Travel + Dwell

Star Gazer, Science Expert | Introducing Claire Schwartz

by | Sep 14, 2017

Photos courtesy of Bianca Moran 

I met Claire (and her giant telescope) under the light of the moon at a friend’s backyard birthday party. I knew then and there that I needed to introduce her voice and knowledge to our Wolf Pack. Women continue to be vastly under-represented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields in our world, which is bizarre – I personally know so many incredibly smart women interested in these fields. This is largely because these fields are not as encouraged for young women growing up. According to NSF, Science and Engineering Indicators, 2016: 35.2% of chemists are women; 11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women; 33.8% of environmental engineers are women; 22.7% of chemical engineers are women; 17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women; 17.1% of industrial engineers are women; 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women; and 7.9% of mechanical engineers are women. It’s been a mission of ours, since the relaunching Of The Wolves, to find a tech- and science-based writer whose knowledge and skills could help us cover this arena of topics. So, I count my lucky stars to be able to introduce OTW to our newest contributor and star-gazing scientist, Claire Schwartz.


You are 23 and you worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab straight out of high school, which is mind blowing. What is it like to be a young woman in a job particularly dominated by men?
It’s challenging, although I was very lucky — even though my small corner of JPL was mostly populated with men, I had more female coworkers than most. I had a wonderful male supervisor who wasn’t afraid to hire women. I was around women in positions of authority, who actively made sure female voices were heard in our group. That said, sexism still abounds, and it’s pervasive across all age groups. Supposedly, enlightened millennials aren’t exempt. I was shocked at how many young men were every bit as (if not more) discriminatory than older male colleagues.

In order to succeed you have to channel an assertiveness and intensity that women are traditionally conditioned to avoid. I learned to be much more forthright, better about stopping men from interrupting me, and advocating to receive due credit on projects. I’m ultimately glad for the lessons working in a male- dominated lab presented. While I intend on pursuing more equal work environments from here on out, being in an overwhelmingly male workplace made me a stronger, savvier person.

Did you always know you wanted to work in space exploration or was this something that sort of fell into your lap?
Definitely the latter! I’ve always loved astronomy and stargazing, but never really considered pursuing a career in science until my senior year of high school. My school offered an astronomy elective that year, and that’s what pushed me towards pursuing science more seriously. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (I still don’t, to be frank), but I had a wonderful teacher who really nurtured my interest in the field, and thanks to her enthusiasm I applied only to universities that had astronomy programs. A Mars rover driver who came to speak to my class connected me with my former supervisor at JPL, and my college advisor ensured that I’d have a diverse enough skill set to appeal to prospective employers and succeed in the field. My venture into science happened completely organically. I knew I wanted work that engaged me intellectually and placed me in a community of people who were doing good in the world (all of which I found), but I had no ambition to become an astronomer until my last month of high school!

Is there any mission in particular that you have worked on that we might know about (that is, if you are able to talk about it!)?
I spent most of my time at JPL working on the landing site for InSight, which is a Discovery Program mission that was originally slated to launch in spring of 2016 (NASA is now hoping to launch the lander in May of 2018). The mission will study Mars’ deep interior, offering an unprecedented look at the planet as a whole. Its payload consists of a seismometer (to detect marsquakes) and a heat flow probe to detect the planet’s core temperature. The Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars orbiters have offered invaluable insights into surface processes on Mars, but its subsurface is still poorly understood. InSight will tell us whether Mars is a dead planet through and through, or if there’s still some faint activity (like internal seismic motion or heat) at its core. As an earthquake-obsessive, this was an incredibly exciting mission to be a part of. Any Mars mission is thrilling, but to be a part of the team that finally sends a seismometer to the red planet? Dream come true.

What was the most surprising thing you realized through your work on the Mars Mission?
How similar Mars is to our own planet. My job required me to stare at the surface of Mars for hours on end, and there were so many moments where I’d be looking at Mars and think “Hey! I know a place that looks just like that on Earth!” I would always keep Google Earth open as I worked so I could toggle between the two planets to compare. Mars is a freezing, desolate hellscape, don’t get me wrong, but there are so many ways in which it looks like home. It has beautiful mountain ranges, majestic canyons, dry stream beds, dust devils, sand dunes, yardangs… it looks a lot like the Southwestern United States, only without the plants and people.

Are there any random experiences or jobs which your particular expertise has opened doors to?
Absolutely. The most random by far has been the opportunity to work on a feature film. A friend of mine was the set decorator on Disney’s production of A Wrinkle In Time, and she wanted to have a scientific mind on her team. I helped her source lab equipment, took her and a few of the film’s other key creatives on tours of different labs, and helped her add an authentically messy, scientific touch to her beautiful sets. Since I was on the set decoration team, I was able to assist with more creative work as well. I’m a fairly shaky artist, which turns out is a pretty handy thing to be when you need a large volume of children’s artwork. I did a lot of coloring, painting, puzzle-building, and made tons of science fair projects in addition to the visual consultation. I even went dumpster diving at local labs and universities to find old paperwork to scatter across desks on the sets! I was in dire need of a change of scene (there are only so many years one can spend in windowless computer labs), and this film offered me just that. Never in a thousand years would I have thought all my work on Mars would lead me to film production.

What advice do you have for people who want to get into the science field?
There are so many different avenues into scientific fields; I don’t think I could possibly offer useful advice on how one might go about finding work. An academic background in the sciences is the most crucial element to getting a job in a STEM field; that said, some of the folks I worked alongside with at JPL had undergraduate degrees in film and fine arts. Every case is different! Once you find yourself entrenched in a scientific field, I would offer the following:

Know your limits. It’s intellectually draining work, and it’s going to ask a lot of you, so it’s important to be in touch with your brain and body’s breaking points. Your physical and mental health should be your priority, but often times you’ll find yourself in environments where you’re expected to neglect both. Don’t. Keep in touch with what your body is telling you, and stop working when it needs to stop. Many fields, but STEM in particular, value working late every day of the week. If that’s what energizes you, more power to you. But for most people, myself included, that’s a sure way to burn out. If you need a full eight hours of sleep every night to stay happy and healthy, make sure you’re home early enough to make that happen. If you need a mid-afternoon stretch break in order to power through those last few hours of the day, take that break. And if you need to sit outside in the sun while you eat lunch instead of being parked at your computer, go outside, damnit! In an environment where hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake, you can’t rely on anyone to advocate for your health other than yourself. So, take note of what your body needs, and be aware of when you have to stop and recharge.

Also, make a point of spending time with people who work in other fields. So many of my colleagues at JPL only spent time with people who did exactly what they did, either at JPL or at another lab. They ended up stuck in a cultural bubble. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t befriend your coworkers – definitely get to know the people you work with! But don’t become a lab recluse and lose touch with the larger world outside of your workplace.

 

You spend a lot of time looking to the stars. What (if any) rituals helps you feel connected and grounded to earth?
I try to get my hands in dirt as often as possible. I love living in a big city, but it’s so easy to disconnect from the natural world when one is surrounded by nothing but concrete and the occasional palm tree here and there. I try to be in my garden every day, and escape to the forest whenever possible. My brain slows down when I’m not caught up in the bustle of the city. That in turn affects everything else positively – my muscles relax, my lungs open up, and my neurotransmitters begin to balance. There is nothing more crucial to healthy cognition than retreating to nature every now and then.
My favorite places to unwind are Sequoia and Kings Canyon. I feel wonder and awe at our planet’s smallness when I contemplate the sheer size of our universe, but absolutely nothing compares to the wonder and awe I feel at the roots of a giant Sequoia.

What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading two books – My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, and Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, by Nicholas de Monchaux. Durrell’s book is about his childhood on the Greek isle of Corfu, his endearingly dysfunctional family, and the constant rotation of wild animals he attempted to domesticate. If you’re looking for a little literary escapism, I highly recommend it. It’s like comfort food for the mind, and his writing is so, so satisfying. He always finds the absolute perfect words to place you in his world.

“Spacesuit” is all about the development and fabrication of the Apollo program spacesuits, which is infinitely more fascinating than it sounds. The book places NASA’s spacesuits in context with the popular fashion, sci-fi costume design, and materials science of the ‘50s and ‘60s, all of which NASA simultaneously relied on and upended during the Apollo era. If you’re at all interested in space or fashion, it’s a must-read!

I know playing favorites is hard, but what is your favorite constellation:
Orion. Without a doubt, Orion. He’s incredibly easy to spot from light-polluted areas (you can’t miss the three distinctive stars that make up his belt), so you can find him even if you’re in the middle of a city. There are so many wild legends associated with Orion, but my favorite is that of his death: Orion was a hunter who vowed to kill every beast on Earth (he was a total ass). Gaia, the Greek personification of Earth, sent a giant scorpion to kill Orion as a punishment for his hubris. The scorpion succeeded in killing Orion, and Zeus placed both Orion and the scorpion amongst the stars to serve as a reminder to mortals of the folly of excessive pride and cruelty. Orion is also home to one of the most beautiful objects in our night sky: M42 (also known as the Orion Nebula), which is easy to spot if you have a dark sky and a good pair of binoculars.