By Stefanie Jackson – Arcadia Middle School students met NASA “modern figure” Christyl Johnson, deputy director for technology and research investments for Goddard Space Flight Center, at a virtual event March 24.
The movie “Hidden Figures” was released in 2016, about three African American women who were NASA mathematicians in the 1950s and 1960s and helped the U.S. win the space race.
Following the film’s debut, Johnson was named a NASA modern figure, someone “paving the way for the next generation of scientists and engineers, especially those young girls and boys that look like me,” said Johnson, who is African American.
The goal of her virtual meeting with Arcadia Middle School students March 24 was to answer their questions and provide a different view of careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Anyone can pursue a STEM career, and it’s not necessary to be a science or math whiz or a straight-A student to get started, Johnson said. All it takes is wanting to learn and finding the right teacher.
“There is no concept whatsoever that is so complicated … no concept on the planet that a third grader can’t understand,” she said.
“The challenge is really finding somebody that can break it down to you at the lowest level so that light bulb in your brain goes off and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty easy. How come nobody explained it to me that way?’”
She advised the students to get extra help from their teachers when needed or ask for help from classmates who understand the material and can explain it in a different way.
Once a student understands a basic concept, the student can build upon that knowledge base and understand more complex ideas, and it’s “off to the races,” Johnson said.
Her career began in her first year of college, when she was assigned to a summer internship working with lasers in a physics lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton.
The assignment didn’t seem very interesting compared to her friends’ fun summer jobs, until Johnson witnessed the power of the lasers when a scientist accidentally lowered the sleeve of his lab coat into the path of a laser and burned a hole into the cloth.
From that experience she learned to look for the silver lining in every cloud, she said.
Johnson worked at the Langley Research Center for several years until she found the courage to ask if there were any work opportunities in science at the White House.
“You just have to throw it into the wind and just ask the questions, because that’s how you open up doors for yourself,” she said.
There were no positions available at the time in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, but she was granted an interview.
The day after her interview, Johnson was notified by phone that, by coincidence, the executive director of the National Science and Technology Council was leaving to accept a promotion elsewhere. Johnson was offered the position, which she accepted.
She began the job in 2010 during the transition from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama.
Following that era of her career, Johnson accepted her current position as the deputy director of technology and research investments at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, about 6.5 miles northeast of Washington, D.C.
The job allows Johnson to “shape the missions of the future” in astrophysics (the study of the stars), heliophysics (the study of the sun), earth science, and the study of other planets in the solar system.
“We get to ask the big questions … Why are we here? And also, what’s out there? And, how do we survive?”
Not only that, but “how do we thrive, here on Earth? How do we continue to improve the quality of life every day …?”
Examples of work Johnson’s department performs are monitoring solar flares that can disrupt the power grid and disable GPS, as well as using lasers to track hurricanes and predict their severity and where they will hit.
One thing she enjoys about her work is that “every day is always a new adventure. You’re never doing the same thing twice.”
She’s not stuck at a desk, in front of a computer every day.
“NASA pays you to think,” and it offers Johnson and her team the flexibility to think through work challenges anywhere, whether in a shopping mall or on a boat, she said.
That’s one reason why NASA has been rated as the best place to work within the U.S. government for the last eight years, Johnson added.
The job is also rewarding because the technologies used on space missions are adapted to improve life on Earth.
She spoke about the technology that was developed to prevent another disaster like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, which killed all seven crew members.
The explosion occurred as the space shuttle reentered the atmosphere because exterior tiles that provided heat protection had been lost during liftoff.
NASA scientists and engineers wrote algorithms that allowed bright, clear photos to be made of a space shuttle’s exterior from the shaky images taken during liftoff, so that any damage that may occur can be identified and repaired at the space station before returning to Earth.
Those same algorithms are now used by the FBI and police to clear up dark, blurry photos captured of crime suspects.
Johnson also shared photos of a woman and her two daughters as they were rescued from their vehicle following a car accident. A tool that was invented for an astronaut to cut metal on the International Space Station was used to cut the roof off the vehicle and save the woman and her children, Johnson said.
Such an event is “horrible to watch, but it also gives me such a warm feeling.”
“This whole family now is a family unit, and it would not have been otherwise,” Johnson said, thanks to “the impossible missions of NASA.”