Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Interview with Dr. Camille Wardrop Alleyne

Dr. Camille Wardrop Alleyne currently serves as the Assistant Program Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS), a science laboratory in space.  She is resident at NASA- Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas.  There she is responsible for managing the communication strategy for ISS Research and Technology that conveys the benefits of ISS scientific research to stakeholders, the public and potential users.  She also leads the integration of all international education programs across the ISS Partners (US, Japan, Russia, Europe and Canada).  Prior to this, Dr. Alleyne has held several positions at NASA, most recently as the Orion Crew Module Systems, Integration and Test Technical Manager at Johnson Space Center, the Systems Engineering and Integration Lead for Constellation Systems Requirements at NASA Headquarters and as a Flight Systems Test Engineer at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She has also held positions as an Aerospace Systems Engineer at the Missile Defense Agency and the Department of Defense, where she led analysis and integration of several ballistic missile defense projects.  

Dr. Alleyne holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University in Washington DC.  She also holds a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, FL, a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Houston. 

Ms. Alleyne is a licensed Private Pilot whose accomplishments include being a Finalist in the 2004 Astronaut Selection Program.  She is the Founder of the Brightest Stars Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to educating, empowering and inspiring young women around the world to be future leaders through the study of science, math and technology. She has received numerous awards and commendations both from NASA and other national and international organizations.  She has been honored as a Caribbean Woman Icon in Science and Technology by the National Institute for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology in Trinidad and Tobago.  She was also honored as an Outstanding Woman in Aerospace by the National Society of Black Engineers.

  1. You were born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. How did your life and upbringing in Trinidad equip you for your successful career in science and assist in the realisation of your achievements?

My early childhood was very instrumental in helping me to become the person I am today.  Besides an innate curiosity about the natural world around me and about space, I had parents who held deep values for education and for allowing me to nurture my gifts and talents.  My mind was very mechanical and analytical and so I gravitated towards building and fixing things around the house, which my mother encouraged.  Additionally, I attended all-girl schools in Trinidad and Tobago, which I believe played a critical role in building my self-confidence that allowed me to navigate the career path I had chosen.

ISS and Earth (Credit: NASA)

  1. During your childhood, was there a film, television show, comic or novel, which acted as a primary catalyst to your passion for science and your desire to venture into space?
My affinity for science truly was one that was innate.  Along with maths, these subjects were just things I naturally excelled in, again because I think my brain was wired to think that way.  My love for space started long before I knew what I was dreaming about, when at the ages of 6 and 7 years old I would sit on the trunk of my dad’s car and stargaze every night – wondering what was “out there”.  Two of my favourite shows growing up were The Jetsons and Star Trek, both of which seemed far-fetched at the time, but I enjoyed tremendously.

  1. You are a role model. Did you have role models of your own?

My mom was my first role model in a very subconscious way.  I say subconscious because I was too young to know what being a role model meant.  She was a very strong and independent woman who along with my dad raised their three daughters to be strong, independent and self-sufficient.  In the last 20 years or so, my other role models were people who gave their lives in love and service of humanity – Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

US Spacewalk / 1st EVA on ISS (Credit: NASA)

  1. You were a finalist in the 2004 Astronaut Selection Program. Please tell us about this program and your desire to be an astronaut.

My desire to fly in space (the job of an astronaut) started when I was a freshman in college in 1986 when the Space shuttle Challenger accident happened.  At the time, just having moved from my home in the Caribbean, I did not know anything about NASA, the space shuttle or the career of being an astronaut – but I was hooked! I had just commenced my undergraduate studies in aeronautical engineering but the tragic event of the Challenger, opened my eyes, and instantly moved me, to switch my major to a focus on space and aerospace.  Six years later, after completing my college and graduate studies, I was driving into the gates of Kennedy Space Center to start what has been an amazing 18-year career.

The Astronaut Selection program is NASA’s process for recruiting candidates who train to be astronauts.  In the 2003-2004 selection process, I was one of 100 finalists who were selected from a pool of 4000+ applicants and who were invited to interview and undergo medical evaluation.  This was a week-long process that resulted in the selection of 12 of the 100 who undertook 2 years of training to be US astronauts.  Even though I wasn’t selected as one of the 12 candidates, going through the final selection process was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. 

  1. Tell us about your role within the International Space Station Program.

The International Space Station (ISS) is a multidisciplinary (biology, physical sciences, human research, just to name a few) laboratory in space where we conduct scientific research and technology development in a microgravity environment.  As an Assistant Program Scientist, I am responsible for the development and implementation of the communication strategies that effectively convey the benefits of microgravity scientific research to stakeholders, the public and potential users.  I also lead the integration of all international education programs across the ISS Partners (US, Japan, Russia, Europe and Canada) that have engaged and inspired millions of students globally, in their studies of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  1. What is an aerospace engineer?

An aerospace engineer is a person who designs, develops, integrates and tests rockets and spacecraft vehicles and their systems.

  1. What advice would you give to someone with a desire to pursue a career in engineering?

Firstly, your career choice should be something that you are passionate about.   Engineering itself is a very challenging but fulfilling career.  Engineers are trained to analyse problems, develop solutions and think critically about the world around us.  It requires determination, perseverance and tenacity to successfully complete a college engineering program, especially for women, because it is traditionally a male-dominated field.

  1. Tell us about your role as a designer.

In the design of rockets or spacecrafts there are many sub-areas or subsystems that need to be designed first and then integrated to make a whole system.  The subsystems of rockets include the structures, propulsion, navigation and controls, aerodynamics (flow of air over a structure), avionics, thermal protection (specific to spacecraft).   Each of these areas is a sub-speciality in itself.  Then there are systems engineers who are responsible for integrating each of these parts into a whole and testing the whole to ensure that it meets the requirements it was designed for. Most of my career was spent involved in the design of spacecraft systems, rocket systems and the integration and testing of both.  In the last few years however, I have moved away from engineering into leading and managing projects and programs.

  1. As a child, I expected jet packs, flying cars, sub-orbital commercial flight and moon bases to be a part of our everyday life by now; but after just 6 missions, manned lunar landings ended in 1972. Since then, we’ve seen Concorde retire in 2003 after 27 years of service; and after 30 years of service we’ve witnessed the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Is science fiction unreasonably optimistic with regards to human technological potential?

Sometimes it seems that our human potential lags what we coin as “science fiction” and sometimes we have surpassed science fiction in many ways.   There is nothing wrong with human beings dreaming big and using our imagination; in fact, it is a part of our nature! But there are scientific and physical realities of how our universe works that, regardless of how innovative and imaginative our thoughts are, the universal laws always dictate. Having said that, in 2013, we are on the verge of sub-orbital commercial flights for everyday people; we have smart phones in our pockets that are revolutionary- I never would have imagined 15, 20, or 25 years ago, this small device would allow me to respond to voice commands, access the internet and give me a capability to video conference with friends and family across the globe.  We have athletes with artificial limbs competing in able-bodied Olympics.  There are cars that don’t require gasoline. Finally, something that’s near and dear to my heart, and that is our Space Station in low Earth orbit built and operated by 15 countries working together to explore and further human knowledge.

  1. What does the foreseeable future of aerospace engineering and manned space exploration hold for us?

The development of a transport capability that would take humans to an asteroid by 2025 with the goal of reaching Mars by 2030. Our goal and objective is to advance space exploration capability that would allow humans to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in your career?

Most rewarding about my career is being in the very unique, specialized and highly technical field of human space exploration.  Also, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant people on the planet.

  1. What do you find most challenging, and how do you overcome it?

Most challenging is the fact that I am a woman in a very male-dominated environment and career, and one that has very, very few people of color (male or female).  One is not always given the benefit of the doubt because of those physical attributes.  But what I know for sure is that there is no substitute for excellence – it transcends ethnicity, gender, culture etc.  So striving for excellence is the way to overcome those barriers.

  1. Tell us about your involvement with the Caribbean Youth Science Forum.

The Caribbean Youth Forum is an annual educational event that hosts about 300+ Sixth Form students from all over the Caribbean.  The weeklong event hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago National Institute of Higher Education, Science and Technology, provides students with the opportunity to be exposed to various aspects of science and technology through a mix of academic, social and cultural activities.  In 2011, I was invited to participate as the keynote speaker at the event’s opening.  I was also able to organise for the students, with the assistance of the Trinidad and Tobago Amateur Radio League (TTARL) and NIHERST, their participation in one of the International Space Station education programs called Amateur Radio on ISS (ARISS).  This allowed the students to talk to astronauts on board the space station in real time, as it passed over Argentina.  This was an historic event for the region, as no Caribbean students had ever conducted this type of contact with the ISS.  Later that week, I also gave a public lecture on ISS Research and its Benefits to Humanity, to the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.

  1. Rationalism versus mysticism and the intersection between science and religion is often explored in works of fiction. Do you come from a religious family background, do you have strong religious views, or do you believe that there is no place for religion in science?

I do come from a strong religious background and was raised Catholic, but I believe strongly that there is an intersection between religion and science and they are more tightly intertwined that most people are willing to admit.  I am not religious even though I am deeply spiritual (there is a distinction) and am extremely open-minded and consistently in an “inquiry” about our place in the scope and vastness of the universe.

  1. Tell us about the Brightest Stars Foundation.

The Brightest Stars Foundation is a non-governmental organization I founded in 2007 with the mission of education, empowering and inspiring young women to be future leaders through the study of science, technology and engineering.  I travel all over the world, on behalf of my foundation, advocating for the rights of girls to have access to quality education, specifically STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  I also spend time speaking to and inspiring youth (boys and girls) to believe in themselves and live up to their fullest potential.  A vision of my foundation however, is the establishment of Science Academies for Girls in the developing world, the first one being in Kenya.  These are residential high schools that will educate girls in highly scientific and technological fields, with the goal of educating the next generation of Nobel Laureates in Science. This project has been slow getting off the ground because of the financial commitment needed, but this year it is finally taking off and I am hopeful and determined that by 2016 we would be opening our first school.

  1. Do you read science fiction or fantasy? If so, tell us a little about a good science fiction or fantasy book you’ve read recently.

No I do not read science fiction or fantasy.  I often read biographies of extraordinary people and books with social consciousness like “The End of Poverty” By Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.

Mt. Etna Eruption from ISS (Credit: NASA)

Eye of Hurricane Isabel from ISS (Credit: NASA)

  1. What new developments, in the world of science fact, excite you?

In the world of science, what excites me is something I am exposed to on a daily basis and that is the discoveries we get from conducting scientific experiments in the microgravity environment of space.  What we don’t often realize is that gravity affects every biological, chemical and physical process that occurs on Earth.  So when we take gravity out of the equation and are able to control it via the International Space Station – a science laboratory in low earth orbit – we advance our knowledge significantly on terrestrial systems including human beings. The new discoveries such as vaccine development for Salmonella bacteria, candidate treatments for a certain type of Muscular Dystrophy, development of countermeasures for osteoporosis patients, the possibility of finding real evidence for how our universe started, the ability to take images from 400 km above the Earth that assists us in natural disaster response.  All these and more are new developments courtesy of the International Space Station and ones that excite me daily.

  1. Tell us about your other interests.

Besides space exploration, I have a passion for travelling the world and experiencing people of other cultures and traditions.  I also have a passion for dance (hip-hop and jazz) and flying planes (something I don’t get to do as often as I would like).  But as a mom to an amazing teenage girl who is an extremely gifted athlete and excellent scholar, I spend most of my time investing in her upbringing and ensuring that she has the supportive environment (like I did) that will allow her to realize her capacity for greatness.


               ISS Research and Technology

               The Brightest Stars Foundation