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[SCIENCE] Wayne Lee - Part of NASA's "New Look"

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  • madchinaman
    A quantum leap Science s new generation is hardly the traditional straight-A, `pale and male type. It s a cultural shift in the making as crew cuts meet Game
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2004
      A quantum leap
      Science's new generation is hardly the traditional straight-A, `pale
      and male' type. It's a cultural shift in the making as crew cuts
      meet Game Boys and jazz musicians to take on the universe.
      By K.C. Cole, Times Staff Writer


      Her colleague Wayne Lee considers himself lucky to have a wife who
      bought him "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" for Valentine's Day. "On
      airplanes, I'm sitting there with my Game Boy, and these businessmen
      in their stuffy suits and their laptops, and they'll look at me
      like, 'So, are you going back to school?' And I say, 'No, I work for
      NASA.' "

      WAYNE LEE: Lead entry, descent and landing engineer.

      Lee, 35, was one year into a doctorate program at the University of
      Texas, Austin, when JPL offered him a job. "It was the equivalent of
      the guy who leaves college for the NBA draft." An avid sports fan,
      Lee says he would rather play video games than read books — even
      though he wrote "To Rise from Earth," a guide to space flight. Lee's
      wife also works at JPL; they have two children. When he told a
      faculty advisor that he might like to work on Mars missions someday,
      the message was clear: "Dream on, kid. People don't get to do that
      kind of work."


      In high school, Adam Steltzner got what he describes as a "great
      education. I learned how to meet girls, what drugs to take, where
      the best shows were." He failed most of sophomore and junior years
      and earned a 460 combined score on his SATs. For many years, he
      played bass in various bands, supporting his various habits by
      working in a health food store.

      Jamie Dyk tried out for the Laker Girls and "made it pretty far"
      before realizing that what with practice and appearances, she was
      going to have to choose between dancing and her day job. A
      cheerleader throughout high school, Dyk was raised in "a Christian
      home" in rural Montana and believes strongly that people
      were "brought here to give back to society."

      On weekends, Kobie Boykins rides his motorcycle through the canyons
      with friends. "I like speed," said Boykins, who plays competitive
      ice hockey twice a week. It's a big change from his boyhood in
      Nebraska, where he grew up around lumbering farm equipment. Boykins
      sometimes "lightens the tension" at work by telling racial jokes. "I
      can get away with it," he said, "because I have a lot of African
      American in me."

      A self-confessed tomboy, Shonte Wright wears her hair in long
      minibraids and plays basketball seven to nine hours a week. She
      describes her current work environment as "hilarious. You should see
      what people wear! We always look like we're going out to play."

      Her colleague Wayne Lee considers himself lucky to have a wife who
      bought him "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" for Valentine's Day. "On
      airplanes, I'm sitting there with my Game Boy, and these businessmen
      in their stuffy suits and their laptops, and they'll look at me
      like, 'So, are you going back to school?' And I say, 'No, I work for
      NASA.' "

      If you watched the landings of the Mars rovers Spirit and
      Opportunity on television, you will remember Lee as the man in
      charge — the one in the American flag shirt who brought out the
      broom after his team made a two-for-two "clean sweep." Steltzner —
      who now has a doctorate degree and a baby at home — headed the team
      that designed the entry, descent and landing systems. Boykins led
      the team that designed the mechanism to operate the solar panels and
      Wright helped design the thermal systems that keep the rovers warm.
      Dyk was in charge of testing the landing systems during development.

      "At heart, I'm a space geek who wants to put hardware on the surface
      of Mars," the would-be Laker Girl said.

      If the images coming back from Mars looked an awful lot like
      Arizona, there was nothing familiar about the exuberant young
      engineers whooping it up in the control room of the Jet Propulsion
      Laboratory in Pasadena — talking on cellphones, cracking jokes,
      wearing funny T-shirts. (Lee even took a call from his baby-sitting
      father, who wanted to know how to tune in to NASA TV.)

      Gone are the days when space geeks were (only) poker-faced pocket-
      protector guys with narrow ties and crew cuts. The rocket scientists
      at the JPL are surfer dudes, sky divers, rock climbers —
      even "Survivor" survivors. Far from the seemingly bloodless clones
      of the Apollo era, the young faces on the screen were as sunny, as
      animated, as varied, as So Cal itself.

      The free-to-be-me atmosphere that's creating such a sense of
      excitement at JPL these days does not, obviously, extend to all
      scientific institutions — or even to JPL at all times in its history.

      Yet it is hardly isolated. Parts of the physics community, for
      example, also seem to be amid an extreme geek makeover.


      Both physics and engineering are still largely "pale and male,"
      populated by straight-A, straight-arrow students who take the
      standard, well-trod road. But exceptions are also increasingly
      visible — and with the U.S. facing a critical shortage of scientific
      talent, they may be what saves the scientific community from itself.

      Harvard professor Lisa Randall, who's played a major role in the
      study of extra dimensions, gives talks wearing low-slung trousers,
      makeup, jewelry. At some point, she said, she realized that no
      matter how hard she worked to fit the reigning mold of "physicist,"
      she was always going to be different. "It's not like they're going
      to be fooled," she said. So she decided not to try. (She is also an
      accomplished rock climber.)

      Stanford post-doctoral student Stephon Alexander, who applies higher-
      dimensional physics to cosmology, had been advised to cut his hair,
      but he liked his long dreads just the way they were. "There are lots
      of women and blacks and Latinos who want to be invisible, and I
      ain't one of those," he said, laughing. "I'm sorry. I'm hip. People
      look at the music industry, or basketball, and say: 'That's cool.'
      Well, what I do is cool too."

      Lourdes Maurice, an engineer with the FAA, said she spent most of
      her career trying to blend in, then realized that "as a rare
      minority — a Latina engineer — I have an important role to play" as
      a role model. JoAnne Hewitt, a theoretical physicist at the Stanford
      Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), said she used to pull her long,
      strawberry-blond hair back in a tight braid. "Now, I don't bother,"
      she said. Hewitt's colleague Pat Burchat — a lead experimentalist —
      went ahead and had two children very young in her career, even
      though people advised her not to.

      Of course, science was neither as nerdy nor as monolithic as the
      media made it seem. Einstein and his ilk were an adventurous lot;
      physics has always had its share of jocks; minorities and women have
      long made important contributions.

      But the image has persisted even in the face of contrary evidence.
      Helen Quinn, a SLAC physicist and current president of the American
      Physical Society, nursed two babies in the backs of lecture
      halls. "I wore short skirts and had long, blond hair," she
      said. "People would say: 'You don't look like a physicist.' Well,
      what did they want me to do, grow a beard?"

      What may seem like essentially a cosmetic change turns out to be
      central to the scientific future of our country. Images shape how
      people see themselves and therefore how they choose
      careers. "Students are turned off because they think we're all these
      weird geeky 'Star Trek' types," said Wright, who spends time with
      kids trying to change these stereotypes.

      And with the U.S. facing an unprecedented shortage of physical
      scientists, it's no longer possible to ignore what physicist Shirley
      Ann Jackson, president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of
      Science (AAAS), calls the "underrepresented majority": women,
      African Americans and Latinos as well as nontraditional white
      males. "Who will be the next generation of scientists and
      engineers?" she asked. "How can we even discuss preparing for human
      exploration to the moon and Mars without discussing who will do the
      science to get us there?"

      For now, it's a "silent crisis," she said, but conditions are
      brewing that will seriously compromise everything from homeland
      security to the country's ability to compete in global markets.
      Preventing those possibilities will involve a lot of things,
      including outreach, mentoring and more financial support for
      students. But "overall image is critical."


      On the surface, physics and engineering do seem to be showing a new
      face to the world. Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic
      Institute and the first African American woman physicist to graduate
      from MIT, in addition to heading the AAAS — the country's largest
      general organization of scientists. The entire leadership of the
      American Physical Society is women. "Given that in 100 years, the
      APS has had only two women presidents, this is quite a remarkable
      situation," said Quinn, who was recently elected to the prestigious
      National Academy of Sciences as part of the largest cohort of women

      For the first time, the heads of most top engineering organizations
      are women. For the first time, the director of the world's largest
      single dish radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is a Puerto
      Rican. For the first time, 60% of young astronomers are women, and
      the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena has its first female
      director, Wendy Freedman.

      In some ways, however, appearances are deceiving. The percentage of
      female PhDs in physical science still hovers around 10%; the
      percentage of blacks and Latinos ranges between 1% and 2%. "There's
      still probably only 30 black women with physics PhDs in the whole
      country," said Arlene Maclin, an African American professor of
      engineering at Norfolk State University in Virginia. "But it's not
      just minorities. Whether they're black, brown, yellow, green,
      Americans just aren't going into physics."

      In fact, many scientists say these nontraditional groups are only
      the canaries warning of generally perilous conditions. "The things
      that keep women and minorities out keep white males out," said
      Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources at
      AAAS. "White American males aren't exactly beating a path to
      science's door either."

      Those "things" include a host of real and perceived "yuck" factors
      that put physical science in the "not-for-me category" for the vast
      majority of people: There's the nerdy stereotype, the pressure to
      conform; the belief that science is too hard (or you're too dumb);
      that your colleagues won't be fun, or friendly; that you can't make
      decent money.

      Miners brought canaries into the mines because their small bodies
      and fast metabolisms meant they reacted fast to unhealthy
      conditions — allowing miners to escape. Because women and minorities
      are also small in number, they tend to do the same.

      A recent study to determine why large numbers of women were leaving
      the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages
      the Hubble, found that "an extremely competitive, aggressive
      environment" was undermining morale not only among women, but among
      men. The women were merely more vulnerable, the report concluded,
      because their small numbers meant they lacked support.

      "The nerd image is, you just put up with hostile environments,"
      Quinn said.

      Image plays a major role in making science seem like hostile
      territory. "I have many friends from my neighborhood who are either
      in prison or dead," Alexander said. "I had the good fortune that
      physics was something I was really good at." But while his family
      was encouraging, social expectations for black men were not. "The
      message was: It's not your place to be academic; go be a basketball

      Lee almost didn't go into engineering because of the images he saw
      of NASA's mission control in the 1960s. "It was a lot of nerdy-
      looking white guys with crew cuts. I grew up thinking the average
      person doesn't get to do that."

      In fact, when Lee first went to work at the Kennedy Space Center in
      the early '90s, one of his managers told him he'd never make it at
      NASA if he didn't wear a coat and tie. On Dyk's first day at JPL, a
      female colleague told her she should learn to be one of the guys and
      never wear a dress.

      Good scientists tend to have a healthy disrespect for authority: Dyk
      wore a dress the next day. As for Lee, he still doesn't own a suit
      or know how to tie a tie.

      One reason JPL's young engineers love their jobs, they said, was
      that they can look and be as they wish so long as they do their
      jobs. "What the cameras didn't show," said Lee, grinning, "is in the
      control room, when I'm not doing anything, I'm sitting there with my
      little Game Boy. Click, click, click, click."

      After the second rover landed safely, Lee's team was so excited they
      poured out of the control room onto JPL's streets, pounded on the
      windows of buses carrying dignitaries and crashed the press
      conference to whoops and cheers. "Two security guards were no
      match," Lee said, citing his experience storming football fields
      after games at Cal. "We just pushed them aside."

      The freedom to stay in your own skin produces more than warm
      feelings. A sense of comfort leaves people free to let creative
      juices flow. "We had one of the highest-functioning teams in the
      history of the lab," Steltzner said, "and one of the strengths of
      the team was an environment where it was safe to bring our passions.
      There was no guarding, there was no card playing. You might be able
      to do what we do in a stodgy, stifling, environment, but I don't
      think so."

      Randall decided to stop trying to fit the mold of theoretical
      physicist in large part because it detracted from her work. "The
      fact is, it's easier to be who you are," she said. Or as Alexander
      put it, "You can't be a creative thinker if you can't be yourself."
      A jazz sax player, he sees strong connections between Einstein's
      curving of space and time and Coltrane's "bending those sheets of

      Cosmologist Ruth Gregory of the University of Durham, England,
      studies the early universe by imaging ways flat sheets of empty
      space-time might be stitched together like fabric to form seams,
      or "branes" (from membrane). "That's how I think of it, because I'm
      female," she said. "It's like sewing a shoulder. You make something
      which is curved out of cloth which is flat."

      As science becomes increasingly collaborative, other traditionally
      female skills are suddenly getting respect — for example, the
      ability to nurture young people, foster cooperation, work in teams.
      Aggressive, domineering personalities are no longer revered as they
      once were, Burchat said. "You don't have to imitate that stereotype.
      The ability to work with people is much more valued."

      Boykins goes them one better, combining his farm experience with his
      interest in jazz to solve engineering problems.

      "I say, 'OK, what would the jazz musician do? What if instead of
      running it in 4/4, for example, I run it in 5/6 or 3/2?' Then I
      say, 'Well, what would the farmer do? I strip everything down to the
      bare bones because I have to save every penny I can.' And then all
      that comes together to make a better product than any one approach
      could have."


      Given all these benefits to science, one has to wonder why the field
      isn't doing everything it can to bring new kinds of people into the
      fold. The obvious reason is that many senior scientists don't want
      to mess with a system that's worked.

      Those who do want to broaden the tent face formidable challenges —
      many of them closely related to the conventional image of science.
      For example, women and minorities have a lot less confidence than
      men at the same ability level. Physics departments see this lack of
      confidence and advise against pursuing careers.

      "Departments that are more open-minded about who might be a physics
      major," Quinn said, "will probably finish up with more female and
      minority physics majors."

      The problem is compounded by the dearth of well-known role
      models. "Physics isn't perceived as a black thing," said Stanford
      physicist Leonard Susskind. "So you start thinking: 'Maybe I am
      inferior, who knows?' It's the worst possible thing for a physicist.
      We all feel that way, but I can go back and see that the best
      physicists in the world are Jewish."

      The result, he said, is that physics loses minorities not because
      they don't have the necessary ability but because they may not think
      they do. "In the U.S., there's a self-fulfilling fear of failure."
      (Female and minority physicists have long been a part of the normal
      landscape in Europe, and so have an easier time there.)

      The pressure to be aggressively self-assured hurts white males as
      much as anyone. "A lot of sensitive, insecure men who could really
      benefit physics also drop out," said Kathryn Moler, a Stanford
      University physicist.

      Being one of a small minority makes matters worse because there's no
      social support. African Americans and Latinos usually find they are
      alone in a sea of white and Asian faces — whether they are in class,
      or on a college faculty.

      "In the United States, I can count on one hand the number of black
      theoreticians and universities," Alexander said. "How can we have
      more students if the professors aren't there?"

      Most of the black friends who took physics with him in college have
      since turned to business or law. "For the most part," Maclin
      said, "African Americans are going into programs and dropping out
      not because of academics but because of isolation."


      There is, of course, still a great deal of outright discrimination
      against those who don't look or play the expected part. Women do not
      get professorships, for example, in relation to their numbers in the
      pipeline. This is largely because of informal "old-boy networks" so
      central to academic hiring but also the natural unconscious tendency
      of people to feel most comfortable with those who mirror them.

      "It's very subtle," Quinn said. "But if you don't fit the pattern
      they are expecting, they don't have as good an opinion."

      It's not always so subtle, especially for minorities. Speaking of
      one top-ranking black physicist, Susskind said the best job offer he
      could get was at a midlevel Southern school.

      "He had to go to England," Susskind said. "It's unconscionable that
      we let him escape. And we say we're not racist!"

      As in all walks of life, image and reality in science play on each
      other in complex ways. Perhaps the most harmful image of all is the
      one that paints physics and engineering as stodgy, boring,
      conspicuously lacking in fun. Which seems strange, because most of
      the people who go into these fields say they feel enormously lucky
      and can't conceive doing anything else.

      "When I came here, I thought, 'This is eating candy,' " said
      Boykins, typically. "This is ambrosia. I love everything I do here."

      In fact, many scientists say that having fun is not just appealing,
      it's essential. "If you're not having fun," as Boykins put it, "you
      can't make good stuff."


      Meet the rocket scientists

      A former druggie, a Laker Girl wannabe and a Game Boy addict — some
      of the folks running the Mars rovers are not your grandma's NASA.

      WAYNE LEE: Lead entry, descent and landing engineer.

      Lee, 35, was one year into a doctorate program at the University of
      Texas, Austin, when JPL offered him a job. "It was the equivalent of
      the guy who leaves college for the NBA draft." An avid sports fan,
      Lee says he would rather play video games than read books — even
      though he wrote "To Rise from Earth," a guide to space flight. Lee's
      wife also works at JPL; they have two children. When he told a
      faculty advisor that he might like to work on Mars missions someday,
      the message was clear: "Dream on, kid. People don't get to do that
      kind of work."

      KOBIE BOYKINS: Led the team that designed the mechanism to operate
      the solar panels.

      Boykins, 29 and single, grew up in Nebraska and received his
      bachelor of science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in
      New York. As a child, he liked to take apart household appliances,
      including his mother's TV. "So she told me, 'Kobie, if you really
      want to do this, you're going to have to get better at it.' She
      bought me a remote-control car. It had a hundred pieces, and she
      figured it would take me a month. But I did it in two days. And
      she's like: 'Grrrrrrrrrr…. You don't know how much that stretched my
      pocket book!' "

      ADAM STELTZNER: Headed the team that designed the entry, descent and
      landing systems.

      Steltzner, 40, and a brand-new father, discovered science when he
      started noticing that a different set of stars graced the sky when
      he went to play a gig with his band than when he came home. He
      received a master of science degree from Caltech and a doctorate in
      engineering from the University of Wisconsin. "I was so turned on by
      the concept that I could understand my world; it just totally turned
      me around."

      SHONTE WRIGHT: Helped design the thermal systems that keep the
      rovers warm.

      Raised in Southern California, 29-year-old Wright was strongly
      influenced by her mother, who worked at Lockheed Martin. She went on
      school field trips to JPL, and by fifth grade knew she wanted to be
      an engineer; she started interning at the lab while in high school.
      Wright got her bachelor of science degree from North Carolina A&T
      while continuing to work at JPL. "I think it's the coolest of the
      coolest…. Everybody thought Orville and Wilbur were crazy, and a
      hundred years later, we're moving around on Mars."

      JAMIE DYK: In charge of testing the landing systems.

      A self-confessed "nerd," Dyk, 27, says she can't wait to go to work
      each day. "It's long hours, but I don't notice because it's so much
      fun." She grew up in a Dutch farming community near Bozeman, Mont.
      Dyk, whose boyfriend is working on his doctorate at Caltech, enjoys
      all forms of dance, plays piano and sax, and creates choreography
      for high schools; she considered a career in performing arts. "We're
      explorers by nature. We like to learn. And I can't imagine a better
      environment for doing that [than JPL]. They're really good at
      letting you show what you can do at a young age."

      — K.C. Cole
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