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MIT Astronautics Expert Emily Calandrelli Explores Space to Inspire STEM Literacy

October 10, 2016

Our popular Women in STEM Series of interviews continues with Emily Calandrelli, producer and the host of FOX’s Xploration Outer Space, TEDx speaker and space industry contributor to TechCrunch. Emily is an MIT alum where she completed dual degrees – a Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Masters in Technology in Policy. During her academic career, she was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship, the Truman Scholarship, and MIT’s Rene H. Miller Prize.

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OneDublin.org: What do you see when you look up into a clear night sky, into space?

Emily Calandrelli: “I think of a realm of endless possibilities of discovery. When I was a student growing up I assumed that all the smart people in the world had already figured out everything there was to know about the universe, and that as students we needed to spend the rest of our lives learning about what had already been discovered. As I grew older I became aware of how much we have yet to learn about the universe and how it works, and that there are discoveries being made all of the time. It’s exciting because there is still so much to do, and you can play a role in that active discovery.

OneDublin.org: At what point did your interest in space become a passion you wanted to pursue in college and beyond?

Calandrelli: “I have somewhat of a unique experience. A lot of my friends and peers in this industry wanted to be astronauts since they were five years old. I didn’t have that experience. No one in my family, or that I knew, was in the sciences or had a STEM career. I wasn’t exposed to that way of thinking when I was a kid. When I was in high school I found that I really enjoyed math, it was my favorite subject, and I found I was better at math than other courses I was taking.

“Growing up in a middle class family my main goal in college was to find a way to make money. I wanted to get a good job and I was told that people who are good at math can get a good engineering job, and engineers make money.

“When I got to college I discovered that NASA and other space-related companies had some of the coolest internship and research opportunities for students studying engineering. Interning for NASA was my way of being the best engineer that I could be so that I’d be able to get a job when I graduated. I found the industry enthralling and dove right in!”

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Emily on the “vomit comet” experiencing weightlessness

OneDublin.org: In middle and high school many students can struggle to to get the relevance of math and science. What advice do you have for these students?

Calandrelli: “I was never one of the smart kids. Things never came very quickly to me – I was the kid that had to work twice as hard to get the same grade. For me the thing that clicked was to get over the mental barrier and to believe something was ‘learnable’.

“I believe a lot of students are intimidated by the sciences, and that their brain wasn’t built to learn math or science. That learning these subjects is impossible. Once you convince yourself that you can learn something if you invest the time, then you can start making progress.”

OneDublin.org: Why do you believe it’s so important that STEM fields become more diverse and represent the population better?

Calandrelli: “I know there are more girls that would be interested in STEM if it weren’t for the barriers. Adding diversity in any company is valuable, and diversity in many ways. Different ethnicities, different educational experiences, and different backgrounds all contribute to finding news ways to innovate. The research has shown that diversity is beneficial to everyone, and the bottom line.

“I was lucky enough to grow in a community where there were just as many girls excited about science and math as boys in my high school. It wasn’t until I got to college and was one of two girls in a fifty person entry level engineering class that I wondered ‘where are all the girls?'”

OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for women who find themselves in a similar situation, until we finally achieve diversity in STEM that reflects the population as a whole?

Calandrelli: “The general advice I give is that there are other women out there like you and the best thing you can do is reach out to them. Becoming part of a community of women going through a similar experience can be very helpful. Don’t let anything get in the way of what you want to do.”

OneDublin.org: Elon Musk recently announced ambitious plans to colonize Mars. For some people this is a waste of money, for others an incredible intellectual challenge. Why do you think we should or shouldn’t pursue a wild ambition like colonizing Mars?

Calandrelli: “It’s for the survival of the human species. That doesn’t resonate with most people because most people don’t think that far ahead, but throughout the history of time 99.9% of all species that have ever roamed the Earth have gone extinct. Eventually we’re going to have to do something different than all those other species. One of those things is colonizing other planets to move our eggs to more than one basket so that we’re not completely wiped out by a mass extinction event. It’s never worked out well for species that stay in one place. Doing something different is going to be very expensive and take a long time so we need to start now.”

OneDublin.org: What is the most exciting advancement in STEM happening right now?

Calandrelli: “For me, the most exciting advancement in recent years is the private space industry, and not just in the United States. I was just in India last week talking to a private space company with about 80 engineers that is competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE. Only super powers were able to pursue this kind of mission before.

“Within that industry seeing reusable launch vehicles starting to become the norm is a substantial shift in the rocket industry. Having not just one but two companies demonstrate this capability is forcing other companies create their own reusable launch vehicles. There was a lot of skepticism about private space companies in the beginning, but they are now changing the game.”

OneDublin.org: You’ve spoken at TEDx events about the importance of STEM literacy. What can parents and students do to become more STEM literate?

Calandrelli: “The best thing people can do is talk about science topics that are assumed to be political, because if a science topic is deemed political it likely means it has an impact on your life. Climate change is a good example. A lot of times when I do interviews if I start talking about climate change the interviewer will stop me and say ‘we don’t want this to be a political piece’. I find that very frustrating because climate science shouldn’t be a political topic, it’s an issue that has been unequivocally determined by the scientific community. Not being afraid to discuss topics that are deemed political in the science world is the first step to helping people become scientifically literate. Other examples include genetically modified foods, net neutrality and other topics that impact people’s lives.”

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Emily getting ready to speak at a TEDx event

OneDublin.org: What role can parents play, whether or not they have a background in STEM, to inspire their kids to give STEM a try?

Calandrelli: “The best advice is to make sure their kids are aware of different role models, and especially becoming aware of role models who are similar to their child. I like to tell parents about the different female STEM communicators that I know, so they have a wide variety of women to look up to. Just knowing one woman who is interested in science can make a big difference.

“Parents should look for role models on YouTube or on TV or in books that are similar to their child.”

OneDublin.org: You are hosting the show Xploration Outer Space on Fox; what led you towards a science communication focus rather than a career in industry?

Calandrelli: “That focus happened in grad school. When I arrived at MIT to pursue a masters degree in engineering I became really excited about science policy. MIT has a really interesting ‘Science and Technology Program’ which takes people with a background in STEM and teaches them about policy issues (rather than taking someone with a background in law and introducing them to STEM). At MIT they try to teach STEM majors how to communicate STEM to policy makers. That program sparked a light in me because I found it really interesting to come at policy issues from a STEM mindset.

“I was planning to work in Washington D.C. in the area of science in technology policy and while I was looking for a job I received an email from a production studio asking if I wanted to be the host of space show! I thought that sounded like a fun adventure so I said yes and I’ve been loving it ever since.”

OneDublin.org: If you could go back in time to when you were in middle school, what advice would you give to yourself based on everything you’ve learned since then?

Calandrelli: “I would tell myself to have more confidence. I would tell myself where I ended up today, that I was smart enough to get into MIT and I would tell my younger self to be more confident in my studies. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to learning. When you are scared that you are ‘dumb’, that you aren’t able to learn something, you can prevent yourself from learning some of the most interesting things in the world. Confidence is one of the most important things to learning so I’d tell myself, ‘you are one of the smart kids!’. And more importantly that everyone can be one of the ‘smart kids’ if they try hard enough!”

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