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Meet Kathy Sullivan: First American Woman to Walk in Space

photo of kathy sullivan during space walk

photo of kathy sullivan Originally from New Jersey, Dr. Sullivan received her bachelor of science degree in Earth sciences from the University of California at Santa Cruz and her doctorate of philosophy in geology from Dalhouse University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. As an astronaut for NASA, she flew on STS-41G, STS-31, and STS-45. She writes:

The most exciting and enjoyable thing about my job at NASA was being a full-fledged member of a mission team, and making a real contribution to each one was always a real joy. Getting to fly was incredible icing on an already great cake. You can't beat the ride, the view or zero-G.

I am currently the President & CEO of COSI, a dynamic center of hands-on science learning and fun. In my job there are never two days the same. My day can be spent out in the community representing COSI; talking to our members and visitors; attending meetings and doing site tours to work on issues about the progress of our building; talking with my own Team about our current operations, the coming move or how we'll operate in the new building, or some combinations of the above.

Throughout my schooling it always seemed easy and natural to wonder about things that centered around science, and use math sometimes to see how it worked. Those subjects help me in my current job to understand and work with business finances. An orderly and systematic approach helps me manage and guide complex projects, like constructing a building. Science and systems engineering knowledge makes me good critical reviewer of technical plans and drawings. I'm fluent enough in them to have good foresight and intuition. With science and math, I've been able to be creative in imagining both cool topics, neat activities and ways to engineer them into our exhibits An ability to translate science, math and technology issues and topics into daily life terms makes me a good teacher and public speaker.

I remember clearly at about 12 years old that classmates suddenly made me uncomfortable about finding school and learning fun - that wasn't cool now. I don't remember any specific hassle about science and math, maybe because I first thought I was going to do languages anyway. It scarcely occurred to me to think about this pressure during my switch to geology and, amazingly, none of my first profs ever even faintly made it an issue. One old-guard prof during my senior year clearly didn't think much of my pursuing a career in science, but I was then confident and stubborn enough to win him over or push on past him without questioning my path.

The obstacles were just the normal ones of mustering enough discipline, focus and funds to stay in school for college and my Ph.D. There was the occasional personality conflict with another student or prof, but those happen everywhere all the time. One of the important lessons is to not let the fact that you don't adore and feel super-supported by some big boss or colleague to put you off your game and affect your path. Besides my career work, during college I worked in the dining halls and volunteered as Asst. Girl Scout leader. I rode bikes, played racket sports, sailed, went camping - pretty much the same hobbies I carried on into NASA and beyond.

It's about the journey, not about beating the quiz or winning the lottery. The value comes from learning by experience, not by being given the answers. I find particularly inspiring T.E. Lawrence's reference to "dreamers of the day." The full quote is about very different circumstances and issues, but I always liked the concept of dreamers that make their dreams come to pass.


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