Masters of Science student Lynley St George recently became one of the first Māori women to complete an internship at NASA, having received one of seven New Zealand Space Scholarships to work at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Lynley sat down with the She’s Right team to talk self-confidence, women in STEM, and gender equality at NASA.
What made you want to apply to be a NASA intern?
I think it’s kind of the dream for every physical or technical science student to get to work at NASA or CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). I have a Bachelor of Science from the University of Waikato in Computer Science and Physics, and am currently pursuing a Master of Science in Computer Science, with a focus on human-computer interaction and data visualisation. When the NASA opportunity came up I didn’t even think I had a chance, just that I’d regret it forever if I didn’t take the shot.
What was the selection process like?
The selection process was almost entirely internal – the selection process for me was based entirely on my initial application, though I gather some intern tracks are more involved. You apply through Universities New Zealand, which requires a lot of information, so start early. Ames has three rounds of interns per year (Spring, Summer and Fall), but Universities New Zealand only has one application, so you can be considered multiple times – I was accepted for Fall, but not Summer.
I was one of two women from New Zealand for 2019, and each of us was the only woman from our batch. The gender balance will vary based on which department you work in and which intern track you come in through, but there were certainly fewer women than men while I was there. In my lab I was one of two women, but I only knew female earth science interns.
We understand you are one of the first Māori women to go to NASA – did this knowledge change how you regarded the opportunities provided by the internship?
It certainly made me more aware of my responsibilities as an intern, and what information I wanted to bring back to others – every time someone had an educational resource I took a copy! I work with Māori students at the University of Waikato, and I wanted to bring as many resources back for them as I could. At the same time, a lot of Americans don’t know much about New Zealand – all the kiwis they saw were white, and New Zealand is part of the commonwealth, so paying attention to cultural or racial distinctions didn’t really occur to them.
What kind of work did you do throughout your internship?
Ames historically has a focus on aeromechanics, earth science, and infrared astronomy, but has multiple active research groups, including the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG), where I worked. I worked in data visualisation for IRG, with a focus on geological and geospacial data. My project was mixing a lot of different disciplines.
I learned a lot about geology and video game programming – our data visualisations used technology like augmented reality, which is often used in games. I got to use some of my prior knowledge about education, design, and human-computer interaction as well. Ultimately it was less about the skills I already had, and more about learning what I needed to and developing clear lines of communication with my mentors to develop their goals.
What is your opinion on NASA’s approach to gender equality?
NASA is a very old organisation, and women have always been a part of it one way or another. They have made recent strides towards gender equality, such as balancing the makeup of their astronaut classes, but how equal the genders actually are will depend on which NASA center and which group within that center you are in. California is considered a fairly progressive and liberal space, and at Ames there was a lot of discussion of gender equality and how we could get women more actively involved in STEM.
IRG was male-dominated, but I think that was less conscious bias and more a bias towards skills that more men are trained in. The other female intern in my lab got hired full-time, so they certainly recognise ability in women who they see are capable. Aeromechanics, another major branch at Ames, had a very even gender split with their interns.
I think gender is more of a hot button issue at other centers, particularly ones with a stricter military background. At Ames, I often felt that queer representation and discussions of racial equality were seen as more concerning, and more likely to cause inequality, than being a woman.
Why is it so important to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM?
STEM is a research field, and benefits from exploring the world from as many angles as possible. Therefore, constructing teams with a wide breadth of experiences only serves to improve our ability to do research. When we exclude other gender perspectives from the picture, we end up with incomplete information and limit our ability to learn and innovate.
Hell, taking the recent female spacewalk as an example, it got delayed because women’s bodies are less medically predictable than those of young white men, so one of the female astronauts’ bodies didn’t follow her expected spinal elongation pattern while in space.
Also, girls have just the same potential as boys to be great researchers – we need to encourage girls to pursue STEM young, and to stick with it when the going gets tough. Too many young women with great potential as researchers choose to do something else at university because the pressure is too much. We need to make research a positive choice, not an uphill battle.
Did your interactions during the internship give you any new insights about gender dynamics in STEM?
I didn’t notice any gender difference in how interns were treated at NASA, particularly in IRG. Like most tech-heavy workplaces, my department was mostly male, but people cared more that I was young than that I was a woman. That being said, traditionally male dominated tech is usually seen as ‘harder science’ than traditionally female dominated areas like human-computer interaction, so I got a lot of “so what do you actually do?” I think when it comes to STEM, while heavily sexist and abusive workplaces definitely exist, the issues that prevent women from engaging typically start much younger.
What do you feel are the greatest obstacles to women wishing to embark on a career in STEM?
Self-efficacy! Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to affect your own learning, and sadly, women consistently score lower on it. Something about our education system is failing our young women, and not giving them the confidence they need to believe that they are just as good as the men, which they are.
I know that I certainly spent years in labs wondering why everyone else was doing so well when I kept getting stuck, only to find out pretty much everyone I knew was just pretending they knew what they were doing! Ultimately, women want to be fully prepared for things before they try them, and STEM is a field that is built on constantly shifting foundations, so your ability to learn, adapt, and confidently commit to your work is more important than knowing everything up front.
What advice would you give to other women interested in pursuing prestigious STEM scholarships such as this one?
Sit down with a careers or scholarship counsellor. Get your CV organised – as my mentor told me, make sure it’s structured differently than the one you left high school with. Record your accomplishments and don’t be afraid to talk them up. Know what makes you unique and stand out from the crowd. There’s lots of skills for selling yourself that you can learn and research, but ultimately, what’s most important is to just try. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the scholarship, you will almost always learn something useful in the attempt. For every scholarship I’ve got, I have piles of scholarships I never even got considered for. Grab opportunities, not just scholarships, with both hands. Throw your hat in the ring, see what happens!
Photo credit: NASA and the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC).