YSC Ambassador Abby Harrison is on a mission to excite youth about STEAM and space
Many kids dream of becoming astronauts, of rocketing into outer space and traveling amongst the stars. For most kids, this is a daydream that fades with age. But Abigail “Astronaut Abby” Harrison was never like most kids. When she decided she would travel through space, she meant it - and at 20 years old, she has shaped her entire life around the pursuit of that singular goal.
As the founder of The Mars Generation, Abby is an accomplished speaker, educator, and powerful advocate for girls in STEM/STEAM programs. She’s still a long way from setting foot on Mars, but her tenacity and determination has brought her a devoted fan base from all over the world to cheer her on her journey.
Abby is so excited to join this year’s Young Scientist Challenge as an official Ambassador and Guest Judge. As a young scientist herself, Abby is thrilled to attend this year’s event and meet her fellow burgeoning scientists.
Abby took some time between college courses, flying lessons, and marathon training to answer some of our burning questions about her life as an astronaut-to-be.
Q: You've been speaking publicly about your dream to go to Mars since you were 13. You're now 20 and in college - in what ways have your goals evolved?
A: The thing about goals is that every single day you have to make choices regarding how you will achieve those big dreams. Your daily decisions may lead to other short-term goals you didn’t know of when you first set out on your path. My long-term goals and dreams remain the same, but there are things that I could not have known to plan for at age 13, such as obtaining summer internships in Mars astrobiology labs during my college years. You need to be flexible and able to change your short-term and mid-term goals in order to succeed in the long-term.
Q. As you continue to grow and learn about both space travel and yourself, in what areas do you feel you'll have to work the hardest to achieve your goals? Is there weakness you want to overcome?
A: The most important area that any aspiring astronaut needs to focus on is education and career growth. The competition for astronaut candidacy is fierce, and the people who make it have incredible professional backgrounds and have worked hard in their chosen fields. While there are many skills I’m currently developing - getting my pilot license, advanced scuba certifications, foreign languages - my schooling and professional development as a scientist are by far my most important focus. Currently I am in my Junior year at Wellesley College studying astrobiology and continue to work in an internship I started this summer in a Mars astrobiology lab funded by NASA.
As far as overcoming weaknesses, I don’t typically look at myself and think of weaknesses, I of course see areas I can improve on which is normal for any person. Given my busy schedule with school, internship, running a nonprofit, and training for a marathon, as well as having a life as a college student, my biggest area I work on is time management. It’s probably the most important skill a person can have and something that requires constant discipline to be effective.
Q. These days, we don't just talk about girls in STEM, we talk about girls in STEAM. How do you relate to the "A" for arts?
A: I completely relate to the A of STEAM. I full-heartedly believe that having a diverse and balanced set of interests is important. Furthermore, there are many corollaries between the STEM and the arts: math with music, science with art, physics with dance. Culturing our abilities in the arts improves our abilities in STEM. The arts help us to be healthier, happier, and more creative. And what is STEM without creativity?
I live by this belief in the importance of the A in STEAM. A prime example of this is my college education. I chose to go to a small liberal arts school, rather than a large tech university because I want to be surrounded by people and opportunities of all disciplines. I went one step further- I chose to double-major, with one major in a STEM field, and one in a Liberal Arts field. My majors are astrobiology and Russian Studies.
Q: What advice would you give future scientists and engineers who are in middle school and high school?
A: The best advice I can give is to continue to explore the subjects you love and also try new things. Now is the time to figure out what you are really excited about so you can make a plan for what to study in college. Also make sure you talk about your dreams and goals with the adults in your life. People cannot help you if you do not share your big dreams. Don't be afraid to talk about what you are dreaming of and keep the dream alive.
Q. What was, to you, the most important or interesting advancement in the science world this year?
A: This is a nearly impossible question to answer. Science is such a broad area- how could I choose an advancement in biology that is more important than an advancement in physics, or chemistry, or meteorology? I’ll give it a stab though. In 2017 there has been a huge upsurge in technologies and uses regarding AI (Artificial Intelligence). Researchers at MIT have produced the most light weight per strength material ever- applications which can be used all over Earth- and off. CRISPR technology has been used to increase our knowledge and capabilities regarding DNA. I cannot pick one event that is most interesting or as important… no matter how hard I try. Trust me, this answer could go on for a lot longer if I kept talking about all the amazing science which has taken place this year.