The Space Court Foundation created the Interview Series, an initiative hosted by Nivedita Raju to amplify voices of minority communities, starting with Women of Colour.
For this episode, Dr. Ale Pacini, a Space Physicist talks about her career in space physics, her experience as a UN Space4Women Mentor and her work in the Girl in Space Series. She also talks about the obstacles that have stood in her way and the challenges she has had to overcome as a woman in STEM.
Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 2 of Space Court Foundation’s Interview Series for Women of Colour in space.
I am Niveda Raju, Director of Legal Affairs and Research at Space Court. At the Foundation, we firmly believe in the benefit of outer space for all of humankind, so each episode of this series will feature a different speaker, highlighting their experience in the international space sector, as a woman of colour. This week, we are excited to interview Alessandra (Ale) Pacini. Alessandra is a brazilian-born american space physicist. Welcome Alessandra! Please, tell us what inspired you to choose a career in space physics?
Well, when I was a teenager, I saw the movie Contact and that was really a turning point to me! I had read the book before, but I didn’t really picture the woman in that place, in the scientific role, researching radio telescopes. When I saw the video and Jodi Foster there, using Arecibo, and using VLA [the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array], that was really the moment that I decided I really want to be a scientist.
Amazing! And what does your ongoing research focus on?
I didn’t go to astronomy like Jodi Foster in the movie. In Brazil, we have a grad school. The title is ‘Space Geophysics’, because it also includes aspects of the earth and geophysics into the course. I started my science career doing solar physics, using radio telescopes, studying the solar flares and their start. Then, I started coming to the earth and then, i started trying to understand the impact of the solar activity into the Earth’s atmosphere.
I started by the upper atmosphere and then, I went down to the troposphere trying to understand the solar impacts on the climate. Then, I came back to the upper atmosphere and then, I did a second PhD in solar modulation of cosmic rays, which is also a space physics field, but it is more towards cosmic rays. So now, I do research in all these aspects. We call that ‘heliophysics’ because it is everything that happens inside the heliosphere which is where the sun dominates around this. It is much bigger than the solar system, it is everything around the sun. That is what really matters to me, and the impacts on Earth.
That’s fascinating! And outer space is such a unique environment, which is also why so many questions are constantly emerging. It’s wonderful to see you as a leader in your field! When you began teaching space physics in Brazil, what problems did you identify in terms of young girls and women who are learning about this subject?
We are still a minority in these field, right? As a grad student, I was the only girl in my class, when we started Master’s degree. I actually didn’t recognize that as a problem at that time. After I became a teacher, then I started realizing that really makes the girls uncomfortable sometimes. They don’t feel so confident about the topics, even though we all come from the physics course, but even in physics we usually are minorities too. So those things really stop us from growing and exploring the full potential.
After I graduated, I felt the difference between me and my colleagues in terms of impacts on the career, about family decisions, you know, maternity and how that impacts our CV. Also, I feel now, living in the US, the group here the science game here is really aggressive. You gotta put yourself out there, you gotta “sell your fish” [vender seu peixe], like we say in Brazil, you gotta make your market, you gotta connect to the program managers. Those things to me are very hard to do, because I don’t feel good enough to go, sometimes, I don’t even apply. You know, those things we read in these studies about why we have the ‘scissor effect’ for example. In the academic fields, this is really true here and I can feel by my own experience it is really impactful.
Yes of course! And I think transforming that culture is a long process but people who do work like yours are changing that, one step at a time. Can you share a bit more about your experience as a UN Space4Women Mentor and your work in the Girls in Space Series?
So I got involved with these United Nations discussion about gender equality in science when I first presented the project of the Girls in Space books to this conference. I presented my books, and they loved it! And we started having this conversation about the power of these books and the potential that we could explore, you know, using that to helping close the gender gap in science, and helping closing when it’s starting, which is around 10 years old. That is when the girls got completely disengaged from science topics and STEM and they feel uncomfortable and they start feeling boys are more capable to do it.
These books is a series of books that I wrote to introduce some topics about Earth and space science to the girls and it started as one book and then became a series of books. Now, we have other activities around. Last year, in 2020, they launched the Space4Women Network, and because I was working with them for some years already, like participating in the meetings and talking about these topics, I was one of the selected mentors. Inside this initiative, I ran some activities to support the Space4Women program, one was a capacity building for teachers. We trained some teachers in Brazil to teach those topics, because the topics of space and science are part of the curriculum now, because I think the country recognizes the power of the space sector and how important it is for us to be part of it. This week, we launched our satellite with the help of India, so that was very cool! You know, this is important for us to take over and be really leaders on this, on the segment. So it is part of the curriculum, but the teachers from the elementary schools and middle schools in Brazil come from biology so they don’t have much training on those topics to really explore and inspire the kids. So we used the books to help the teachers in Brazil. That was a great experience! I teamed up with friends, science teachers and astrophysicists, and we created this course, that was very cool! We call Girls in Space in the schools.
Then, this month, we are launching the girls in space book clubs. It is a book club for girls. I am going to host the meetings and we are going to discuss not only these stories but also the science topics. That is an informal way to bring these topics in this moment of pandemic that nobody can really socialize, so you make a group of girls who love books, love space and then, you bring science! A scientist talk to them. So I hope that can inspire them to pursue those careers as well.
That’s so heartwarming! And what a brilliant idea! Thank you so much for sharing that with us! Moving to a difficult subject, you mentioned that your own experience has been extremely negative at times and you have battled harassment and toxic work culture. As someone who experienced this kind of behavior in the workplace, how did you overcome that?
I faced some problems later in my career. As a grad student, I never really had any big issue related to gender to overcome. But when I became a scientist, I faced some little problems, really uncomfortable things in the lab, you know, related to the division of tasks, for example, in a project. The boss that thought that the women in the lab should just do the administrative part of the project, while the guys were doing the science. So these kind of uncomfortable things we can overcome by fighting and speaking up sometimes. I didn’t have the maturity enough at the time to realize how to act and actually act, so I was just angry and holding that inside me, and I didn’t speak up. That was a mistake that I started fixing with the years, so the real problem I faced was when I started working as a scientist in the Arecibo Observatory, which was this radio telescope, a thousand feet, 305 meters dish, in Puerto Rico. It is already on an island, it is already isolated, it is in the middle of the mountains. You had 100 people working there, so it is a kind of a little bubble, and when I got there, they were having some problems with the administration, and I started fighting against the administration because I saw most of the women in the group crying on the floors, the post-docs really non-motivated, my colleagues really oppressed. We didn’t have any voice to speak and even things like I propose an experiment people didn’t really want to take seriously, and they were consulting other male astronomers to see if it makes sense. so things that were like so toxic. And I started fighting that, in a way that nobody want to be honest, because I was just directly addressing the problems, while I should have been finding a way to grow inside, grow enough to be in a position to fix it. I didn’t have the stomach and I didn’t have the maturity, I think, to do it. It was a relationship that was really mixed with emotions and the passions that I had for the place and for the people there, that became my family.
So I got an advice from an experienced astronomer who was actually the inspiration of Carl Sagan to write this story, Contact, and that inspired me! So Dr. Jill Tarter. I told her my problems and she said she faced big problems when she started working there and working in observatories in general, because she always was the only woman in the group. She told me: “you gotta find a way to keep going and go around. Sometimes, you cannot fix the issue directly, at the moment, but you gotta keep going and go around, and when you are further ahead, you can look back and fix it.” She told me that, but I was not able to do it myself so I really started to trying to fight the problem there, and trying to fix it, and i couldn’t. I couldn’t really help the group. Now I see the impact it had in my career you know, because when you are exposed to a toxic environment and you cannot really either fix or leave, what happens to you is that your self-esteem, your academic self-esteem, your confidence in your work, everything is impacted. It is really hard to me. I left the island, so now, I am spending more time in Colorado than in Puerto Rico. I still have my house there, but i just found another group, I came outside. But I am still getting troubles to work on my data that I collected there, to come back, I put all the pain in a box and I put away because I couldn’t deal better with that. So so other women facing problems out there, what I can say is: be conscious about the impacts that the situation can cause in your career, in your life, and try to move on as fast as you can. If you don’t see any help from the institution, try to find another other place to go, until you grow enough to come back and fix it. We need help! The problem we have in academia is that we don’t have many women in leadership positions so we don’t have anybody to hold our hand to understand our problems.
The institutions are protecting themselves, they are not really protecting the group. So you know, even though you can open an HR process, you can start a complaint into discrimination but, really if you can prove sexual harassment, maybe you have a way to go through, but if it is not sexual harassment, it is gender discrimination or something you can’t prove, because it is really your word against another, your boss for instance. So this kind of things the institutions are not prepared to deal with, that is how I feel. You know, talking to other women in the field and other institutions, we see the same problem everywhere. So I think we still we gotta understand that the science game was made by men to men and the system is trying to keep that the way it was prepared. By having women bringing diversity to the table, not only women but diversity in general, you need to change the rules because those rules are not good for everybody.
Institutions are not really willing to do that, not all institutions are willing to do that in a proactive way. So you gotta unite, you gotta try to find help from others, you gotta go ahead of them, above them to try to fix from the top. It is hard to fix from the bottom and especially if you are not feeling included and if you are not feeling belonging, and you are feeling alone. Try to talk around, talk about that with other women and feel that you are not alone. Talk to mentors, that is the importance of mentoring: you talk to more senior women or even women in the same level of you in the institution that can help you feeling that you are not alone. I think this is very important.
Thank you for talking about such a difficult experience. I imagine how challenging it must have been for you to go through all of this. I think your advice about an ultimate goal being more women in leadership positions, that makes a lot of sense. I hope that we are all going to work towards a future that has more of us in these positions of power.
My final question to you is: what advice do you have for women in Brazil and in Latin America who want to pursue your profession?
In Brazil, I have more experience about the paths you can take. Figuring out a good university that has a consistent program for engineer or physics or science in general, and already during the undergrad start a network. For science and for technology and innovation, you’ve got to be connected and you’ve got to understand also that everything is about collaboration and there is no borders. Be ready to be traveling around, to talk to people in other countries, study english because that is important – even though I am trying not to be ashamed of my accent and things because we are non-native speaker – sometimes that can put you a little shy to speak up but don’t feel shy, because we are a community, very international, and most of us, I think the majority of us is not native English speaking. It is not a problem. You just need to be out, to be visible and start connecting. During the undergrad course, I always suggest people to look around, try to do some internship here and there and try the waters, experience different groups and how they work in different fields, because that is the moment for you to figure out really what fits in your life and what you are passionate about. Then, for grad school, you can already have connections with people who already know you. Put work in conference and start going there. Now we have the situation about the COVID so we are all connected through Zoom and through the Internet, so I think this is a great opportunity for people to be able to connect with scientists and engineers, and people from different countries at this moment. Talk about your career and listen to what they have to say. I think networking is the key in this in this career, you can do all the rest yourself, you can study, you can figure out a great group. Nowadays, data is also open. Most part of the space data is open access so you can actually work on your lab having the tools from your institution, but you don’t need to be in the center that collect the data. This is a very good step towards really sharing the benefits of space. We all can use everybody’s data and this is important. It is important for you to bring your unique angle to the problem and bring your needs, your country’s needs and also represent that on the space sector.
I am sure your advice will inspire many more to follow in your footsteps! Thank you Alessandra, it was wonderful speaking with you today!