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#STEMStories: Monica, Astrobiologist, Policy & Ethics Specialist, USA

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

Hi! My name is Monica Vidaurri, and I am an astrobiologist and policy and ethics specialist.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

It was an incredibly roundabout way to arrive here! I have always been fascinated with astrobiology (even before I knew the word for it!) and space science. However, as I grew up, I realized that there were issues with science that I wanted to fix. I realized that 1. there has to be someone representing and advocating for science in the policy world, and 2. there has to be changes to the internal politics of science that make it more inclusive, ethical, and accessible; science is not very kind to kids that grew up like I did, and it can even do great harm. So, I double-majored in biology and government and international politics, with a concentration in law, philosophy, and governance.

About halfway into my bachelor’s studies at the University of North Texas, I accepted an internship position at the United States Senate as part of a DC intern experience program. This was for the policy side of my degree path. I absolutely loved it! In fact, I enjoyed my time in DC so much that I decided to stay there. That internship experience allowed me to take advantage of many different contract/consulting positions: Mentor Foundation USA, the American Chemical Society, various government agencies and another branch of government. I did all sorts of jobs from administrative things, to science and science policy, to defense and ethics. I eventually landed at NASA, where I was finally able to combine my science and policy sides. It’s been a dream come true.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

The people I do this with, the people I do this for, and the people that got me here. Not in the sense that I’ll let them down if I don’t continue, because that’s stressful. But I think about them in the sense that they want me to succeed, and that they’ve got my back/motivate me every step of the way.

But I honestly love my jobs, as it combines my two passions. So sometimes what motivates me is the things I get to do on a daily basis!

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

I like to think about the grandness of the universe during tough times. Not just in the sense that the Earth is just a small speck of dust, and that my problems are infinitely tiny in the grand scale of things, but I think it’s important to remember how lucky it is to be human.
We are made of the same things stars are made of. And all these processes that we study – from supernova to galaxy formation to solar systems forming – had been going on for billions of years before we came about. They all came together in the way they did, our planet formed the way it did, and everything came about just at the right moment and the right place so that we can live. We’re walking stardust, and even though our human timescale is insignificant compared to that of the universe, the fact that we were able to steal a fleeting moment to observe the awesome universe we exist in is probably the greatest privilege I can think of. What a privilege it is to be human, and to share this perfect little planet with other walking stardust!

It’s not really the fact that our world and our problems are so small that we shouldn’t care. It’s that we are alive, despite all the odds, to see all of this, to try to understand this great universe, and to spend this incredibly short time with one another; walking evidence of the grandeur of the universe.

Light carries on into the vastness of the universe forever. You might have heard that when you look up at the night sky, those stars may be dead. But how wonderful it is that that star’s light, and its story, will continue for eternity. That means our light will continue forever, as well. And if some other civilization is able to see our light, and see our stories, I wouldn’t want them to see me feeling down on things that will pass! I would want to tell the best story that I possibly can.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have lots of role models! Lots of people whose pages I want to steal from their book, so to speak. Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina in space (also a musician like me!) who is resilient and level-headed, my advisor who is so selfless and empathetic, my students who are always curious and excited about life no matter what, Carl Sagan and his ability to see the best in humans, and many, many others.

But while it is important to model the aspects of the people you look up to the most, it’s also important to remember that you are not a copy. I don’t aspire to be the next Carl Sagan or the mini version of my advisor – I want to be the first Monica Vidaurri! But I want to learn from the people I look up to, and make it a part of who I am. My role models are people who model characteristics I want to embody.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

I would tell her that it’s going to get so, so much better. That she is going to grow up into the person she needed all her life. I would tell her that her dreams aren’t “too much” – that someday she’s going to find a job that lets her pursue all of them. That everything she’s feeling right now, and all those dark spots after dark spots are going to be outshined thousands of times over; she just has to be patient.

But honestly – I think my younger self already kinda knew these things deep down. That’s why I’m here now, after all! So I would tell her to hang on to that: the idea that she is clinging to that everything is going to be alright, that she will find a family in an exciting new place, and that she is going to make it no matter what. I would tell her to keep looking to the stars for comfort; one day, she will find a purpose amongst them.

I’d then advise her against wearing those bright-colored plaid bermuda shorts that were so popular in the 2000s. What the heck was that? Then I’d tell her to stop straightening her hair every day because her curls are going to turn out really beautiful if she takes care of them!

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  1. Be soft. Be kind and empathetic in a cutthroat field that has created this culture of working insane hours, getting to an idea first, and racking up as many accomplishments and papers as early as possible. To continue to wear your heart on your sleeve, to love and look out for others despite this, is to be soft. To fully understand the scariness of the world and to still be kind is to be truly strong. And practicing kindness and collaboration will get rid of these outdated principles. Be the one to lead that change. Be the light.
  2. Stand up for yourself, and stand up for others. If you notice people are being talked over, call it out. If you feel like your grade was unfair (sometimes teachers make mistakes!), challenge it. Systems, institutions, and rules are meant to be changed – take the lead. Other people will for sure feel the same way you do. Raise hell always!
  3. Never, ever doubt your abilities. Imposter syndrome affects us all, and it is perfectly normal to feel inadequate. Recognize these feelings, but never give in to them. If you feel like you don’t know as much about a subject as you should, think back to all the accomplishments you’ve made in that subject. Teach something from your field or your subject to someone else to prove how much you know! I promise, you are right where you need to be. You are stronger than you seem and smarter than you know. I guarantee it.

8. How do you measure your success?

I don’t!

Well, I do want to be successful in two ways: I want to leave my mark on the field of astrobiology, I want scientists to recognize the social enterprise that science is and pay more attention to ethics and policy, , and I want to make science and academia more accessible and inclusive. Those are all very broad and very ongoing things. But often what I’ve found in the STEM fields is that there can be an unnecessary amount of pressure on students and even senior researchers to publish a whole lot or be some sort of prodigal genius. The way I see it, if I go to work every day and am able to answer a few questions, leave with many more questions, and do at least one task that is paving the way for people of all backgrounds to do science and for science to be more ethical and just, then I am exactly where I need to be.

I do set goals for myself, and I think goal-setting is important: go to X, Y, and Z conferences, publish a paper, make a new collaboration, etc. And I make sure those goals challenge me. But I recognize success as something that I’m going to be building all my life, and as long as I’m on that track, I feel successful.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

I’m very early in my career so I haven’t published a lot yet, but keep an eye out on arXiv, which is where I post pre-prints of my work, and twitter, where I announce my projects!

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

Yes! My twitter is public. You can find me at @AstroTraviesa