Modern figures in STEM: NASA’s Christyl Johnson

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NASA’s Christyl Johnson talks about how the space agency has contributed to science and the need for more diversity in STEM.

Inspirational read about how our differences make us stronger in the world of STEM, showing students they can, where ever they are coming from.

This could be looked at alongside the Year 9 Biological Sciences curriculum, specifically looking at how advances in technology have assisted with cancer detection, or the Physical Sciences curriculum across the years and Earth and Space Sciences for years 7 and 10 to show the relevance of what students are learning and what this could go on to become for them.

Word Count: 1260

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Biological Sciences – The Body

Earth and Space Sciences – The Solar System; Big Bang Theory

Physical Sciences – Forces; Energy

Additional: Careers, Maths; Technology; Engineering

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences – Form and Function

Earth and Space Sciences – Earth in Space

Physical Sciences – Forces and Motion; Energy

Years: 7, 8, 9, 10

NASA is a place of dreams for many people. There they work towards – and achieve – the impossible.

Dr Christyl Johnson is one of them, working in different locations and in multiple jobs in her nearly 30 years attached to the space agency – from the White House, to working at the Langley Research Centre, to NASA Headquarters and now at the Goddard Space Flight Centre.

She still feels the awe and amazement of working for such an organisation, she says.

Every day she sees the benefits of the thousands of technologies that NASA develops.

“It just makes me smile on the inside when I see those technologies being applied in ways I know is making a difference in everyone’s lives,” says Christyl.

Sensors that were developed at Langley, for example, are now used for the digital mammography used for breast cancer detection.

Rumble strips on the sides of the road, that wake up sleepy drivers, were originally created to stop space shuttles skidding on the runway as they landed. By accident, for the astronauts, the irritating noise became associated with “we’re home”.

Grooves in the tarmac, used to stop the space shuttle aquaplaning, are now used on highways to keep cars stable during bad weather.

Trajectory of a NASA deputy director

As a child, Johnson witnessed the last Apollo moon landing, which kindled her first interest in space.

Now she’s the Deputy Director for Technology & Research Investments at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

She’s also NASA’s first female African-American deputy director. And for someone so important who works across projects that are thousands of kilometres up in the air, she’s incredibly down-to-earth.

Her first job at the agency was as part of a team designing and building laser systems for advanced remote sensors. She became program manager and lead engineer setting up a state-of-the-art laboratory for testing laser crystals.

Christyl is not your typical high-level administrator. Overseeing a range of different projects means she needs to bring herself up to speed on many different fields, outside of her physics background.

She has built a very competent, broad, diverse team that provide their expert advice. She likes get her hands dirty, as she says, and sit in on some of the technical meetings. She’ll often invite experts into her office for one-on-one sessions where she can ask any kind of stupid questions and get answers to help her understand some of the principles that need to be understood.

She isn’t afraid to go back and keep learning. It was 17 years after completing her Masters degree in Electrical Engineering that she pursued further study, only completing a PhD in Systems Engineering a couple of years ago.

But it wasn’t originally her plan. To her, she didn’t care about the status of a PhD, it was just a piece of paper.

“I had absolutely no desire to go back to get a PhD. When I finished my Masters degree, I was like, I never wanna see another book again in my life,” says Christyl.

It wasn’t until after a pep talk with a fellow administrator at NASA Headquarters where she was an Assistant Associate Administrator at the time, that she considered doing it.

The turning point was when he told her, “This world is pretty much a good old boys club, you have no idea what doors you cannot even walk through because you don’t even have the keys to open them”.

Whilst undertaking her PhD, and still NASA employed, she was given the opportunity to do a special assignment at the White House as Executive Director of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).

Tackling science policy

In the Office of Science Technology Policy, under the Obama administration, Christyl was providing the coordination of science and technology policy across the federal government. The NSTC reported to the President’s science adviser. It was part of her job to working with all the different Heads of federal agencies and work towards the priorities of the government.

She cites that it wasn’t just her science skills that lead to this opportunity.

“I’ve been very good in the laboratory, I can do science and math. But that’s not where my strong suit is. I really am a people person,” says Christyl.

Scientists are very different from engineers, she says. It was her ability to speak the language of physics and engineers, having experience in both areas, that she could be the bridge between them.

“I’m very good at getting [people] motivated and getting them to want to work for me and with me so that could all work towards a common goal and achieve it”.

“It’s the people skills that really get you there.”

Innovation comes from diversity

NASA is underpinned by innovation. Christyl is a big advocate for diversity in STEM.

When you are in an environment that requires you to innovate, Christyl says, “It forces you to bring diverse thinking into the fray in order for you to revolutionise what you are doing. If you want to make revolutionary changes, you have to have diverse thinking.”

To Christyl, that means bringing someone who hasn’t been looking at your problem, it means someone who hasn’t had the same life experiences you’ve had, someone who has a different way of looking at things. If not, you’re going to come up similar solutions to the problem that you face.

Christyl brings up that NASA is very adamant about not getting into group think. She uses the movie Hidden Figures as an example, which was based on real-life black female mathematicians, in particular, Katherine Johnson, who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions. They were able to provide solutions that no one else could solve.

Visibility and tokenism

For the next generation, Christyl is a big fan of giving people high visibility. It’s important for inspiration and encouraging other women to see success in STEM and this is what it can look like, that it can be anyone, and not necessarily white men.

For many minorities and underrepresented groups, tokenism is a real concern. It’s something that Christyl herself has experienced, even at NASA.

“It has to start with my own confidence, knowing what I bring to the table,” said Christyl.

After one particular promotion, Christyl heard that another staff member said, “the only reason you were selected for this job was because you’re black.” And this threw her, more than it usually would. After some self-reflection, she realised that she had so many qualifications and reasons why she deserved the position, that it was absurd to assume otherwise.

“From that day on, the light was on in my mind and I will never allow anybody to tell me who I was or to show how I felt about myself.

“I belonged there and I bring value and uniqueness to the table.”

Mentorship is also a really big part of what Christyl likes to do, it’s important that when young people approach her, she can help them advance and achieve their goals.

She engages with youth, from primary school to high school, to colleges and early career women to help them see where the pitfalls are and help navigate around them. She organised several roundtables for women in STEM, bringing together federal government agencies, deans of universities, professors, students from academia, and private industry CEOs, presidents and vice-presidents, to share their best practices to “move the needle in this area”.

“For me, it’s not about hiring more women in STEM, it’s about what are we doing to sustain them once you hire them.”