Between traveling around the earth at 5 miles a second, conducting DNA sequencing and combustion experiments, plus watching the sun rise and set 16 times a day, La Jolla marine biologist Jessica Meir made time to video chat with 150 middle school students from the international space station.
“It really means so much for me to be able to share my life up here with all of you,” said Meir at the beginning of her livestream call with Scripps Institution of Oceanography and San Diego’s Fulton Middle School and Memorial Preparatory for Scholars and Athletes — two schools supported by Birch Aquarium’s Price Philanthropies Ocean Science Education Fund. “It really is one of the big objectives of my mission…to share this experience with as many people as I can because I am so incredibly fortunate to be up here.”
Scripps hosted the livestreaming event, STEM to Stars, on Monday, Jan. 27, and students both from the middle schools and Scripps own graduate program had the opportunity to ask Meir pre-prepared questions about her time as a scientist and brand-new astronaut. The Q&A was emceed by UC San Diego astrophysicist Brian Keating and Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen.
“As a graduate student who comes from Title 1 schools in North Long Beach, much like the eighth-grade students who were visiting, I would have never in my wildest dreams imagined hearing an astronaut refer to us Scripps folks as ‘colleagues,’” said Ivan Moreno, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Marine Biology program at Scripps who attended the livestream. “That short statement was one of the most inspiring moments of the event.”
For half an hour, Meir shared with students her long journey to becoming an astronaut. The biologist and physiologist has traveled around the world, studying animals that thrive in extreme habitats, her most notable adventure being the research she conducted observing emperor penguins in Antarctica. But starting from writing down her dream to become an astronaut in her middle school diary, to applying to NASA in 2013, it’s been the mysteries of space that have always called out to Meir. And she’s not alone.
“Working for NASA is a long-term goal of mine and seeing former Scripps graduate students reach their highest potentials through that same avenue is motivating,” said Moreno.
“This was the first time we’ve done a livestream with an alum from space,” added Lauren Wood, director of Strategic Communications at Scripps. “We wanted the livestream to be something shared with the community that would have an inspiring impact on those involved.”
Scripps has quite the portfolio when it comes to sending their students to space, Meir being one of three alumni who have traveled to the “final frontier.” Megan McArthur, who holds a Ph.D. in Oceanography from Scripps, traveled to space in 2009 and helped repair the Hubble telescope. Kate Rubins, who studied microbial biology as an undergraduate, became the first person to sequence DNA in space. Sally Ride, the first woman in space, was a long-time professor of physics at UC San Diego.
“There does seem to be a trend with UCSD and female astronauts,” said Meir, who entertained many a middle schooler with her demonstrations of zero gravity by floating up to the ceiling and suspending her microphone in midair.
According to Wood, Scripps would like to host more livestreaming events like this in the future to encourage more Title 1 and graduate students in their galactic pursuits.
“The most important thing to do is to make sure that you identify your passion and do what it is that you really care about,” said Meir to the students. “Once you’ve done that, you do need to work really hard to make those dreams come true. And it sounds a bit trite when I say it, but it really is true. The point is, really, anyone can do it if that’s what you set your mind out to.”
Moreno added, “Not only am I excited for my own future, but also for the futures of all my other peers in the crowd who maybe resonated with her words of encouragement just as much as I did.”