The first class to graduate under the Artemis program includes (top row) Matthew Dominick of NASA, Kayla Barron of NASA, Warren Hoburg of NASA, and Joshua Kutryk of CSA, (middle row) Bob Hines of NASA, Frank Rubio of NASA, Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons of CSA, Jasmin Moghbeli of NASA, and Jessica Watkins of NASA, (bottom row) Raja Chari of NASA, Jonny Kim of NASA, Zena Cardman of NASA, and Loral O’Hara of NASA
Photo Credit: NASA (www.nasa.gov)
On 10 January 2020, 13 new astronauts joined the ranks of both NASA and the CSA. Almost as noteworthy as the new astronauts is the fact that this was the first public graduation ceremony NASA has ever hosted. Each of the graduates are incredibly intelligent, skilled, and qualified (you can read their biographies at www.nasa.gov). Additionally, in his graduation remarks, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated it was the most diverse class of astronauts to graduate the demanding 2+ year training program.
We commend NASA for making the graduation public and for televising the event. While it may not be likely that many tuned in to the NASA channel or http://www.nasa.gov to watch the event, the public ceremony is a step in the right direction. NASA and other aviation and space related organizations should continue to celebrate the men and women who join their ranks in an effort to showcase possibilities to those who may follow in their footsteps.
The importance of representation, being visible, and mentoring is more than a feel good thing, it may also be scientific. In “Science: it’s a role model thing“, Chris Gunter addresses the common belief that “girls are more likely to enter and stay in a scientific career if they have female role models who are successful in science or math; ergo, female scientists should make all efforts to serve as role models.”  In her article she poses the question: is it actually true? The author discovered that while there were a multitude of online efforts and programs to involve girls and women in science, there is an absence of peer reviewed studies to identify the effectiveness of these activities. Her article was the first time I heard of the concept of ‘stereotype threat’, which she defined as “the effect of anxiety or negative emotion when a subject is put in a position where they might confirm a negative stereotype about themselves”. I had already read about and understood imposter syndrome which can be defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”  ‘Imposters’ like me suffer from chronic self-doubt, the idea that we are not as smart as our performance shows or others think we are. My two cents? Seeing someone who looks like you can help you overcome both a stereotype threat and imposter syndrome, but talking to them and reading about how they achieved their success is even more important.
Being role models, like the recent 13 NASA and CSA astronauts, and being a mentor helps. But these roles are not without their own barriers. In her article Gunter further states that data indicates the type of role model presented matters and individuals preparing to be role models and mentors indicated they felt pressure “to be the perfect woman scientist to attract girls to the field.” . Furthermore, what if the role model or mentor is deemed too perfect, furthering the belief that success in that career is unobtainable. For example, a little girl could see the picture of the first Artemis astronaut class and see that 6 of the 13 new astronauts are women (yes!) but then read their biographies and learn the details of their incredible credentials and success, leading the girl to believe she cannot achieve that same success (no!).
So what do we do? Our advice: continue to be present, be visible, and mentor. Share your stories, your failures, and your success. Help bring the next generation up. Let them see someone who looks like them succeed…but also share how you got there so they do not fall prey to any sort of stereotype or syndrome. It is never too late get involved. Contact your local Boys and Girls Club, attend mentoring programs at your library, volunteer to speak to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts in your community. Gunter provides examples to ways to get involved in her article, we are sharing them here along with some ideas of our own.
- Visit http://www.greatscienceforgirls.org/, which offers complete evidence-based curricula for afterschool programs that can help interest girls (and boys) in science.
- The NSF-funded program called Girls RISE in Miami, http://www.miamisci.org/girlsrise/explorations.html, offers some experiments and reports on their experience with an after school program.
- Any local after school or summer programs which relate to STEM (Search out a local Boys and Girls Club or check with your local library).
- Any local agency geared towards introducing STEM school aged kids. Most are looking for volunteers and mentors. If you’re in the Tampa Bay Area:
CSA: Canadian Space Agency
NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
- Gunter, C. Science: it’s a role model thing. Genome Biol 14, 105 (2013) doi:10.1186/gb-2013-14-2-105
- Corkendale, G. Overcoming imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review online. https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome
- Buck GA, Clark VLP, Leslie-Pelecky D, Lu Y, Cerda-Lizarraga P: Examining the cognitive processes used by adolescent girls and women scientists in identifying science role models: A feminist approach. Sci Educ. 2008, 92: 688-707. 10.1002/sce.20257.