Science Star Interview – Emily Gleeson

About the interview:

I have had so much fun encountering a broad spectrum of individuals through my Twitter presence in the past few months. The most amazing people are out there and it’s like discovering a treasure when you come across them – at least that’s how I feel. I’ve felt myself becoming part of a tribe of amazing science-minded thinkers. Whether they are fellow authors, aspiring astronauts, kids with challenges or hard working students, you are all inspiring and a hero to someone who’s looking for role models to look up to. Part of what I do on Twitter is to observe where the the science and creativity intersect, manifesting the realm of science fiction. In so doing, I’ve been having more and more conversations with people, like Emily Gleeson. Emily is a PhD student with a story to tell. For more about the work she does, read her full blog article at spacebroaddity.com. Launched in 2018 as a community for driven, intelligent and passionate women, Space Broaddity is meant to empower, educate and excite the next generation of female STEM superheroes! Together we can drive gender equality in the workplace.

Thank you, Emily for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you the best for a bright future as a Space explorer and robotics expert, and maybe one day, we can meet and you can tell me how your robots helped build the Mars or Moon habitats!

Below are a couple questions I asked Emily to help me understand more about her journey as a female scientist and her work in the field of robotics with a view to Space exploration.

1. You used to work in the engineering and science fields before heading back to school to do your PhD. Did you have a defining moment that helped you realise you wanted to study/work in the field of Space exploration, or was it more of a gradual impression that something was missing and you wanted more from your career choices?

I would say I had more of a re-defining moment that really pushed me to leave a great job and pursue my passion for space exploration.

I have wanted to be an astronaut since I was 10 years old, it all started after visiting the Montreal planetarium which sent my curious young mind spinning with questions and just simply took my breath away. I count that as defining moment #1. My love of space and exploration was always in the back of my mind throughout my undergraduate degree. I was vocal enough about my love for space that the first gift my husband gave me when we started dating in our third year at university was a book on the history of NASA and he named a star for me – clearly, he understood how to pull at my heartstrings!

My passion for space is also why I decided to take the Applied Mathematics and Engineering option for my undergraduate degree, which is known to be one of the most challenging programs but was known to cover mathematical models for space dynamics and control. During the summer breaks, I accepted some pretty exciting internships where I was working on the construction of hydroelectric power plants in the beautiful mountains of British Columbia. These summer work experiences are where my seemingly impossible dreams of becoming an astronaut started to be replaced by working in the field, making money and being good at my job.

Fast forward six years from graduation – having gained versatile experience in project management, logistics and business operations planning – I was about to be promoted and this was when my defining moment #2 occurred.

I was on vacation, sitting on a beach, reading The Martian by Andy Weir, and that’s when I realized, I would rather be stranded alone on Mars than accept a promotion. Turns out, that’s weird – I thought everyone would feel that way! That’s when my passion for space exploration and becoming an astronaut flooded my thoughts once again, but this time I decided to take action.

Goodbye wonderful job, steady income and confidence in my work, hello four to six years of schooling, student level stipends and imposter syndrome! It has been a challenge to adjust to my new student life, but I am so happy and proud for taking the risk and following my dreams, hopefully by sharing my story, it will motivate others to do the same.

2. In my book, We Are Mars, I talk about robots building the Rubicon settlement on Mars years before any human colonists set foot on the planet. I should imagine many of the challenges of creating an entire habitat would be overcome using robotics for construction. Is this a realistic vision of the future of Mars settlement? Are missions to Mars only really possible with a significant employment by construction and development robotics?

Using robots for construction is definitely a realistic vision of a future Mars settlement! Anything that can be done to reduce the risk of human life as we venture further into our solar system is a top priority. That being said, our technology is not yet advanced enough to succeed in building habitats on other planetary bodies, but it is an area researchers are working towards. Interestingly enough, my research is focused on advancing technology for teams of robotic spacecraft to assemble large space structures on-orbit, near the moon or Mars. The space structures could be similar to the International Space Station however instead of being constructed by astronauts, it will be assembled by a team of space robots! 

3. You are an advocate for women in STEM career and study programs. What does one need to do to get the word out to encourage more girls and young women to choose STEM career paths?

We are in a time where everyone has access to so much information at an early age which is bringing more awareness to the opportunities for women in STEM fields.

I lucked into engineering, and it has shaped so much of who I am today, it scares me that if the right person hadn’t told me to follow that path, my life could be completely different. That’s a big reason as to why I am an advocate for women in STEM, I want to educate young people on what a career in STEM can be so that they can make the choice that is right for them.

With regards to what we can do to get the word out to encourage more girls and young women to choose STEM, in my opinion, it is to keep talking about it openly and honestly and show by example the endless opportunities that exist within STEM. There is still a stigma around what type of person, male or female, goes into engineering. But, like so many other stereotypes it is not the whole picture. The more visibility young girls have on accomplished, well-rounded women in technical fields, the more they can see themselves doing something similar and it helps smash the stereotype all at the same time. I am also thrilled to see so many strong women in leading roles in science fiction movies and novels because it increases the reach and gives young girls powerful role models to look up to.

The next question is, how do we keep these motivated young women in STEM fields throughout their career? That is where the industry needs to step in and ensure equal opportunities and pay as well as providing an equitable work environment for all!

Personally, I feel like we are on the brink of seeing some big changes for the future of women in STEM and am so excited to see how the next generation of young women will continue to break down barriers and make lasting contributions in these fields.

4. What ways can women best approach a career with a space exploration agency or organisation like NASA or Space-X? What would they need to study at high school and through university to direct their efforts? 

 There are so many ways women can get involved in a career related to the exploration of space. Speaking from personal experience, I think engineering is one of the most versatile degrees you can get, and I may be biased but seeing what I have been able to accomplish and watching my friends accomplishments, the breadth of career options is astounding. That being said, there is so much more to the space industry than just engineers and mathematicians.

There is an environmental aspect, technical communications, there is more and more focus being put on law and ethics of space exploration, there is a lot of research being done on biology and how humans are impacted by extended space travel, it expands into so many branches.

No one’s career path is a straight line, and I don’t think people should mimic the path others have taken, you need to follow what drives YOUR passions because I can tell you for certain that money and recognition will not mask the joy and fulfillment you get from working towards your dreams.

I would like to end with a quote that I love, from the superSHEro who holds the American record for the longest time spent in space, Peggy Whitson.

“Know that what you dream for might seem impossible, but you will be successful as long as you make your life decisions based on your own value system and not others.” Peggy Whitson

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