EOS STEM Scholarship Program 2019

Meet Jessica Todd, inaugural winner of the EOS STEM Scholarship Program 

Jessica (Jess) is originally from Wollongong, Australia, and did her undergrad at the University of Sydney in Physics and Aerospace Engineering. She is currently studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, USA, doing a PhD in Aerospace Engineering. Jess’s research focus is on underwater and space robotics.

How did you use your EOS STEM Scholarship funds?

The EOS STEM Scholarship funds helped to send me on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica to learn about Climate Change and Leadership in STEM, through a program called Homeward Bound. I’d been hearing rumblings about Homeward Bound since the maiden voyage in 2016, when 75 women of STEM ventured to Antarctica. There was a lot of news and social media articles, and press coverage about the voyage as it was the largest all-women expedition to Antarctica ever. Once I got to MIT, I started researching the program and found out more about it, and then I knew I had to apply. Homeward Bound is a global leadership initiative for Women in STEM, which aims to heighten the influence and impact of women in making decisions that affect our planet and environment. The program's core focus is on supporting women in STEM to take leadership roles in combating climate change. The program is a year-long, with a global online classroom of zoom calls and forums where we learn the fundamentals of leadership, communication, strategy, and cover several topics in Climate and Antarctic science. The program culminates with an 18-day voyage to Antarctica where we meet together and complete an intense three-week leadership course, as well as visiting numerous Antarctic bases, meet with our fellow cohort members, and learn about the Antarctic continent and how it is being affected by climate change first hand.

I was selected as part of Cohort #4 from a pool of several hundred women who applied. The application process involves an online application that covers everything from your resume and STEM experience, to your thoughts on leadership, your suitability to the program, and a submission video about why you would like to participate in the Homeward Bound Program. Each application is reviewed by several reviewers including Homeward Bound staff, industry professionals, and Homeward Bound Alumni. For Cohort #4, 99 women were selected to take part, making it the largest ever all female expedition to Antarctica.

Unfortunately, due to being an international student in the US, I was unable to personally fund raise money for this program. My family set up a Chuffed Website (a crowdfunding platform aimed at projects with a social or environmental focus) and through this we raised money for the program. My sister and father would put out social media blasts about the program and my journey to engage with our amazing donors. I was fortunate to get some funding from my university to pursue this, and will be giving several lectures on the experience; on climate change in the Antarctic, and on the experience of leadership for Women in STEM over the course of the year. I was extremely fortunate to receive the EOS STEM scholarship which helped enormously! And the rest of the funds required I covered out of my personal funds.

How long were you away?

All up I was away from 15 November to 12 December 2019. I left Boston for Buenos Aires and arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina that was our point of departure. Once in Ushuaia we had several days of on-boarding with the program before we boarded our ship, The Hebridean Sky. Our voyage dates were 23 November to 10 December, and then it was back to Ushuaia and then back to Boston.

What did a “typical” day look like in Antarctica, and what were some of the highlights of your time there?

This question is hard to sum up in a few sentences! The entire trip was a highlight and every day was a new and amazing experience! Over the 18 days of the voyage, we would split our time between learning the course content and doing landings on the Antarctic continent. A typical day on board might include presentations, open discussions, breakout sessions and personal reflection on leadership, communication skills (particularly with regards to STEM communication), developing personal strategy maps for moving forward in your personal and professional life, and scientific and policy presentations on Antarctica, climate change, and environmental science. Over the course of the voyage each team member also presented on their research and their STEM journey.

We also began developing Homeward Bound focused projects that would carry our cohort beyond the end of our Homeward Bound journey. One such project that I am working on with several other Homeward Bound members is putting together a Marine Protected Area around the Antarctic peninsula to protect it from increased tourism, overfishing, and the effects of climate change.

In addition to the course content, we did Antarctic landings from the ship each day, taking inflatable zodiacs from our ship to the shore. We visited several Antarctic bases including the Argentinian base, Chinese base and British base on the peninsula, and spoke with the Antarctic and climate scientists working there. This gave us really good insight into how the continent is changing with the effects of climate change, and what effect it is having on the wildlife and natural processes of the ocean and ice.

We also visited a number of wildlife hotspots, including the largest Gentoo penguin colony, where the crew from our ship would teach us about the wildlife, geology, hydrology glaciology and history of Antarctica.

The Antarctic continent is truly one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. The entire experience was like being inside a David Attenborough documentary. Some of the main highlights were:

  • Watching a pod of killer whales feeding around the ship for several hours
  • A silent Zodiac cruise through an ice field where we saw the huge glaciers calving off the Antarctic ice shelf (did you know that Ice breathes???)
  • Visiting the largest Gentoo penguin colony on the Peninsula (several thousand penguins) and hiking up above it, listening to all the Gentoos mating calls
  • Doing a polar plunge with my Homeward Bound sisters (1.8 degrees C!)
  • Getting up at 6am with several of the conservation biologists to monitor and log the different Antarctic sea bird species we were seeing
  • Speaking with the crew of The Hebridean Sky about their experiences of a changing Antarctica over the past 10 years
  • Introducing my fellow Homeward Bounders to the value of space exploration, and giving a presentation on the crossover technologies between space exploration and the various specialities of the Homeward Bound participants

The overall experience of Homeward Bound was totally unique and pretty life changing. I’ve worked in engineering for nine years now and so I have never before spent so much time with so many amazing STEM women. Meeting my cohort, learning and growing with them over the course of the Antarctic voyage was the ultimate highlight of the trip. It was truly the most open and supportive environment I’ve ever experienced. We had such a diverse group of women from 34 nationalities, all different ages and experience levels, and from all over STEM (everything from trauma surgeons to National Parks fire fighters to civil and mechanical engineers, theoretical physicists, and conservation biologists). Hearing each of their stories, learning from their experiences and being able to contribute my own, and learning alongside them and honing our STEM leadership skills was so rewarding.

So what’s next for Jess? What are your career aspirations, and how will your STEM journey get you there?

The next step is finishing my PhD. My Masters at MIT was focused on Human Spaceflight, and for my PhD I’ve shifted to a robotics focus, so I’m excited to delve into this topic and see where it leads! I’m learning something from the ground up again, and I’ve also shifted away from space for the moment and am focusing more on deep ocean exploration so it’s a steep learning curve! I’m very excited by the field of research though, as there are so many parallels between space and ocean exploration and I’m hoping the work I do in robotics will have a meaningful impact in both fields. I will be spending next summer interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the home of the Mars rover, putting my robotics skills into practice.

After my PhD I’m aiming to take up a job in the space industry in the States. At this stage I’m really interested in applying robotics research to the area of Entry, Descent, and Landing (i.e. how we safely land humans or robots on another planet or back here on Earth), but there are so many innovations and interesting areas of research in the space industry, so who knows what opportunities there might be when I graduate in two years! My ultimate career aspiration is to apply to the NASA Astronaut Corp, and be a part of the journey humans take to the Moon and beyond to Mars.

The STEM journey beyond graduate school and on to the Astronaut Corp isn’t a clear-cut path, everyone takes very different journeys. I’ve always approached my STEM journey as doing the next thing that sounds interesting, and fun, and will help me build some new skills. I’ve taken on a few additional projects at MIT to help me build up my systems engineering and hardware skills, and my PhD work will enable me to get to gain a lot of experience out in the field deploying robots in the deep ocean.

After my PhD, I want to keep building those different skill sets, so I’d like to shift focus slightly, apply my knowledge to a new area. I don’t want to remain in academia, I’m excited to get out into industry. There is some amazing work happening at SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, real boundary-pushing stuff, and so I would love to work at one of these companies.

What does STEM mean to you?

STEM to me has always meant innovation and discovery. Science and Engineering are the fields that drive society forwards, push the boundaries of our knowledge and technology, and lead to the greatest discoveries. STEM is a thrilling field to work in because every new scientific discovery or technological innovation changes the way we see the universe. I’ve always sort out challenges, I hate to be bored, and in STEM you’re never bored! To me, STEM is a challenge and an adventure, it’s the ideal career.

Who are your STEM role models/inspiration?

I’ve been so fortunate to meet some amazing STEM women over the past few years. My entire Homeward Bound cohort is an enormous source of inspiration to me. Not only are they all amazing women in STEM who are contributing amazing things to their various fields of research, they are also activists, educators, environmentalists, mothers and leaders, and they manage to juggle all these different balls and wear these different hats while still being some of the most compassionate and supportive people I know.

Within the Aerospace field, two of my role models are Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton. Katherine Johnson was a “computer” at NASA back during the first days of the space program (you might recognise her as the main character in Hidden Figures). She was an African American woman working in segregated America, and through her skill and her determination she became a pioneer in orbital mechanics and spacecraft trajectories. Margaret Hamilton was a computer scientist at MIT who developed the onboard computer for the Apollo moon missions. Both of these women were minorities in their fields, working in male-dominated environments, yet they made some of the most significant contributions to modern spaceflight.

Another role model for me is Gene Kranz, former flight director at NASA during the Apollo program. Gene Kranz was an amazing leader, he led the NASA mission control team during the Moon landing, and during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, and safely saw the whole Apollo 13 crew back to Earth after a dangerous explosion on the spacecraft. In a tumultuous and scary time for NASA, Gene rallied his team, was able to effectively draw on their skills, keep them focused and calm, and solve the problem. His approach of solving one problem, then another, then another until you’re back on track, is something I’ve always taken to heart and has gotten me through many an engineering problem over the years.

What would be your advice for the next generation of Women in STEM?

Be bold, challenge yourself, and dream big!  Don’t ever be told you can’t. If engineering has taught me one thing, its that there is always another solution, another way around the problem, a different path to your desired outcome. Find something you’re passionate about, that gets you excited and that challenges you. And don’t be afraid to change directions, to find a new challenge or a new question that you need to investigate. STEM is a dynamic and innovative field. Being a woman in STEM can be tough at times, so it's important to build up your support network, your ‘village’. Never forget that you have a support network in the STEM women around you, so don’t be afraid to draw on that. And remember to be kind to yourself!

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