Teachers inspire female scientists

To many, the traditional images of scientists and engineers were of men, but at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that stereotypical representation has never been the case.

“There are a fair number of women here,” said Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.

Crisp, along with fellow Mars Science Laboratory scientists and engineers Jamie Waldo, lead mobility engineer; Julie Townsend, robotics engineer and robot driver; and Suparna Mukherjee, sampling engineer, has had a love of science for many years. All four said they were excited about being on the new JPL project, which will send a rover — recently named Curiosity — to Mars to gather samples of the planet’s surface.

Curiosity’s planned launch is in 2010. It is the largest JPL Mars rover mission and will include the most advanced suite of instruments for scientific study. The rolling laboratory will analyze samples by scooping soil and drilling rocks.

Crisp said a professor at college inspired her to enter the field of geology.

“He had the attitude of ‘you can do it,’” she said.

She added that she never felt like she stood out simply because she was a woman, even though there were not a lot of women in the field at the time.

“I never really faced a gender bias,” Crisp said.

She joined JPL in 1987 and has worked on several high-profile missions, such as the Pathfinder, which landed on Mars in 1997 and included the rover Sojourner. She was also a project scientist on the two Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity will also record the planet’s climate in an effort to find out more about and the history of the red planet.

“I am excited about drilling into rocks and shooting them with lasers,” Crisp said.

Geology was not Crisp’s immediate choice of studies while in college, but she knew it was going to be something in science and tried several fields before landing on rocks.

“It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she said, “to look at rocks as a puzzle.”

Like Crisp, Waydo, Mukherjee and Townsend were encouraged to pursue a career in science by teachers, all of whom were men.

“I never really had a female role model,” Waydo said.

It was the love of science that brought them to their fields.

Townsend had worked with robots in school and now mentors a Girl Scout troop that competes in For Inspiration and Recognition for Science and Technology, a national robotic competition.

Townsend said she encourages every girl who is interested in science and math to continue in her studies. She understands the difficulty facing some who find they are the only girls on their robotics team or in an advanced math class.

“I was the only girl in advanced physics, but my teacher was inspirational,” she said.

Despite more girls entering the field of engineering, she added, “There is still a stigma.”

But battling that stereotype is worth it when the end result is a job at JPL, she said.

“It is really exciting for me to get to [work] on the rover,” she said.

Mukherjee agreed.

“To work on something that is not on our planet [is amazing],” she said.

Waydo said she got into the field because as a young girl she watched what JPL was doing in space. Even now, she said, there are times she can’t believe she is living her dream.

“Those are the ‘pinch me’ moments,” she said.

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