fill the hiring pipeline for the long haul, we must provide our youth population with access to early educational initiatives that spark passion and excitement in the field. For example, empowering schools and STEM educators with the professional development tools to scale cybersecurity apprenticeships and in-classroom and/or after-school youth programs can help to prepare our kids for the opportunities that await them. Meaningful public policy measures and investments in relevant mission-driven organizations will also be instrumental in carrying out this work.

For example, students ages 8-14 are most engaged in programming that offers hands-on project-based curriculum, challenging them to deeply consider how the internet works and how it can be used safely. These next-gen leaders ultimately hold the keys to developing new and innovative solutions in the field and for our future, and they deserve opportunities to play and explore.

Diversity in the world of STEM is also an integral factor that businesses should consider in regards to successful talent recruiting and management. Cybersecurity in particular requires stellar problem-solving skills, and a holistic view of each unique challenge is key to resolving any issue. As a result, having a team made up of diverse individuals can only work to improve the outcome of that team.

However, one 2017 (ISC)2 report showed that women made up only 11 percent of the global security workforce, and 51 percent of women faced gender discrimination, earning less than male counterparts. Furthermore, historically those in the field have been mostly white. In fact, 69.1 percent of information security analysts are White (Non-Hispanic), making that the most common race or ethnicity in the occupation. Representing 12.3 percent of information security analysts, Black (Non-Hispanic) is the second most common race or ethnicity in this occupation.

One way we can flip this script is to not only introduce early learners to the field via educational programs (especially those high need communities), but also to offer tangible role models they can relate to. 

Here are a few more tips on how businesses in particular can work towards more inclusivity in the field:

  1. Build an inclusive culture: Strive to create a company ethos where diverse voices and viewpoints are heard and respected
  2. Invest in Educational Programs: Invest in your talent and establish mentorship programs that invite participants of different backgrounds and locations to ‘join arms’; Partner with local organizations who are supporting the development of next-generation leaders of the modern innovation economy—your future employees!
  3. Encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts: Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives must be embraced by boards and staff throughout an organization and one’s internal communications around your values should be loud and clear to support these efforts. 
  4. Reduce reliance on degrees: Hire talent with the hard skills, soft skills and certifications as well.

Ultimately, we as a global community must change what it means to be a tech professional—tech is for everyone. Cybersecurity is a tremendous and growing opportunity for next-generation talent to rise and shine, and we’re here for it.

 

Olu Ibrahim is the Founder & CEO of Kids in Tech, Inc., which partners with school districts and youth development organizations to provide high quality technology education for young children and youth in under-resourced cities in the afterschool setting throughout the United States.

Air Force Civilian Service

Air Force Civilian Service