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Meet: Pat Cowings, first female scientist trained to be a Payload Specialist

photo of Pat Cowings

I am a Research Psychologist and Acting Department Chief of the SLR Branch. I'm a professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and the Principal Investigator of Psychophysiological Research Laboratories here at ARC. I have training in human neurophysiology, statistics, performance assessment and psychology. Mostly, I study how people adapt to space and try to develop methods to help them adapt faster.

My career does stretch from way back to the early astronaut days. I was the first female scientist trained to be an astronaut. This was way before Sally Ride's day and they didn't even have a uniform for me. I was the alternate and never got a chance to fly but that experience is something I will never forget.

An average day in my field depends on what we are doing. When we're training astronauts, we have to travel a lot. Training can occur at Shuttle mock-ups at Johnson Space Center or MSFC or KSC. Measuring astronaut physiology with special equipment while we spin them in simulators or fly on aircraft. Otherwise, we may spend a lot of time looking at data---computer processing, graphics, and statistics. The ONLY thing worth doing at NASA is working directly with the astronauts--helping them do their thing in space. That's what I live for.

I was not so good at math (I admit) as a kid. I learned to use it as a tool. But science was always a game! You run your experiment and then add up the points to see if you won! Scientists are eternal students. We ask questions for a living. I was pressured not to go into a math and science based field. This is Earth you know. But I was encouraged by my parents to do what I WANTED to do, not what someone else thought I SHOULD do.

Not being taken seriously is one of the obstacles I had to overcome to get where I am right now. I was 23 when I earned my doctorate and most of my associates would not treat me like a scientist. But youth and inexperience--that's something you OUTGROW. Still I have always been (and will always be) a Black woman, and I still find that people see the outside without seeing the scientist inside.

I am married to my coinvestigator of 24 years (yes, married to the job). but I'm also a MOM!! My 11-year old is my current hobby. I also write science fiction (very badly).

My parents told me that I am a human being. This is the best animal on the whole planet. Doesn't matter where you are from or what you look like. Doesn't matter if you're poor. A human being can learn and can achieve whatever they set out to do (or come near to it). I've spent my life studying human potential--and stretching my own.

QuestChat Archive: April 22, 1999

See a 8 minute RealMedia clip of Pat and her work. Autogenic Feedback Training Excercise and Telemedicine
Videos may be viewed using free RealPlayer


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