The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that women held nearly half of all jobs in the nation in 2011, but only 25% of jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, fields. The report cited a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping as two possible reasons this could be true.
Ginger Kerrick, NASA’s first female and first Hispanic flight director, addressed both of those issues when she spoke at the University of Texas at San Antonio on Saturday, Jan. 16 at the Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics, or CUWiP.
A straight-talking, dynamic speaker, Kerrick aimed to give conference attendees a realistic picture of the various hurdles she faced in pursuit of her lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut.
“I think you will find there are parallels you can draw to your own life,” Kerrick said.
CUWiP brings together aspiring female scientists from across the country, connecting them with influential women and mentors, like Kerrick, in their chosen fields.
From Jan. 15-17, students met in regional conferences, blending teleconferencing and local breakout sessions to make the most of national, regional, and local resources. UTSA and the Southwest Research Institute, SwRI, hosted the Southwest regional conference, with Kerrick as the keynote speaker for the entire network.
Attendees also toured SwRI’s state-of-the-art facilities and met with local physicists working in academia, government, and private industry.
The young women who gathered in the UTSA ballroom reflected the diversity of women slowly changing the face of STEM in the United States. The video conference of Kerrick’s speech reached women from Georgia Tech, Syracuse University, the University of California San Diego, and many others. While it seemed unlikely that any challenge could truly be that universal to speak across such broad demographics, Kerrick was confident in her delivery.
Her story involves financial and physical hurdles, as well as personal setbacks and gender discrimination. She met each of these with indefatigable determination and adaptability, which she later identified as a common trait for those successful in STEM fields.
Kerrick grew up in El Paso in a family that worked hard to make ends meet. At age five she declared her plans to become either a professional basketball player or an astronaut. Either way, her parents said, she would have to go to college. They began saving.
When Kerrick was 11, her dad died of a heart attack in front of her. More than just the family’s breadwinner, he was her inspiration.
“When I was watching this go down, I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next day,” Kerrick said.
Her mom took over both of those roles, but handed the family’s financial management to Kerrick, who was already well advanced in math. Like many things in her life, Kerrick looks back on this heavy responsibility as a blessing that prepared her for later success.
With the death of her father, her college savings plan was no longer possible, and her mom started preparing her to look into scholarships.
Kerrick, who had been enriching her own math and science curriculums with the help of teachers and her ever-advocating mother, was ready to begin high school where she could participate in advanced math and science courses.
On her first day in advanced physics, she was the only girl in the classroom. The teacher walked in, and looked down at her.
“He said, ‘What are you doing here? I don’t teach girls. Girls aren’t in my class,’” recalled Kerrick.
By this point in her life, Kerrick was already a force to be reckoned with.
“He and I went at it all year,” Kerrick said.
She kept track of his demoralizing and presented it to the school administration in a lengthy summary report at the end of the year. The teacher was held accountable. Kerrick found that proving him wrong had been a powerful motivator. She made an “A” in his class, and continued to succeed.
“That man is the reason I chose physics as a major,” Kerrick said.
Even though she was eventually offered a full ride to the University of Texas at Austin, where she could play basketball and study physics, she was keenly aware of her own immaturity and chose to stay home and attend the University of Texas at El Paso. The day before her first basketball game she blew out her knee.
It was then that Kerrick made another pragmatic decision that hints at the secret to her success. Rather than continuing to pour resources into what she knew would be a fraught, compromised career in sports, she doubled down on physics and put all of her considerable energy into her pursuit of becoming an astronaut.
With a 4.0 after her freshmen year, she found out that if she wanted to work for NASA, she needed to find a program that worked with the NASA Cooperative Education program. She chose Texas Tech University, her dad’s alma mater.
Like many students in their first year away from home, the once straight-A Kerrick spent more time on her social life than on her studies. She ended the year with at 2.7 and lost one of her scholarships.
Climbing out of that hole would require three part-time jobs and serious attention on her coursework. Kerrick faced it with the same grit that helped her overcome every other hurdle, and eventually graduated with a 3.2 and an internship with NASA.
She worked hard at NASA, and was well on her way into the astronaut program when a mandatory physical exam revealed that Kerrick had kidney stones, a condition that would disqualify her from space travel for life.
“The hardest part is that there was nothing I could do…that did not sit well with me,” Kerrick said.
A mentor suggested that she go into teaching, which she initially opposed because she didn’t think she could handle her jealousy of those who would see space, her life-long dream.
In the face of perhaps her greatest disappointment, Kerrick realized she had to tell herself a new story.
“If I’m teaching these astronauts, then each one of them can take a little piece of me up into space,” Kerrick said.
With this new ambition, Kerrick moved to Russia to work as Capsule Communicator, or CAPCOM, which is the voice of mission control, for the first crew of the International Space Station. She was the first non-astronaut to hold the position, and was later promoted to flight director.
While being the first female and first Hispanic NASA flight director is her claim to fame, that’s not the end of her success.
“I love being in charge,” Kerrick said.
She now manages teams within her area of expertise at NASA, and is going back to school for her MBA. She advised the conference attendees to consider a dual degree in business if they plan to spend their lifetime advancing in their field.
Kerrick spoke to honoring mentors and maintaining a healthy work life balance. She encouraged students to pursue what makes them happy as a way to be more professionally and personally productive.
The questions during the Q&A portion of the talk came from Ivy League universities, as well as state and regional liberal arts schools across the country.
Kerrick’s story seems to resonate with almost anyone who has ambitious dreams or has charted their own path, but it was especially relevant for those undergraduate women whose journeys into competitive fields are still unfolding.
*Top Image: Students listen to the keynote speaker Ginger Kerrick at the Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Photo by Bria Woods.