My Time at the Women’s Conference for Planetary Science and Exploration—Through Hardship to the Stars

Meeting Notes

My Time at the Women’s Conference for Planetary Science and Exploration—Through Hardship to the Stars

Women in Planetary Science and Exploration Conference

Dahlia Baker, SPS Chapter President, Coe College

I’m currently a senior physics student at Coe College, and recently I  had  the  opportunity  to  travel  internationally  to  a conference in Toronto. I am Coe’s current SPS chapter president, and in the past few years I have planned many    of our outreach events and conference travels, including a trek to the 2016 PhysCon. I’ve found that conferences are pressure cookers for collaboration and professional growth, and I encourage all undergraduates to attend at least one conference.

In 2016, I was an SPS intern at NASA Goddard, working with Ed Wollack on infrared absorber coatings. It was this research experience that solidified my interest in the space world, and since then, I have worked at Planetary Resources, Inc., and applied for graduate studies in aerospace engineering and planetary sciences. At Coe, I have also led a movement creating a community for women in STEM fields, which has become a personal priority of mine alongside a career in space.

There are astronomy and space conferences, and there are conferences for women in STEM, but never have the two subjects been combined as they were at the first Women in Planetary Science and Exploration (WPSE) conference, held at the University of Toronto. People of all genders showed up to hear talks and give talks, which was encouraging and indicated the inclusivity of the conference. There were around 100 people, roughly evenly divided between American and Canadian scientists and engineers.

Dr. Tanya Harrison, Director of Research at Arizona State University and an organizer of WPSE, opened the conference. Her first slide set the tone for the rest of the two-day event, starting with the quote “Per aspera as astera,” or “Through hardship to the stars.” She also took a moment to recognize the indigenous culture of Toronto and the lands and people who lived there before European colonization.

The talk she gave focused on explaining what is meant when news reporters claim that we “found water on Mars,” something that’s more complicated than those reports often say. “Water on Mars” can mean ice, hydrated minerals, or leftovers from meteorite impacts. Or something else entirely—but it’s often simplified to just “water.”

Another notable keynote speaker was Dr. Cassandra Steer, an Australian citizen based in Canada who is an expert in international air and space law. She specializes in the regulation of military activities in space. Her talk was remotely given, and through Skype she explained the legal aspects of sending objects to space, putting satellites in orbit, and mining asteroids. Under space law, every country or private entity is responsible for the materials they put into space or orbit. As low-earth orbit becomes more crowded with satellites, space law is becoming increasingly relevant.

The talks were given by professionals, professors, graduate students, and many undergraduates whom had never spoken to such a large crowd about their work. There was even a surprise visit by citizen scientists Arushi Nath, 8, and her brother Artash, 11. Arushi spoke about her model Canad-arm, a robotic arm used on the Space Shuttle orbiter to deploy and capture payloads. Arushi recently was recognized in the Space Apps Challenge put on by the Canadian Space Agency with her recreation of the Canada 150 logo using RADARSAT-2 images of the country.

The panels were the meat of the conference and focused on crucial social issues such as outreach, LGBTQ+ issues in STEM, women of color in STEM, harassment in STEM, and nonacademic career options. During the LGBTQ+ panel, speakers explored the assumption that your personal identity is not supposed to affect your work as a scientist, but it always will; therefore scientists should strive to make room for personal diversity and embrace it in their institutions. In the harassment panel, the panelists addressed the four different types of harassment one can experience, which break down to earnest, hostile, paternalistic, and competitive. Paternalistic harassment gives a name to the situation where a young woman is treated less than capable by the harasser, who assumes they know best for the person. This harassment is difficult to address, as the harasser believes they are behaving benevolently. The panelists gave advice about addressing this harassment by hosting a social climate survey, creating a safe space for those who feel discriminated to speak their mind, or simply addressing the perpetrator one-on-one about his or her behavior.

This conference was educational, inclusive, and well balanced between scientific talks and panels. While the panelists shared their personal stories, the presenters shared current research results. By incorporating both the personal and professional into just one venue, WPSE has opened the doors to a more inclusive STEM environment in the future. This conference is planned to be hosted yearly, with the next one occurring in spring 2019 at Arizona State University.