Alyssa Carson: “To thrive and manage a large team that I have learned is the importance of communication and networking and just really talking about your dreams and goals”

The advice I would give to other female leaders to thrive and manage a large team that I have learned is the importance of communication and networking and just really talking about your dreams and goals. I think that is the first one and you never know where opportunities are going to come from and […]

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The advice I would give to other female leaders to thrive and manage a large team that I have learned is the importance of communication and networking and just really talking about your dreams and goals. I think that is the first one and you never know where opportunities are going to come from and as a leader in a position it is up to you to find opportunities. So, I think communication is huge and communication among your team is massive because nothing can be done by ourselves, we always need a team no matter what it is, no matter what goal we are going after it is always better.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alyssa Carson, aspiring astronaut and certified aquanaut, partnership with Frito-Lay Variety Packs’ Back to School Blas Off Program.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Yeah, so pretty much what got me into STEM and wanting to work in STEM was really just, well kind of just thinking how it got started because I really don’t remember too much from when I was super young but I pretty much just started learning about space and science and asking lots of questions — questions to my dad who really didn’t know too much and the more I learned about space the more I was interested in space. I started going to the library, looking at videos, and little things, but when I was seven, I actually went to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama for the first time. That was when I was really dead set that this was the career path that I wanted. Space Camp kind of provided me all the information that I wanted to know and was curious about. So, kind of solidified my interest in wanting to pursue a STEM career. And in terms of specifics, astrobiology. That all came from a panel that I was at when I was 12 and I was thinking of doing astrophysics, but there was an astrobiologist there who talked to me and totally convinced me to change my mind and do astrobiology instead.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your trajectory for space travel?

That’s an interesting question because there are definitely a lot of interesting things that have happened. I think a lot of the different experiences that I have done have been really, really cool. I would say one of the most interesting would probably be my recent flight with the Thunderbirds. It was really fascinating to see how these pilots do these amazing tricks every day. You know, the pressure and all the Gs they are putting on their body — it was really cool to learn about what they do. It was also cool to be connected to space at the same time. You know, a lot of the original astronauts were fighter jet pilots. And of course, we have some of those, but we also have others now, but it was cool to think how these guys would be similar to the original astronauts. It’s really cool to see the tricks that they do and of course flying in the jet was an indescribable experience. We actually pulled nine Gs — absolutely crazy. I almost blacked out, but I held it together, so that was really awesome. But they were so nice and definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve gotten to do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funny mistakes I usually like to jump to pretty often was actually when I was first joining Project Possum. Project Possum is a citizens science research organization, so it’s a whole bunch of people that come together in their free time to study science and we do research campaigns and things like that. But I started when I was fifteen and that was very young. Everyone else was in college or they had already graduated and were grown adults, so I was definitely way younger than the rest of them. I started taking a few of their courses and there was a bit of a gap between my education level and the rest of their education levels. So, the funny moment was in one of the courses the professor was like ‘Oh let’s take a moment and go back to our high school calculus when we talk about whatever in the atmosphere’ and I was just sitting there thinking well I have never taken calculus before. I have no idea what they’re talking about! I wasn’t there yet. For them, they were going back to something they had learned, and I was sitting there very confused because I’d never done it before or even talked about it, yet. So that was funny because I was so far behind, but one thing it really taught me was really speaking up when you are confused or don’t know something because even though they were a lot older than I was, I was able to reach out to a few of them and ask for help afterwards. They would try to explain it to me kind of as short and quickly as possible, kind of simplified to what we were talking about. So really just asking for help when you need it and at the same time not being afraid to say when you’re struggling, or something is way out of your reach because it showed me how helpful they were and how nice everyone was. So that was a really cool time.

What do you think makes your career trajectory stand out? Can you share a story?

I think this career that I’ve chosen to go down is definitely very unique. It’s not one of the traditional jobs you hear people talk about. Especially astrobiology, it is a relatively new career and one of the reasons I’m studying astrobiology at Florida Tech is because it is hard to find that major anywhere else for an undergrad program. It has been really cool to see astrobiology build up a little bit to be where it is at now. But also, to be in STEM and space in general is definitely a unique career path, but I think that is part of what makes it cool and what makes it stand out. There are so many bizarre or strange jobs within space and STEM that it just sounds so crazy. Astrobiology is one of them, but there are many cool jobs that you wouldn’t think of in the space industry like the people that study the psychology of the food that the astronauts eat or the space suit designers. There are all these important jobs that play a role in us being able to be successful in us going to space and I think that’s something not a lot of other career paths have.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m always working on exciting projects, but right now along with continuing my education and anything else that will come up, one of the big things right now is that I have recently partnered up with Frito-Lay. Which is really exciting. With them, I am helping out with their “Space For Her” scholarship and also their mentorship program. So, they recently launched a “Back to School Blast Off” program and I’m helping with all that. I’m really excited because it all revolves around helping people and helping girls in STEM which is something I’m really passionate about. So, the scholarship that they are doing actually allows girls to go to Space Camp and they are sending twelve girls this year, but it is something that they are continuing for the next several years which will be really exciting to see even more girls get the opportunity. Not only are they being sent [to Space Camp], but we are also doing a mentorship program and I’ll be getting one-on-one time with the girls. And not only myself but other inspiring women in this area of STEM. It’s really cool to nurture whatever their interest is, tell them any advice, try to help them out. You know maybe myself or one of the other ladies will be working in something that they want to go into. So, it is really cool that we are having such an impact on these girls that are coming from underrepresented backgrounds and now are getting the chance to go after their own dreams.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I think the talk about women in STEM has been a conversation for the past few years and is something that is becoming more and more common — becoming more normal to talk about, but it has been this slow transition. Of course, looking at the space industry and STEM, it has been very male dominated. I think we are all aware of that, but it has been interesting to see how it has changed. I think the status quo of women in STEM is also changing. I think we would maybe think of the women in STEM as sort of these nerdy girls who go into these careers, when really now we have so many cool women doing multiple things. I know a woman working in the STEM field and she’s also a model and working as an astrophysicist. We are really breaking down these boundaries we have set for women in STEM. We have women in STEM that are also doing a lot of cool social media stuff and they’re really mixing these interests. I think that has been the biggest change, very recently, as to how we’re changing what a woman in STEM looks like.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One of the biggest challenges as we try to get more girls and women in STEM is almost just a mindset thing. As I’ve been working with this Frito-Lay team, one thing that we have talked about is that most girls get interested in STEM around eleven to fifteen but once they get up to fifteen that interest starts to fade a little bit. So, it is all about keeping that interest in these girls — keep their interest, keep them trying to pursue whatever ideas that they have. And that is something we can really all look at in our day-to-day lives. Let’s say you have a little girl, and she breaks her bike. How would you go about the situation? Would you fix it for her? Would you show her how to fix it? Would you tell her brother to help fix it, but not her? So, even a regular moment like that could make a really big difference. She may hate learning to fix a bike or she may be really interested in how things work or how the bike gets fixed. That could be something that sparks an idea. There are a lot of these moments with young girls that I feel we can really make the difference. Going back to these girls that are going to Space Camp through the Frito-Lay scholarship. Space Camp is another avenue where they can be exposed to these things and really see what they are interested in and hopefully keep that interest.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

As far as the myths, I think there are a few. One is kind of women stepping up to really big jobs. There are a few really big jobs in the space realm that we are starting to see women going in to — I know NASA Administrator is one that is big and hoping to have a really powerful female. And some of these really powerful roles we are starting to see these really incredible women step up and I think that is helping break down these myths because they are really in charge of a lot of the stuff that is happening. Also, the myths of women in STEM being really nerdy and doing really nerdy jobs. I think that one thing I like to emphasize is that to work in STEM you don’t even have to like math and science, which is funny to think about. Let’s say you are interested in space, but you hate math, hate science — that’s okay because there are really so many avenues that contribute to the space industry whether that is design or journalism, psychology. All of these other jobs that aren’t as focused on the math and science are still important roles in 
 STEM and there is still a place. One thing I like to emphasize is that space really is for everyone because there are so many opportunities and so many different things you can go into, so you can definitely find your place in the field.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

As far as leadership lessons, it has definitely been interesting to step up and do different things in leadership positions. It is actually really funny because when I was really young and first learning about space and being an astronaut and what that would mean I was at Space Camp and on a spacecraft, there was a pilot, the commander, and a few mission specialists. And you know, the pilot and commander were kind of the leaders or the ones in charge and I thought I would rather be a mission specialist and kind of sit in the back seat until we get there and then do some science and that is actually how I ended up on the science side of space. It’s just funny because I was never really interested in the leadership roles, but obviously now I do understand that I have a leadership position helping out younger kids, so I think as far as some of the lessons I’ve learned it’s really just being yourself in terms of being leader and just being as raw as you can with the people that you are around. It’s really amazing that so many kids can use my story as inspiration, but that also motivates me to do even more because I want them to learn about even more opportunities. So, I think the cool part is that it is always making you better at the same time.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The advice I would give to other female leaders to thrive and manage a large team that I have learned is the importance of communication and networking and just really talking about your dreams and goals. I think that is the first one and you never know where opportunities are going to come from and as a leader in a position it is up to you to find opportunities. So, I think communication is huge and communication among your team is massive because nothing can be done by ourselves, we always need a team no matter what it is, no matter what goal we are going after it is always better. I have always loved the team aspect of managing because even when we look at space, it took so many people, almost 400,000 people to send a man to the moon. That was such a large team that had to come together to achieve something so big and it is the same on our own teams. So I guess I would say teamwork and communication are the biggest that I focused on.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I think the first person I think of that has helped me a lot would be my dad because I would say he has been my biggest supporter, biggest helper in terms of keeping me organized. He does so much for me, and it has been really awesome to have someone with me throughout all of this. When I was younger saying I wanted to be an astronaut, he wasn’t really sure this was going to be something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but he was still so supportive. He went to Space Camp with me, he rode the simulators. Also just having him there helped a lot. Always encouraging me made a huge difference. So, for me it has been really amazing to have that support. Even when I do crazier things he is consistently right there. I think that has been something really amazing in helping us with our success. Whether that be a parent, a teacher, a friend helping you look for opportunities or just saying “you got this!” Even that little bit can make a huge difference.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In terms of the things that I have done, I really have had two major goals in terms of sharing my story and what I have done, and those two goals have been: 1, trying to make space more accessible to the public and the other goal being inspiring to young kids. You know, I definitely went after this goal when I was really young and did a lot of things that you didn’t think someone at my age could have done, so I definitely want kids to go after their dreams no matter how old they are. There’s nothing that really pressures kids to figure out what they want to do until they are picking a major in college, but before that there is no pressure to do anything, go after anything, or work towards any sort of career goal, but that being said if a kid has a really strong interest they should kind of nurture that interest and see this is really what I want to do or maybe go to a camp that involves that to see if it is something they want to continue doing. Maybe they will learn and find an interest in something else. I think nurturing those interests and finding those opportunities is something that so many kids can do. So, I love being able to share that. And kind of going back to teaching the public more about space, that’s something that I ran into a lot when I was growing up and I didn’t really realize that what’s happening in space and what the public thinks is happening in space is such a big difference. It’s kind of crazy to think. The time that I saw that was when the space shuttle program ended in 2011, I had family members or strangers I would meet going “Oh, what is Alyssa going to do now that there aren’t astronauts anymore?” and I was like “What? What do you mean there aren’t astronauts anymore?” and there was this whole misconception that since the shuttle program ended, space was closed, NASA was closed, there weren’t astronauts anymore, we were done with space, and it really showed me that space isn’t something an ordinary person thinks about all the time or really knows that much about. So, a lot of these things can be confusing. So, I always wanted to share a little bit about what I knew that was happening in space. That way people would be a little more informed on what is happening. Those are kind of the two major things that I’ve wanted to bring.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think honestly just women in STEM and continuing to build it. Something I say a lot is that although STEM and space is still very male dominated, I think the female community that is there is so strong. So, I think if we can continue to build that female community it would be even better. There are so many incredible women doing amazing things, so if we continue to highlight them and really showcase what they’re doing it would inspire even more girls. I know a few amazing women that are changing a lot of viewpoints. If a little girl thinks about what a scientist looks like are they thinking of a boy or are they may be thinking of a female scientist now. I think a lot of these little things can make a huge difference.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes that I tell myself all the time is really to always follow your dream and never let anyone take it away from you, just because I firmly believe that if you are truly passionate about something no matter how crazy it might sound it can become a reality. And I know when I was little and telling people I wanted to go to mars, that wasn’t something that people were talking about at the time. No one was thinking about going to mars yet. It was a very impossible dream, but the more I have worked towards it the more of a reality it has become. Now there’s talks of going to Mars and you can definitely work towards your goal. It might surprise you and turn into more of a reality than you might have thought. So, really think so big and work towards it. I think if you have the passion for it, you can totally achieve it.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Someone I have wanted to meet for a while is Elon Musk just because he is a pretty cool guy and I think he’s a really cool visionary. Actually, the closest I have gotten to meeting him was meeting his sister’s ex-boyfriend so that’s kind of close-ish, but I think actually meeting him would be amazing and I’m also really fond of what SpaceX has been doing. I think what SpaceX in terms of private space travel is very different than what, let’s say, other companies are doing because they have expanded what we can do in space at a certain time. It’s really the first time ever that we have NASA working on their projects with SpaceX bringing people to their station. We’re really able to do more than ever and that is in a large part thanks to SpaceX. So, really fond of the stuff they have been able to do.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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