National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Meet Dr. Jessica Watkins – the 7th female scientist featured in our Women Doing Science blog series!
Bachelor of Science, Geological and Environmental Sciences
Jessica Watkins was selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. Watkins reported for duty in August 2017 and completed two years of training as an astronaut candidate. The Colorado native earned a Bachelor of Science in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University and a Doctorate in Geology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Watkins conducted her graduate research on the emplacement mechanisms of large landslides on Mars and Earth. She has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was a science team collaborator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. Watkins served as a mission specialist on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station, which concluded on October 14, 2022. From Colorado to space, she has taken several different paths to meet her goals. Her main piece of advice for budding young scientists? Get out of you own way and allow yourself to dive in to what you are passionate about and not feel tied to external expectations!
INTERVIEWEE: Dr. Jessica Watkins
INTERVIEWER: Anna Banda
BANDA: Welcome to our Azura blog series. My name is Anna Banda, and I am with Azura Consulting here in Dallas, Texas. We have a Women in Science Blog Series where we invite female scientists to come talk about their experiences. And, today, we have Dr. Jessica Watkins who is our seventh interview for this series. So, welcome! Thank you for joining us. So, first, if you just want to kind of tell us all about you, your job title, and some highlights of what that entails.
WATKINS: Sure, absolutely. So, my name is Jessica Watkins, and I am a NASA astronaut. I recently flew to the International Space Station, spent 6 months onboard with my crewmates. I’m part of NASA’s SpaceX crew 4 mission as a mission specialist, and, we flew up on a dragon, Dragon Freedom, went up to the ISS where we lived and worked for 6 months, largely working on science as well as helping to maintain the station.
BANDA: Wonderful. That’s so exciting! When did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
WATKINS: From a pretty young age, I first voiced that I wanted to be an astronaut as soon as I learned that was a real thing that you could do, something you could go to space for your career. I was definitely excited by that idea. I was pretty young, I think about 9, when I voiced interest and really have just been lucky to be able to follow a path that lead me here. It has certainly had twists and turns along the way and certainly did not looking like the path that I thought it would and honestly did not have the ending I expected which is being able to sit in this seat and do the mission that we just completed.
BANDA: Wonderful. I know life has a way of throwing us curveballs and changing our path.So, Jessica, how do you maintain a work/life balance? Or do you? Or do you struggle like the rest of us?
WATKINS: We are certainly human, and I think a work/life balance is definitely something that we have to be intentional about just like anybody else. I think for us and for our careers, it really ends up ebbing and flowing. There are times where, you know, there is a bit more of a surge and that balance tips more towards one side but I think overall, in this job and this role, that we are able to maintain somewhat of a balance, at least over time, not necessarily at any given one snapshot in time, particularly, for example, in preparation for and during a mission, those are definitely times where things are pretty busy and prioritizing families definitely a bit more of an effort, but then when we return so now in this post-flight time period, we are able to more heavily balance our family and being able to prioritize that, kind of get back up to speed with everything that is happening here on the ground. Again, I think over that time period, it really ends balancing out, but we are really lucky that here at NASA that work/life balance and family is a priority and there is an understanding that that really is what enables us to be successful. You know, having those support systems in place that self and team care that comes with that work/life balance piece of it is really what allows us to be able to do the other aspects of our job. So, we are really lucky to work in a place that really understands that and works together with us to try to strive toward that balance.
BANDA: Very important to have a company that supports you. So, what’s one thing you wish you had known when you first started working, just right out of college? One good thing you would love share to help other people in the same situation?
WATKINS: Yea, you know, I think for me, really kind of in college throughout that process and you know starting to work after college, I kind of I discovered through the process but what would have been easier to know from the beginning is that there is really particularly for this role, there is no one pathway of getting here. I think I had an idea in my mind of, you know, what exactly those steps were to get to this place, but ultimately, what ended up being more important and I think is most important for anybody trying to set goals and achieve them is really to find what you are passionate about and then to pursue that and in that pursuit I think is where the success actually lies. It is in that process of doing something that you love that you are really able to excel in the first place as well as of course enjoy it along the way. And so, I think understanding that process and that piece of it is really I think what enables success in your job, both in the traditional sense of achieving the dream, but also in the sense of really achieving that fulfillment and enjoyment in your passion.
BANDA: Completely agree. What is a challenge that you’ve had to overcome either in work or your personal life?
WATKINS: I think for me some of the challenge was tied up in what I was just talking about and really understanding that, you know, I did not have to kind of follow a direct path to get to where I wanted to go. I started out going into college as a mechanical engineer, largely because, again, thought that’s what I had to do in order to keep the door open for this job in order to be an astronaut. So, I went to college and started to pursue that, but really found that I didn’t enjoy it. It really just wasn’t what I was passionate about, and even wasn’t particularly that great at. It is not where my skill set was, and so, that process of understanding, okay, do I continue to pursue this path that I think will lead to where I want to go and I think is the only way to get there or do I find something that I really enjoy and kind of hope for the best. And it was kind of at that crossroads of choosing a path of passion that really unlocked the door for me to pursue my dreams in a way that I never expected. So, really, to answer your question, it is really about getting out of your own way and just you know allowing yourself to really dive into what you are passionate about and not feel tied to expectations that are put on you externally.
BANDA: So, what’s one of your more favorite memories of your career? I mean, I would think going to space is probably the top one.
WATKINS: Yes, going to space is pretty high up there – It is a little bit tough to beat and it is, of course, the most recent as well. That was just an amazing experience that I am so lucky and grateful to have the opportunity to experience. The other thing that comes to mind though is getting to work on the Curiosity rover, the Mars rover, that is exploring Gale Crater, being able to be a part of that team, scientists and engineers working hand in hand every day to really make decisions about where the rover was going to explore next, what instrumentation we were going to use there, and then receiving that data down from the rover the next day and being able to interpret it and start to make scientific discoveries. Just that process of this kind of daily working together to accomplish what is truly remarkable, you know, controlling a robotic device on the surface of another planet in order to understand the geology of the surface – that was pretty amazing as well. So, I’ve been lucky to have lots of amazing experiences in my scientific career. That’s for sure.
BANDA: I love hearing about that! Have you ever experienced any gender-related challenges when it comes to your career?
WATKINS: You know, I think the biggest challenge for me in terms of the gender piece of it as well as the race piece, I think, has really fallen in the bucket of mentors, and really, I’ve had the pleasure of having many amazing mentors, but really having role models that are in positions that I’ve strived to be in and contributing in ways that I aspire to contribute. I think we just have a more limited pool of people that look like us or have our experiences and background being women and then for people of color as well. And so, I think that for me is where a lot of that limitation is just a kind of perception limitation almost more than anything of understanding where is that ceiling for me, what am I really capable of, and what can I do. And then of course, how do I get there as well. And having those examples of those pathways of how to get there. I certainly had those and am grateful for, you know, those that I did have, but I think there certainly is a limitation there that hopefully we can make progress on expanding.
BANDA: Yes, that’s one reason we started this blog so that we could, you know, bring these issues out in the open and get more transparency on it. So, thank you for sharing that. So, we have one final question. What advice would you give women, especially young girls, wishing to pursue a career similar to yours or one in the sciences in general?
WATKINS: Yeah, the advice I would definitely give based on my experience is to dream big. You know, I think it is tied to what we were just talking about but, you know, not to feel limited by expectations or possibilities, but really to find something that you are passion about, pursue that, and continue to pursue it relentlessly. Don’t take no for an answer, and just believe that you really can achieve what you set out do because you definitely can.
BANDA: Great! Great advice. Well, that is all the questions I have. Do you have anything you’d like to add or share before we conclude?
WATKINS: No, I don’t think so. I’m super grateful for your time and what you are doing. It is super important, as you said, as an exposure piece and being able to expose people to all the different possibilities, all the different pathways, and ways that women in STEM can contribute. We are super excited about the future. We are super excited to see what we all accomplish together.
BANDA: Me, too! Well, thank you, and I appreciate you carving out the time to chat with us today and spread your knowledge and your advice and your experiences, so, Jessica, thank you very much for your time.
WATKINS: Thank you so much!