Caltech students and faculty gathered in Ramo Auditorium on August 9 to watch a 20-minute Q&A with NASA astronaut and former Caltech postdoc Jessica Watkins, who is working on the International Space Station (ISS) as a member of the SpaceX Crew-4 mission, which launched in April 2022.
JPL director and Caltech vice president Laurie Leshin introduced Watkins, and Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary science and associate director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies, moderated the event, which began at 9:55 a.m. The Q&A could also be watched via livestream.
Watkins, who answered questions while orbiting 227 miles above the Earth's surface, is the first Black woman on the ISS crew. From 2015 to 2017, she was the Chair's Postdoctoral Scholar in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) and California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) Fellow at Caltech. During this time, she worked on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission's Curiosity rover with John Grotzinger, the Harold Brown Professor of Geology and Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.
Watkins was one of 12 individuals selected for the astronaut program out of a pool of more than 18,000 applicants. Her work on the ISS involves making geological observations, for which she received mission training from Lauren Edgar (MS '09, PhD '13), who is now a geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center.
At the Q&A event, students asked questions related to Watkins's life experience and career.
Alexandra Masegian, a 2022 WAVE Fellow working with Professor of Astronomy Lynne Hillenbrand, asked Watkins if she had advice for college students who dream of becoming astronauts. Watkins highlighted the importance of diverse backgrounds and hard work:
"Find something that you're interested in," she said. "The one thing that all of my classmates and my crewmates have in common is that we don't have the same background. We all came from different experiences and different career paths that led us to this point, so there is no one single path that will get you here. Find something that you enjoy that gets you out of bed in the morning and pursue that. … Find things like internships. Certainly for me, my internships, like the ones I did at JPL and a couple of the other NASA centers, were hugely important for me. Continue to find ways to pursue your goal."
Sergio Parra, a geobiology graduate student at Caltech, asked Watkins how her experience as a postdoc at the Institute prepared her to be an astronaut.
"My time at Caltech really did help shape who I am as a researcher as well as ... enable me to be successful in this job and be a candidate for this role," Watkins said. "I think one of the main things for me being at Caltech was being able to be in that environment where you're just immersed in an academic world with experts in their fields as well as being close by to JPL. For me, that meant access to internships and being able to experience more of the kind of operational world as well, and (getting) to interact with engineers as well as the scientists in my department. … Learning those lessons at Caltech and nearby at JPL really helped me on my journey here as well as during this mission."
Watch the full Q&A: