At just 26 years old, Sara Jennings has already led an inspiring life. She has worked with NASA, sent experiments into space, managed a multimillion-dollar science competition, and launched a nonprofit organization that is breaking new ground in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) education. I sat down with Sara to find out more about her achievements, challenges, and goals for the future.
I know that you have had a longstanding love of space, science and technology. Where did that come from?
It came from my dad hanging out with me at an early age and giving me a love of space and science. It started out with stargazing. When I was 11, I went to a “Stargazing for Everyone” program for my birthday. Shortly after that, my dad got me a telescope and I started doing stargazing every weekend.
When you went to college, what did you get your degree in and what were some of the student activities you participated in that helped you in your career?
I got my degree in Linguistics and Communications at the University of Arizona. While in college, I was part of SEDS – Students for the Exploration and Development of Space – the largest international student-led space organization. I joined that my first year and they were doing several cool projects. The first year I was there, they were running a conference called SpaceVision and I was part of a five-member team that planned that conference. Later, I got involved in other projects including a NASA microgravity flight experiment and some high-altitude balloon payloads. My start in the private space industry was from working with that organization.
It’s great to have that kind of experience in college and to have something to put on a résumé that may help in your job search after you graduate. Tell me about the jobs you’ve had since graduating and what you are doing now.
Shortly after college, I did some contracting work with some private space companies. From there, I got a job with XPRIZE, where I worked for three years designing the next set of multimillion-dollar challenges to help solve humanity’s grand challenges. I worked on things in the energy sector and prizes regarding energy storage and transportation.
Then I moved into operations and worked on the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE that just ended this year. That was a prize where teams were developing health devices that can be used by anyone who’s not a doctor. It can monitor five different vital signs as well as diagnose up to 15 different diseases. I got to spend time during the testing phase at the University of California San Diego and got to work on a consumer testing program where the devices were actually being tested on humans.
Now I am working at NASA Frontier Development Lab, where I am a facilitator for the eight-week accelerator program. We’re bringing together PhD students in machine learning and planetary sciences to work on problems in planetary defense, space weather and space resources.
You have been working in STEM disciplines that some might still consider male-dominated fields, although hopefully that is changing. Have you encountered any difficulties being a female in STEM and do you feel that the tide is turning? Is it easier now for women to break into those fields and to be recognized as experts?
I think that there are still challenges. I have encountered sexual harassment and being talked down to, mostly when I attend space conferences. Luckily, I have been able to work with really great people on all my projects. I do feel that women in STEM is becoming more of a transparent issue and people are starting to talk about it. After talking with some women who have been in the space industry longer than I have, it definitely seems like it is a much friendlier environment now. But you still have some people in some of the more senior leadership positions that are not as forward-thinking, so there are still some hurdles.
Are you hopeful that it is going to continue to improve for girls who are in middle school or high school now and dreaming of going into a STEM field -- especially with people like you who are currently doing some groundbreaking things, just as your predecessors made it easier for you?
I do think so and there are a lot of programs out there that are reaching out to young girls. That’s where The Science Line comes in. STEM isn’t just about bridges and robots. It also includes pretty much everything we consume and everything we wear. There are a lot of groups that are focused on bringing young girls into the conversation in a way that is directed towards them and maybe a little less intimidating than it has been in the past.
I am glad you brought up The Science Line, because that was going to be my next question. I am very intrigued by the fact that you formed a nonprofit in your 20s while working on your own career, but still found time to set up and run a nonprofit. Talk about The Science Line, where you’re at with it right now, and what the goals are.
The concept for The Science Line started last summer when one of my friends had this really cool dress that she made. It had lights on it and she programmed it herself. She is a PhD student at Arizona State University doing machine learning. I thought the dress was amazing and I wanted to make my own. When I started working on a dress like that, I realized there is no information that is readily available and accessible for individuals like me who might not be as advanced with programming, but want to get into wearable tech. Thinking about someone like my sister, who is 12 years old and would probably think this is cool, there are no educational kits for this either. That started the idea of putting together a nonprofit that would combine fashion with the educational side of smart materials and coding.
Everybody wears clothes, so fashion is something that is really accessible and it is easy for people to understand because it is very visual. I started looking at different brands and clothing companies and groups, and decided to run a fashion show and formed the nonprofit. Since then, we’ve been working on getting the nonprofit built out further and working on competitions. We have another show coming up in September at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in New Hampshire.
Another thing that we’ve worked on over the past six months is our ambassadors program, highlighting women in STEM fields who share their stories to inspire young girls. Two of the ambassadors work at Estée Lauder and have degrees in cosmetic engineering from the first such program in the US. We’re still building up the nonprofit, but have big plans for it in the future.
Do you ever get criticized for almost feeding into the stereotype that the way to get girls interested in STEM is talking about fashion and makeup? I am not saying that’s my opinion, but I am curious if you’ve heard that at all.
I don’t think we’re feeding into the idea that women have to look a certain way or do a certain thing to be a scientist. This is just another way to reach young girls. Some kids are interested in a robotics team, but not everybody, so this is another avenue. To be honest, there are chemists that make makeup and right now most of those are male. I’ve been doing research into fashion design and I talked to a woman whose mom works at Nordstrom, and they use CAD to do some of their fashion, which is the same thing you’d be using if you were designing a mechanical part for an engineering company, so there is a lot of overlap.
There is nothing that says if you’re a scientist that you can’t look nice, but at the first fashion show there was a little bit of pushback from a women’s STEM group and they were talking about putting women up on stage and saying it was making them look like objects. But that wasn’t the point of that – the point is to be able to highlight these women and the science and tech behind it. But, from that experience, we did decide that at the next show, we are going to make sure that we highlight those women as more than just models but that they are really women working in STEM fields.
It’s interesting that you talk about being attractive or fashionable and also being accepted as a woman in a STEM field. I know someone who is a leading expert in her field of science and she feels she must look professor-like and almost dowdy to be accepted and taken seriously by some of her male colleagues.
I feel the same way when I go to a professional conference. You have to put a lot of thought into your appearance to make sure that you’re presenting yourself in the right way for people to interact with you properly. That really shouldn’t be the case.
Last question: Who has inspired your career the most? It could be someone you’ve known from a young age or someone you met more recently, but can you single out someone who really inspired you to get into this field or that you try to emulate?
That’s a great question. I have been so lucky to have so many inspiring people in my life and help me at different stages. Really, my parents have been the most inspirational. My mom sparked my creativity. She let me be as messy as I wanted to be growing up, whether that was Legos on the floor or paint on the table tops. She sacrificed her time to help me succeed both personally and academically. My dad fostered my love of science and problem solving, spending time with me doing everything from building rockets to stargazing. It was great growing up and being able to say my dad is a rocket scientist and he has really driven the direction I have taken in my life. I also look up to my parents for their wonderful marriage and love for each other that I try to replicate in my own life in my marriage to Brian.
Photo © The Science Line
Executive Director of The Science Line, Sara Jennings (right), in the Build Up STEAM Fashion Show at the Arizona Challenger Space Center in Peoria, AZ.
The Science Line provides the next generation a unique opportunity to create and learn about science and technology through fashion. As we become more dependent on technology, technology will continue to become more incorporated into our lives. The Science Line aims to bridge the gap between science, technology and fashion by inspiring youth through S.T.E.A.M. fashion shows, competitions, educational kits and hands-on workshops. Please like and follow The Science Line on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheScienceLine. For more information, visit www.TheScienceLine.org.