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NASA aerospace engineer tells more than 600 girls to reach for the stars at PPPL’s Young Women’s conference

By Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

NASA aerospace engineer Aprille Ericsson told more than 600 seventh- to tenth-grade girls at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Young Women’s Conference that she was depending on them to pursue their dreams and make their ideas a reality in the wide-open field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

“You guys are very capable of so many ideas and I’m depending on you,” Ericsson told an enthusiastic audience at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium the March 23 event. “Don’t be scared to keep pushing forward until you achieve your dream,” Ericsson said in her keynote speech to an enthusiastic audience at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium.

The Young Women’s Conference has a serious purpose: inspiring young women to enter STEM fields. The number of women in STEM fields has doubled in the past two decades but half of all college-educated employees are women, they still hold just 29 percent or less than one-third of the STEM workforce in the U.S., according to the National Science Foundation.

 The conference was the 16th hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the biggest to date with girls coming from schools from all over New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania. They spent the day doing hands-on science activities at more than 30 exhibits at Princeton’s Frick Chemistry Laboratory and they listened to talks by female engineers and watched colorful chemistry experiments before coming together for Ericsson’s keynote speech. 

Exploring new science topics

Students got to test substances on a soiled car seat to determine if the substance was (simulated) blood. They tried out 3-D goggles and built models of the DNA of a virus. “They explored a lot of new science topics,” said organizer Deedee Ortiz, the program administrator in PPPL’s Science Education Department. “This is an opportunity that the majority of these girls would never have otherwise.” 

PPPL had several displays in which students learned about plasmas, watched a 3-D printer at work, learned about how a computer is built, and got to try on firefighting equipment. Kathryn Wagner, of Princeton University, showed students chemistry experiments in which she made substances go “boom” and turn bright colors. 

“It’s all cool science,” said Annie Dykstra, an eighth-grader from John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton. Her teacher, Janet Gaudino, was equally enthusiastic. I love it and I know the girls love it,” she said. “There are so many activities and all it takes is one booth for a girl to say, ‘I want to do that.’ You can’t manufacture that level of engagement in a class.”

“It’s just a fabulous event,” said Terry Brog, interim director of PPPL, who was one of 60 volunteers from PPPL and Princeton University at the conference. “We need these types of things to get kids interested or keep them interested in STEM.”

Assemblyman Dan Benson, who visited the event with Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, also from the 14th district, said he also was impressed by the event. “This really opens up their eyes to how many avenues there are in the STEM fields,” he said.

Finding a good life balance

Students heard talks by Jyoti Sharma, a wireless engineer for Nokia, and Valeria Riccardo, head of engineering at PPPL. Riccardo said she told students to “work hard and find a good life balance,” when they begin their careers. Having that balance helps if women are treated like outsiders on the job, she said. “Sometimes we are made to feel we are in the wrong place and it’s good to know in advance that you are OK, which is not always easy,” she said.

 In her keynote address, Ericsson, the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University, recounted how she became a scientist. Growing up in Brooklyn, Ericsson said she was inspired to go into a space-related field by movies like “Star Wars” and television shows like “Star Trek.” She said she took part in her school science fairs and was a promising match student. She attended MIT as an undergraduate. But despite being a strong student, it wasn’t always easy, she said. When she failed the same calculus class twice, she might have quit, if it weren’t for the encouragement of mentors to keep going. “If I ever worried about what people thought about me, I would never have become a rocket scientist,” she told students.

By persevering, she became an engineer for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center jut outside Washington DC in Greenbelt, Maryland. She was the project manager or engineer for numerous instruments, including the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) that measures the topography of the moon on board the Lunar Reconnaissance Mission, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009.

Along the way, she worked with a Nobel Prize winner and met the famous civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. She taught engineering at Howard University and other institutions and has been heavily involved in STEM education programs. Among many awards, Ericsson received the Washington Award from the Western Society of Engineer in 2016, an award whose past recipients include Orville Wright, Henry Ford, and Neil Armstrong.

 Ericsson said she believes humans could travel to Mars in the next couple of decades but only if future scientists solve some major challenges over the next decades. She charged the young women in the audience with that task. “We need you guys to develop new launch vehicles that will get us there,” she said. 

Viewing the world without boundaries

When astronauts look down to Earth from the International Space Station they don’t see any boundaries, Ericsson told the audience, “so there shouldn’t be any boundaries for us to work together. You are part of that dream and vision for diversity.”

 Students said they liked hearing Ericsson’s story. “I think it was very inspiring,” said Bhavisha Banda, a 10th-grader at West Windsor-Plainsboro North High School. “After her speech, I realized you can mix a lot of your interests (in your career).”

“I enjoyed her passion,” said Michelle Tong, a 10th-grade classmate of Banda’s. “It kind of reinforced the idea that we can be successful in STEM and have a big impact on the future.”

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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