Students at Fredericktown Intermediate and Kelly A Burlison Middle schools were given a glimpse of what it’s like to work in an occupation which is truly out of this world.
Januay 24, Dr. Ryan N. Clegg-Watkins of the McDonnel Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University spoke to students about her experiences working and researching in a field which seems lightyears beyond the realm of possibility to many young people.
“I’m going to talk today about a topic I really enjoy: exploring the moon,” Watkins said to the gathered students. “I study the moon. Specifically, I work on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission, which I’ll talk to you about today.”
Watkins said her interest in space began when she was a child and dreamed of one day going to space like many other children do. And though she has never been in space, her perseverance allowed her to find a living working in the subject she loves.
“Every little kid wants to be an astronaut when they grow up,” Watkins said. “But I never outgrew it.”
Detailing her path to Washington University’s McDonnel Center, Watkins showed the students pictures taken during her two internships at NASA in Florida, as well as time she worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and even a photo of the time she met Buzz Aldrin in the campus cafeteria.
Watkins described her current work with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, which takes high resolution photos from orbit around the moon. She showed the students maps of the moon highlighted with dozens of yellow dots, each representing large boulders Watkins had mapped and counted using images from the LROC. She said the purpose of the work was to locate suitable landing zones for future missions to the moon.
Before ending her presentation, Watkins encouraged those who might have an interest in the sciences to chase their passion.
“It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it,” Watkins said. “So I just like to encourage people. Even if people laugh or say, ‘That’s silly,’ they don’t have to want to do the same thing you’re doing. But just go for it anyway, as long as you have a goal. Don’t let anyone stop you or stand in your way.”
The students had the opportunity to ask Watkins questions about her work or about space in general, and several took the opportunity to ask about characteristics of the moon and Mars, future landings in our solar system and the possibility of life on other planets. One student asked Watkins if she would like to go to the moon one day.
“I would love to go to the moon,” Watkins answered. “There’s not been a woman on the moon, so I’d really like to change that.”
Also in attendance at the assemblies was Jan Foster, assistant to the Director of the McDonnel Center at Washington University. Foster said outreach is an important aspect of the space sciences, specifically to ensure there will be scientists and explorers in the world of tomorrow.
“The goal is to really have more children more interested in the sciences, and to dream big,” Foster said. “This is the largest group we’ve ever had.”
Foster said the McDonnel Center at Washington University in St. Louis is dedicated to furthering space sciences in many distinct disciplines.
“It’s made up of faculty members, research scientists, technical staff, post-docs,” Foster said. “All kinds of people and they all work on space sciences. They’re physics, earth and planetary sciences people that really combine across disciplines to do research in the space sciences.”
Watkins said it was Washington University’s space science programs which brought her to St. Louis, and it was those same programs that encouraged her to be involved with outreach in the region.
“For me, personally, it was just because of my personal story and wishing that someone had been there to encourage me and tell me about these things,” Watkins said. “And just knowing what [Washington University] does in terms of planetary science, and how so few people know, especially in our local area.”
From the perspective of someone who began as a middle school student being made fun of for her interest in space, Watkins said the advice she would give to area students with the same interest would be to start looking for the next step in that direction.
“First off, just look at colleges that have programs,” Watkins said. “Then just start emailing professors. Most of them are really good about emailing back. Some aren’t, but really, it’s just a matter of reaching out to people and saying, ‘Hey, I’m interested.’”
With Washington University being so close to the area, Watkins said students should be even more encouraged to pursue their interest in space sciences.
“I would just say, don’t let it stop you that it seems big, because it’s not always as big as it appears,” Watkins said. “It’s totally doable. Especially for these kids. It’s right in their backyard and I don’t think a lot of them know.”