Monday, March 30, 2015

Sharing Science with the World: 7 Tips for Presenters

Despite the chilly weather, my husband and I strolled the sidewalks of Atlanta on Saturday for the final day of the Atlanta Science Festival, admiring the blooming cherry trees and the crowds of excited children. The organizers of the event did an excellent job providing interesting booths featuring science of all kinds and promoting the event to the multitude of families who attended, and at no charge as well. I was very impressed with how well the event got kids interested in science. We skipped most of the booths because the sheer numbers of children crowding around them, and we wanted the kids to have priority.

I would love to attend an event like this in Orlando or the Space Coast. I’m amazed that an equivalent doesn’t exist even at a smaller level. I attempted to organize a much smaller version of this kind of event two years ago, but I didn’t have the resources. It would be fantastic if an existing educational or outreach entity organized a mass science or space festival for families and the community in our area.

My favorite booth was the demonstration on cosmic rays by Georgia Tech. They featured a small cosmic ray detector called a spark chamber that uses photomultomultiplier tubes to convert the high-energy cosmic radiation into electric charge. Sparks illuminated the detection box every few seconds like lightning and just as quick. I captured a video of a spark and took a screenshot. Cosmic rays impact the surface of the Earth frequently at all times, and we don’t even notice unless we purposely look for them.

That great physics demo made up for the disappointing astronomy presentation at another booth. The presenter resorted to deflecting questions and making stuff up when he didn’t know the answer to questions he wasn’t prepared for. One thing we learn as scientists and throughout life: it’s okay to admit you don’t know. I would have far more respect for a man who had admitted not knowing because this isn’t his field rather than letting pride get in the way.

I’ve just volunteered to be a judge for my undergraduate university’s science and engineering design showcase for the third year. It wasn’t too long ago that I was on the other side of that uncomfortable situation, cramming last-minute knowledge about my project and nervous about what the judges may ask. It's not always a fun experience to prepare for and go through.

As a judge, I’ve gotten a new appreciation for the difficulty of presenting science to anyone, let alone someone who may not have a science or technical background. But I do have some tips for students who need to present information to an audience. This is not an extensive list, but it's the top 7 that comes to my mind from college and high school science fair judging.

7 Tips for Presenters

1. Enjoy what you’re talking about. If you’re not interested in the material you’re presenting, don’t expect your audience to be interested, either. Years ago I attended a talk by a former grad school classmate who looked absolutely bored and I remember thinking that he must be miserable in his work. If you want your audience to think that you’re doing something exciting and meaningful, then you need to believe that yourself and beam those vibes to the world. Also, if you're excited, you'll naturally speak loudly and clearly for all to hear.

2. Take the time to be there. If you can hang around your poster or hang out after your talk to discuss your work further, it appears that you’re really invested in what you’re doing. People may be interested in your work or may just want to be around you to get to know you better.

3. Start from the beginning and work your way deeper. I’m an almost-PhD in physics with two physics-related degrees, but I don’t remember every topic that I was taught in a class I took a decade ago and I may need a refresher on what you’re talking about. Take care not to give lip service to Step A then jump straight to Steps X, Y, and Z, ignoring the in-between. Go in logical, methodical order, even if it means sacrificing some details at the end.

4. What do you want your audience to take away? Why should we care? We may only remember one sentence of what you said. Say it at the start, repeat it at the end, and use much of the middle to explain how you got there. I will not remember your 20 conclusions, but I may remember your big conclusion if you present it well.

5. Know what you’re talking about. If you’ve spent an entire year studying a subject, I’m going to presume that you can answer basic questions about that subject. If you know only about what’s on your poster or in your talk and you know none of the related material that puts your research into context or perspective, then I’m going to assume that someone else did your research and you only pushed a button or assembled a spreadsheet. If you want to be seen as more than a mindless data collector, then know your stuff.

6. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know. Students don’t know the breath and depth of their field. College students should know more than high school students and graduate students should know better than undergrads, but not even experts in the field can answer all of the questions or know everything. Most of the time I ask questions, it’s not to test someone’s knowledge, it’s because I’m curious and want to learn more. The student presenter may not be the best resource to answer my questions and I respect a firm, “I don’t know. Good question.”Even better if you can help me to find the answer.

7. Keep learning.  A student who will take what was learned in this project and apply it to whatever comes next, even if totally unrelated, earns more respect in my book than a student who signed up for this research to get credit and doesn’t really care. I never wanted to be a chemical engineer, it was just a temporary work experience, but I look fondly on my three months as a chemical engineer at NASA MSFC because it was really neat and eye-opening, even if I don't want to do that again. We can learn from any situation and any experience if we choose to.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Calling All Space-Interested Students Seeking a Way

Yesterday I received my first communication from a student who had read my blog and wanted my advice. From time to time, a student who I meet or who is introduce to me follows up to ask for advice or assistance. I expect and even hope that this blog will open up my circle to include students and interested parties who I wouldn’t otherwise connect with.

Since I created this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about my audience. Primarily, my writings here are a form of self-expression and my audience doesn't much matter (no offense). I learned many years ago that I’m a writer. Writing is how I best process information, from informal brainstorming to therapeutic venting to chronicling my days. I have the option of scribbling in a private journal, but I choose to publish my words on the Internet for anyone to come across and potentially gain something from.

Secondarily, I’ve determined that this blog is also a continuation of my mostly failed attempts to mentor students who are interested in space careers. With all of the emphasis on mentoring in the professional community, one would think that there would be avenues where a young professional working in the field could communicate one-on-one or with a small group of interested and enthusiastic students occasionally or regularly. I’m a resourceful person but I have yet to find this opportunity, should it exist. (Side note: I've just signed up MentorNet which wasn't open to me before; let's see if it leads to anything.)

I have asked professors and administrators at all three of the local universities in my area for assistance in connecting with students. I have given guest lectures at freshman seminar classes, specialized classes, and student clubs. When I was President of the Florida Space Development Council, I tried to connect with local chapters of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space to engage students with no success. I have given my email address out to any student who asks for it and tried to keep in touch with those who reach out to me. I long to connect with students who may want mentorship or a continued connection while they establish their careers. The closest I’ve come is regularly tutoring local high school foster girls in math.

This effort comes from a strong desire to give back as a thank-you to those who assisted and mentored me when I was a student trying to navigate my career options. So many people helped me along the way, both in big and small ways. They've all meant so much to me, more than they know. I can’t begin to thank them all or to repay their kindness, and so I pass it on, pay it forward, try to do for others what was done for me.

When I was a student, I was hungry for a connection with the world outside of my school walls. In middle and high school I attended Space Camp and it inspired me. I was enthusiastic about getting involved in the industry as soon as I could. I attended a women in science workshop as a freshman in high school and skipped out on my assigned sessions to meet two satellite engineers. I jobshadowed three scientists and engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center during my sophomore year of high school. Sally Ride visited my high school during my senior year. I graduated high school eager to pursue a space career.

In undergrad, classes and college life sucked up most of my time. Despite only living an hour from Kennedy Space Center, I found myself isolated from the “real world” of the industry, buried in books, studying for tests, and enjoying extracurricular clubs. This is how it should be, of course. But I was desperate for a connection with the industry I so deeply wanted to join. I latched on to every opportunity to meet professionals, but I didn’t know how to reach them. No one offered me a clear path to connect with people working in the field.

I continuously questioned my path, wanting to know if I should pursue becoming an academic or a research scientist or an engineer or a policy wonk or an educator or an astronaut. Without a means of connecting to the industry, I relied on professionals to reach out to find me until I got to grad school and the world opened up to me more and more.

A decade ago, I would have loved someone in the space industry to connect with me and tell me exactly what he/she does on a daily basis, what background is needed for the job, what exciting things I could get involved in, what some of the drawbacks were, what was important to focus on, and what wasn’t. I would have been saved from many anxious self-debates to know from people who have been there that it’s okay to question, to change my mind, and to go against the consensus, to follow my heart, to be true to myself and my passions regardless of what others think. I had to learn all this the hard way, as we all do.

I struggled with a lot of life’s transitions as a young adult: it’s okay to choose a major immediately in college even if you’re unsure, it’s okay to move away from a loved one for graduate school to put your education first, it’s okay to take a less common route, it’s okay to diverge from an advisor’s path for you, it’s okay to stand up for yourself and your values, it’s okay to drop out of a Ph.D. program when majority advice and the lure of being called doctor is strong, it’s okay to take risks, to not conform, to be girly in a male-dominated field, to stand tall when others swing at you, to put people and relationships first, to open one’s heart and share yourself with the world. It’s all okay.

If I can be one more voice of reassurance in a sea of “thou shalt do this or else” and one more example that the less followed path is sometimes the right one, I may be able to touch someone who is also struggling in youth and young adulthood. If I can connect someone with an opportunity, a resource, another professional who may be able to assist them, that is invaluable. I am happy to be an intermediary for those with a will who are seeking a way.

This blog, publicly accessible for anyone to find, is to give my readership and especially students an idea of what it’s like to work in the space industry. My life is not the life of anyone else’s and is not typical or representative, but it is one example out of countless possibilities. The opportunities that I’ve been given and so many others are available to those who are interested and take action.

Someone once asked me: “What are your dreams? And what are you doing to make your dreams become a reality?”

If you know of any students who are interested in working in the space industry who you think may benefit from this blog, please send them the link or connect them with my Twitter or LinkedIn accounts. If you are a student, please don’t be afraid to reach out, to me and to others. You are the future of the industry. We need you. Get out there and make a difference!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Keeping Florida in the Space Game, One Legislator at a Time

Communication. As a scientist-in-training, I was told over and over again how important communication is. I didn’t know what form of communication may take in my career. Students are often pushed to the front of the class or auditorium to give presentations, a mostly self-taught skill that is often more valuable than the material being presented. Outreach to fellow students, younger students, and the general public was encouraged and common. But no one ever taught me how to communicate to legislators and appropriators, those who set the laws and grant public funds. This, too, has been a self-taught skill, one that I am still learning.

Wednesday was my third Florida Space Day. Before joining the ranks of Tallahassee-bound space professionals, all I had done was speak to a few policymakers in Washington, D.C. about space science, once. That first year, I was so excited to spread the love of space in Tallahassee, but also so nervous. My knowledge of state issues was limited and I didn't feel like an informed enough spokesperson for the industry. Thankfully, an expert on my team did most of the talking, so I listened, learned, and spoke up when I felt the need. One year later, I had absorbed enough information and developed enough confidence to jump into the conversation and add my spiel to the mix.

This year, I was the veteran in a small team with two newbies. The need was for me to lead the discussions. I wasn't sure that I was ready to do the talking, but as the saying goes, fake it until you make it! I read up on the issues of the moment, studied our legislative targets, and listened to advice from others as to what points were the most important this year. I convinced myself that even though I have much to learn, I do know what I’m talking about, enough for a 10 minute conversation at least.

One of my teammates was well established in the industry working for a large engineering company and could pipe in with extra information and his own two cents. My other teammate was an undergraduate engineering student, as nervous as I was during my first time, but could speak about her desire to stay in Florida to work in aerospace after she graduated. With my knowledge of the industry and my experience with a new start-up company, I added another component to the discussion. We were a good team.

This year, my team was assigned seven legislators to visit and speak with. By the end of the day, we had spoken with four legislative aids, met with one Representative of the Florida House, and dropped information off at two offices who were unable to meet with us. Additionally, we sat in three talks with government officials who spoke about how the space industry in Florida effects their work. It was a full day!

As always, everyone we met was so supportive of the space industry. Some people dream of being astronauts as a child and never lose that dream. That is true for me, and that is true for some of the legislators we met who went on to other fields. We in Florida our proud of our space heritage and so excited for the new space endeavors that are taking place or will soon take place here.

There is fierce competition elsewhere, so we Floridians really need to work to keep the space industry here growing and thriving. I read just today that Florida is #3 in the nation in the aerospace industry. We used to be #1, and last year we were bragging that we were #2. SpaceX chose Brownsville, Texas as the site for its private spaceport because the Shiloh launch site isn't moving forward fast enough to be a real option, and Blue Origin is about to announce their orbital launch site and may very well choose another east coast option. As supportive as everyone in Florida is of the industry, we need to continue to improve and evolve or we will slip further into obscurity and history. I am making it my mission to ensure that doesn't happen.

In the rotunda of the capitol building, STS-34 astronaut Mike McCulley sat greeting passersby and signing autographs. I struck up a conversation with him about what kinds of planes he used to fly. NASA had a table with “swag” so I grabbed a sticker or two. I was also honored to be interviewed by Jason of SpaceFlight Insider about my company Swiss Space Systems and how I was participating in Florida Space Day.

In addition to communicating with legislators and their aids, we also communicated with the public at large. I was part of a small team live tweeting the event. I gathered space-loving quotes from the legislators and officials who we met with and posted pictures when I could. When I can't attend an event, I always appreciate it when others who are there keeps me in the loop real-time via Twitter, and now that I’ve taken up tweeting, I've decided to do what little I can.

Normally, a group of space geeks would be outside watching the skies during a launch day. But we were half the state away, too far to see the afternoon’s ULA Delta IV launch with our own eyes. So we broadcast the launch on the monitor in the rotunda and encouraged everyone in the area to gather around to see it. A dozen or so of us were in a conference room waiting for a meeting which was about to begin at any minute and couldn't break away, so several people streamed the launch on their phones and we all gathered around to watch, commenting on the beauty and pointing out technical details. Had anyone walked through that door, it would have been pretty obvious that we were a group of space enthusiasts!

The day wrapped up with a reception on the 22nd floor of the capitol building. Crowds mingled, food was eaten, and speeches were given. My favorite moment was when former astronauts Bob Cabana and Mike McCulley stood up at the podium together to answer questions that only astronauts can answer and reminisce about old times. We applauded the rocket launch and the day, celebrating another successful Florida Space Day. As the sun set, I wished Tallahassee goodbye and see you next year!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What the Space Industry in Florida Wants, And How It Happens

Today's the day! Each year, the space industry in Florida comes together to visit the state capital of Tallahassee to spread the love of space through Florida Space Day. We form teams of three or four, then visit as many legislators as we can in the day. With over a dozen teams, we each team is assigned 6 to 10 legislators, so all are visited throughout the day.

As team lead and the only Space Day veteran on my team, I scheduled us appointments to speak with two freshman representatives of the Florida House, four legislative aids to four other representatives, and a drop-by of one office. Additionally, my team will visit the Director of the Florida Department for Economic Opportunity, and I have a quick interview scheduled with SpaceFlight Insider.

What do we talk about during these quick 15 minute visits?

Firstly and most importantly, we thank them for their support! Florida is (last I checked) #2 in the nation for the space industry. We strive to be #1, but that involves continued support and the willingness to change the business environment and innovate. In the past 5 years, I've seen significant change in the space industry in Florida particularly due to efforts by Space Florida and the influx of newspace, but we have more ground to cover if we're going to hold our position as a space state and work toward becoming #1.

Along those lines, we ask for continued support, especially in regards to the funding of Space Florida and pro-business initiatives. There are specific bills and recurring funding initiatives that need to be continued in order for Florida to maintain its position and continue to do good work in the industry. Space Florida's budget, space industry tourism marketing, quick response training funding, the qualified defense and space contractor tax refund, the qualified target industry tax refund, and the manufacturing machinery and equipment sales and use tax are among the initiatives being supported by the industry.

And finally, the support and funding of education programs: the funding of Space Week for middle schoolers, the funding of space research grants and programs, the promotion of space education programs in Florida universities. Two of the three higher education universities that I attended are in Florida and although we are fantastic at what we do, our programs are surprisingly small, especially compared to many other states whose university space initiatives are powerhouses. I'm very proud when I see my alma mater universities and even universities in Florida that I have no connection to succeed. Part of me is still a scholar and wants to promote education and research initiatives as a means of growing the workforce and educating the public at large. And as I work towards starting a family, primary education will also be on my mind, and Florida is not known for strong primary education. We can do better.

Last night was the Florida Space Day pre-reception at the Challenger Learning Center in Tallahassee. It's a chance for this year's participants to gather together to meet and discuss the plan for the next day. I met one of my team members last night and will meet another tomorrow. This year, 32 companies and universities are participating, plus some folks from NASA and Space Florida.

I has just arrived after a long drive and was standing by the hors d'oeuvre table when a man introduced himself as Mike. Sometimes I can pick up the astronaut vibe and sometimes I can't, but he soon informed me that he's Mike McCulley of STS-34 who will be signing autographs tomorrow. And of course our resident KSC Director and astronaut Bob Cabana was present and bumped into me, literally, I think on purpose to get my attention. He made a short speech during during which the former marine told us, “Pay attention! We have a good, positive story to tell.” Space Florida CEO and Space Day co-chair Frank DiBello also gave a short speech about how the space industry is a catalyst and driver to carry Florida into the future.

A large group of us wrapped up the evening with dinner nearby. And now, breakfast time! I'm off to make a difference.