Women on NASA’s Mars mission hope to inspire girls to take up STEM

Sally Ride, Vandi Verma, Swati Mohan and many more … It is women who inspire a new generation to pursue careers in space, one of the many sectors traditionally dominated by men.

With “one of the coolest jobs in the world,” NASA rover operator Vandi Verma hopes the high visibility of women in the latest Mars mission will attract even more female talent to STEM – science professions, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In this image provided by NASA, Perseverance Mars rover mission commentator and head of guidance, navigation and control operations Swati Mohan studies data on mission control monitors on February 18, 2021 at Jet NASA's Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  (NASA via Getty Images)

In this image provided by NASA, Perseverance Mars rover mission commentator and head of guidance, navigation and control operations Swati Mohan studies data on mission control monitors on February 18, 2021 at Jet NASA’s Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (NASA via Getty Images)

Verma’s colleague Swati Mohan made headlines around the world when she recounted the biting landing of the Perseverance rover on the Red Planet after its perilous descent into the Martian atmosphere.

“It definitely inspired girls everywhere. It opened up people’s perceptions about who a space engineer can be,” Verma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of International Women’s Day on Monday.

Space robotics harnesses Perseverance – the most advanced astrobiology lab ever sent to another world – as it roams Mars looking for signs of ancient microbial life.

“I really think I have one of the coolest jobs in the world,” said Verma, whose interest in space – like Mohan’s – was fueled by a childhood love for the show. Star Trek television.

“When Mars is visible in the sky, you look at that little dot and right now you think there’s a robot there doing commands that I told it to do. It’s pretty wild.”

Verma, who has been leading rovers to Mars since 2008, said the latest mission would help answer questions “that change what we know about our place in the universe.”

Born in India, Verma studied electrical engineering at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh before moving to the United States, where she earned a doctorate. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. When she joined NASA in 2004, female engineers often found themselves the only woman in the room, she said. But things are changing.

NASA, which aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024, has a mission to strengthen diversity. Women made up 34% of the workforce in 2019, occupying 18% of senior scientific positions, about triple the 2009 figure, according to the agency.

Verma said it was very exciting to see a growing number of applications from women, adding that the diversity of the teams led to more creative and out-of-the-box thinking. But she said there was a long way to go to encourage more women in STEM.

This photo provided by NASA was taken during the Perseverance rover's first trip to Mars on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Perseverance landed on February 18, 2021 (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AP)

This photo provided by NASA was taken during the Perseverance rover’s first trip to Mars on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Perseverance landed on February 18, 2021 (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AP)

Role models

British space engineer Vinita Marwaha Madill – founder of Rocket Women, which aims to inspire women to choose careers in STEM – said role models were essential.

Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas: Scene astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger orbiting Earth.  (NASA via Getty Images)

Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas: Scene astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger orbiting Earth. (NASA via Getty Images)

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said, citing astronaut Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space.

“Seeing someone like you makes you believe that it is possible to achieve your goals,” said Marwaha Madill, whose own passion took off after watching Helen Sharman become the first British astronaut in the space in 1991.

Women like Mohan, the leadership and operations of the Mars mission, “will inspire the next generation to reach for the stars,” she said.

In Britain, women make up about a quarter of people working in STEM subjects, excluding medicine and related fields where women outnumber men, according to WISE, an organization campaigning to increase the number of women in STEM professions. For engineering, the ratio is even more skewed, with women representing just over 10% of the workforce.

Marwaha Madill, a project manager at a space exploration and robotics company in Ottawa, Canada, said changing stereotypes was essential as many girls decided to move away from science early on. age 11.

One way to get more girls into STEM subjects was to tap into their desire to change the world for the better.

“There seems to be a disconnect between young women … eager to make a difference in the world and knowing that they could have a very positive impact through a career in science and engineering,” she added. .

WISE spokeswoman Ruth Blanco said the images “of men wearing hard hats and high-visibility clothing” may have deterred some engineering girls and did not reflect the scale of the jobs .

NASA’s Verma, who juggles driving the rover and raising one-year-old twins – a boy and a girl, said unconscious biases were also a factor in shaping aspirations.

“Don’t make assumptions about what might interest a child because of their gender or race,” she said. “Don’t buy the Lego just for the boy.”

Source