How Star Wars  Inspires Real Scientists and Engineers

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Let me give you a little bit of a background on myself: My name is Holly Griffith and I’m from southern Louisiana. For seven-and-a-half years I was a flight controller for the Space Shuttle’s Electrical Power System. Once Shuttle ended I transferred over to work on the International Space Station doing maintenance and mechanisms. I recently did a panel at Celebration VI with Dennis Bonilla from NASA HQ and Eric Geller of theforce.net. Two other JSC colleagues were there as well and we had a packed house! The panel was Science and Science Fiction and how the two influence each other. It was fascinating! Eric was a great moderator and the public asked lots of great questions. I’d love to be able to do it again next year!

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So how exactly does a little Cajun girl like me end up at NASA’s Mission Control?

At the ripe old age of probably four or so, I wanted to be Princess Leia when I grew up. I was going to travel the galaxy in Corellian Corvettes, wear my hair in funny ways, and just be generally awesome. She was my hero. She was smart, funny, and a great leader. I’d never seen anything like her before and I was instantly enamored. I proudly and matter-of-factly explained all of this to my grandfather; I had it all planned out — surely by the time I was 18 this technology would exist, right?

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He proceeded to tell me that because I was a girl I had to be a nurse or a teacher. Not that there’s anything wrong with those professions — they’re very respectable — it was just something I’d never been told before. I was very confused when my own grandfather said it — not because I was offended so much as I felt sorry for him — didn’t he know about Princess Leia? Hadn’t he seen Star Wars? Obviously women weren’t limited to two professions! As a four-year-old this made perfect sense to me. I got the last laugh, but I do think he’s proud of me now.

My parents were pretty progressive in that area, telling me I could be president or an astronaut and stressing the importance of education over anything else. Thankfully they never followed the traditional gender stereotypes. I’m an only child, and my dad taught me how to throw a football, program a computer, play chess, and made sure we were home in time to catch the latest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He introduced me to the goodness of video games (yes, violent ones; no, I never brought a gun to school) and science fiction. As a kid he would take me over to his friends’ houses to beat Wolfenstein 3D for them on their computers because they couldn’t. Ahhh, the good old days — nothing like being 10 years old and impressing grownups with your ability to kill Nazis.

Princess Leia always stuck with me throughout school and, well, since we weren’t going to be building X-wings or Super Star Destroyers anytime soon, I figured the closest thing was NASA. I thought about what degree I should major in if my final  destination was to work in human spaceflight. I did my research, and Mechanical Engineering seemed like a good choice.

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Engineering school made me more aware of women’s issues. Only 20 percent or so of my engineering class peers were women. It was normal to me to be in the minority — most of my friends had always been guys. This was fine with me because most sci-fi fans I meet are also guys and I can have geek talk with the best of  them…or help out if their guild needs another character. I was in the first 100 beta testers for Star Wars Galaxies AND I’ve been to Skywalker Ranch…so it’s very easy to hold a conversation around our geek brethren!

I can see though how that might not be easy for other girls in engineering who aren’t Star Wars or sci-fi fans. And my school was in southern Louisiana, so every so often you would get a comment from a professor or a student that would be somewhat offensive, but it really wasn’t that often and you learn to brush it off. That doesn’t mean it’s  okay for that to happen, it just shows that this issue still needs work and it could be a reason why you don’t see as many women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. You DO need to have an extra set of thick skin to not let it bother you. I feel like it has made me a stronger person overall but we still need to level the playing field to encourage women or minorities to consider these careers. Would I have stayed in engineering if Princess Leia hadn’t led me to dream about going to the stars? I would like to think so, but honestly, I can’t say. But I do know for certain that strong female characters like Leia and now Ahsoka do influence the young girls who watch them.

We even have a female commander of the International Space Station up there now! I know that I would probably not be where I am today if my dad hadn’t shown me Star Wars at a very young age. Ahsoka is turning into another good example as well. I’d like to thank StarWars.com for showcasing World Space Week, and I’d like to thank Mr. Lucas for his ability to create characters strong enough  to influence real people to follow their dreams.

Ad astra per aspera!!

leia_hollyYou can follow Holly Griffith on Twitter at @absolutspacegrl.

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