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Exclusive Interview with Astronaut Abby - April STEM Spotlight

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.


I’m 23 years old and I aspire to be an astronaut; specifically, to be the first astronaut to walk on Mars.

I’ve been sharing my journey towards space online for the last decade, and now have almost one million followers with whom I share my love for STEM and also try to inspire to dream big and reach for those big dreams no matter what they are. I graduated from Wellesley College in May of 2019. During my undergrad I studied Biology and Russian, and had the opportunity to do limnological field research in Siberia and astrobiology research in a Mars-focused lab at the Space Life Sciences Labs. I’m also a pilot, an advanced scuba diver, a marathon runner, a science communicator, and the co-founder and president of an international non-profit (The Mars Generation). Currently I’m working as a research scientist in an immunology and molecular biology lab at Harvard Medical School. I just recently published my first book, Dream Big! How to Reach for Your Stars, with Penguin Random House.


2. What is the earliest recollection you have of wanting to pursue space exploration and who do you think helped guide you towards this decision?


My earliest memory of space was when I was probably about 3 or 4 years old. I remember standing outside in my backyard looking up at the night sky and being filled with awe and wonder for space. I had all these questions going through my head about our solar system and universe - that’s when I realized I wanted to be a part of exploring space and finding some of the answers. As for who helped guide me, I had so many wonderful supporters growing up, from my teachers and mentors, to my mom who later founded my non-profit with me.


I’ve also had the privilege of meeting and being mentored by astronauts, university professors, and the wonderful board at The Mars Generation, which largely consists of leading women who are breaking barriers in STEM fields.

3. How do you believe we can inspire more young girls to pursue STEM and specifically, what advice do you have for those looking to pursue becoming an astronaut?


I think it comes down to three main things: exposure, excitement, and support.

First we have to expose girls to STEM and show them that careers in STEM are actually an option for girls and women. Then we have to excite them about STEM and make them want to pursue these fields. Finally, we have to provide concrete support to help them achieve the skills, tools, and opportunities they’ll need to be successful in STEM fields.


4. What might people find surprising about your field?


I think that people would be surprised to hear about how many different ways there are to be involved in space exploration, both professionally and as a hobbyist. Lots of people think that you need to be a super-nerd :) (an astrophysicist, an astronaut, an engineer, mathematician, etc.) in order to be in space exploration. This is not true! There are so many ways to be involved! Space exploration requires artists, lawyers, teachers, communicators, and so many more types of people!


5. What are your key tips for achieving a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance?


I’ve learned to look at my dream as a marathon, not a sprint. Because my dream of becoming an astronaut and walking on Mars is so far in the future, it’s really important to pace myself! One of the ways that I achieve a work-life balance while making progress towards my dream is by ensuring that most of my daily actions and smaller term goals are positive for my current life and also build towards my dream. For example, I run 4-8 miles 5 times a week because it’s healthy for my mind and body and also ensures that I’m building a strong body that will be well prepared for the rigors of space exploration in 10 or 20 years. Another example is my current job as a scientific researcher at Harvard Medical School. My work there is fulfilling to me now - I really value being able to contribute to society through my work - plus it builds molecular biology skills that will hopefully be helpful to my application to the astronaut corp in the future.


6. How has social media allowed you to pursue other passions outside of space exploration? What is the biggest message you try to convey to your audience?


Social media has allowed me to find and pursue a passion for science communication and advocacy. I actually look at my journey towards becoming an astronaut as separate from my work in science communication. I feel very fortunate to be able to inspire so many people through my journey and have the ability to advocate for greater opportunities for this generation and future generations in STEM.


The biggest message I try to convey to my audience on social media is that every dream is possible, that you are never too young to start chasing after a big dream, and that there is no right or wrong way to go about achieving your dream as long as you are continuing to also lift up those around you.

7. Has mentorship played a role in your journey? If so, how?


Absolutely! I’ve had so many incredible mentors who have really been impactful in my life. One great example of this is astronaut Luca Parmitano. I met Luca when I was 13 years old and was lucky enough to be mentored by him throughout my teenage years. Knowing that he believed in me and my big dream was such an incredible motivator. In addition, I also learned through his actions how important it is to give back to others and always reach out a helping hand. In this way, mentoring others and giving back in that way has also begun to play a big role in my journey.


8. What has been your biggest achievement to date?


It’s a toss up between earning my pilots license and sending more than 45 students living at or below the national poverty line to Space Camp on full paid (including transportation) scholarships. My pilots license was such an achievement because it fulfilled a step on my journey towards becoming an astronaut and was a lot of hard work. My non-profit’s Space Camp scholarship program really makes me proud because when I was a teenager my family (I was raised by a single mom) wasn’t able to afford to send me to Space Camp. However, a non-profit stepped in with a partial scholarship and I was able to attend! Now, 10 years later, my mom (who co-founded my non-profit with me) and I have been able to give more than 45 young people this same incredible camp experience!


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