About 130 middle and high school students got the chance to speak with astronauts and leading scientists from NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the third annual State of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (SoSTEM) event on Wednesday, Jan. 21.
Responses to climate change and NASA’s long-term plans for space exploration touched numerous part of the discussion, as well the International Space Station, microbes, and women in STEM.
NASA astronauts Terry Virts and Barry E. “Butch” Wilmore and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Christoforetti called in from aboard the International Space Station, while NASA administrator Charles Bolden, OSTP Director John Holdren, OSTP’s Associate Director for Science Dr. Jo Handelsman, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, United States Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, and NASA Chief Scientist Ellan Stofan spoke from a more earthly podium.
Students from schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington visited the White House as part of the annual “Big Block of Cheese Day” and State of STEM. Along with asking questions of the astronauts, students listened to and participated in a panel of forward-looking scientists, including Stofan. Bolden encouraged students to go into STEM fields and to cultivate not just talent, but also grit.
The astronauts spun and backflipped in the space station, and demonstrated with an iPad how objects take on rotational inertia – flipping over on its long axis even if initially spun on its short axis.
In response to a student’s question, Virts, Wilmore, and Christoforetti showed a 3D printed ratchet wrench – the only one that will remain aboard the space station after the departure of the Space X Dragon capsule in February.
The other 3D printed tools sent to the International Space Station by NASA will be sent back in the shuttle in order to be compared to identical ones printed on Earth.
“They wouldn’t let us use it,” said Wilmore of the printed tools. “I wanted to.”
Wilmore launched toward the space station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan in September of 2014, aboard a Soyuz spacecraft (Expedition 40.) Virts and Christoforetti joined the mission together in November, launching from the same cosmodrome in November aboard the Soyuz (Expedition 41.)
The astronauts are also working on experiments involving plants, fruit flies, and C. elegans, a roundworm. The worms are fed salmonella and E. coli so that the astronauts can study the effect of disease on their immune systems. A cargo vehicle recently arrived at the space station with a lot of experiments on board, Virts said, including a material science experiment to study liquid materials as they become cool, and how the materials inside melted liquids solidify and change.
It isn’t all work and no play for the astronauts. After a student asked what they do for fun, Christoforetti said, “Most of us really enjoy taking pictures. And spending time in the cupola, which is this magnificent room we have with a window where you can see the Earth.”
Spacesuits were also a topic of interest for the students.
“When you get in one of the space walking suits, you actually get into a spaceship,” said Wilmore. “It’s a one-man spaceship. It’s got all the life support, oxygen you need, it’s got a cooling system that circulates cool water. Only thing it doesn’t have inside is food. It’s absolutely fascinating. The view through the visor without having an atmosphere in the vacuum of space is so clear.”
Once an astronaut steps outside the space station, they have already been inside the suit for five hours getting prepared and suited up, he said.
The space suits were also discussed when a student asked the astronauts what intimidates them and how they overcome their fear.
“The day I went on the spacewalk I don’t know that there was a lot of fear, but there was even more so when there was a spacewalk with my two comrades, Commander (Gregory R.) Wiseman and Alex Gerst,” Wilmore said. “When I suited them up and got them ready, that was the most stressful thing that I had done up here, because their lives were literally in my hands.”
The Sociology of Microbiology
Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith spoke about President Barack Obama’s participation in this year’s Hour of Code program for students, as well as his statement in the State of the Union that “our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record.”
Dr. Jo Handelsman, OSTP’s associate director for science, took questions about space and microbiology, as well as talking about her science conferences with the president (“my smartest student”) and the challenges faced by women in STEM.
Her interest in science started in elementary school, when she saved up babysitting money to buy herself an old, but reliable microscope imported from Germany in the 1930s. In higher education she studied both botany and microbiology, but kept coming back to microbes.
She didn’t like science as a student, she said, having had impression that it was all about learning to make lightbulbs work. “Your first impression of science might be wrong, like mine was,” she told the students. “But give things a chance.”
Since she started working in microbiology, a lot of changes have come to the field, and OSTP has put a greater emphasis on its importance. “We’ve learned a lot about microbiology in the last 20 years that tells us that, in fact, we don’t know much about microbiology,” she said. “We thought we knew a lot. But we’re finding out that only a fraction of those little organisms out there will grow in a lab.”
Microbiologists have found that there are more microorganisms that do good than ones that do harm to humans, she said. There are also more than previously thought.
“We have ten times more bacteria in our bodies than we have human cells,” Handelsman said.
“Are you really human, or are you a microbe? A really big microbe?”
The next challenge for microbiologists, she said, is to find out how to study the organisms that won’t grow under artificial conditions.
After all the developments in science in the last 20 years, women can still face bias in the field, she said, and Handelsman is studying that too.
“We study why girls don’t go into science as often as boys do. If you look at every measure, girls are just as good at science. They’re just as smart. They have just as much interest. But very often they leave. We’re trying to figure out why that is. One of the reasons – there are a few – is that people discourage girls from going into science. Because there’s a bias. And it’s just like the microorganisms, where people think most of them are bad.”
The Future, on Earth and in Space
Ellen Stofan, along with Presidential Innovation Fellow Rachel Harrison-Gordon, climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer, computer scientist Kathy Pham and National Parks Service ranger Lynne Murdoch participated in a panel about women in science and current scientific concerns, including climate change and humanity’s expansion into the rest of the Solar System.
Stofan brought with her a model of the Curiosity rover. The Mars rover itself is currently climbing Mount Sharp, which may have once been the site of a lakebed. “Maybe that lake, millions and millions of years ago on Mars, was an environment that could, maybe, have had life,” Stofan said.
She also took a question from Twitter. One person asked whether there were animals in space.
“We’d really like to know the answer to that,” she said. “One thing we’re trying to figure out right now is where to go and where to look.”
Future NASA missions, she said, would examine Mars for fossils or traces of a microbiome. She would also like to see a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has oceans underneath an icy crust.
Pham said that her first interest in science was fostered by playing with Legos, K’Nex, and Roller Coaster Tycoon. When a student asked what her next step toward a career was after building Legos, she said that it was a Johns Hopkins University summer program about physics and robotics.
“It was a little more stressful than sitting behind a computer and building roller coasters, but it used the same skill set,” she said.
A student from the Cardozo Education Campus asked the scientists to name the most challenging thing in their work today. Stofan, Hammer, and Harrison-Gordon both named climate change, while Murdoch and Harrison-Gordon spoke about the impetuous behind their careers and remembering for whom they were striving.
Harrison-Gordon went on the road with Pham as part of their effort to create newer, more efficient and organized computer systems to organize information for veterans’ affairs. “The pressure was always on to create services that made a significant impact in their lives,” Harrison-Gordon said. “But now I have these faces in my mind, reminding me of why I’m here, in the fellowship.”
“What we also need to start doing is learn what we can do to adapt to the new normal,” Hammer said. “There’s some climate change that we’re not going to be able to avoid. So we need to change the way we do that. Right now we manage floods by pumping, and those pumps take a lot of energy.”
Careers in climate science will be in demand in the next 10 years, Stofan said in response to a later question.
Both Stofan and Hernandez-Hammer said that they had faced bias due to gender in their career.
“One of the hardest things throughout my career is feeling like I’m different from everyone else in the room,” Stofan said.
“I’ll be in rooms of 40 people and there’ll be three women, four women, five women. That’s the hardest part, feeling like, do I belong here? It makes you doubt yourself. So one of the most important things in any career is being confident in yourself, and saying that you deserve to be there.”
“When you’re a bit different from the other people in the room, you should look at it as an opportunity to bring a different perspective from the others, and that helps science move forward,” Hernandez-Hammer said.
Dr. John Holdren, chief scientist and director of the OSTP, concluded the presentation, noting that of OSTP’s five divisions, four are led by women, including Jo Handelsman and Megan Smith, and that the gender differentiation in meetings is general 2:1 in favor of women.
Like the presentation as a whole, he emphasized the importance of science in the future. “As the president has said, science, technology, and innovation are not just helpful, but they’re absolutely essential to achieve every one of our country’s top goals.”
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense