This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Sophia Porter, an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in Physics and Applied Mathematics. She’s a former Brooke Owens Fellow, a program founded in honor of the space industry pioneer and pilot Brooke Owens to promote women in aerospace. During her fellowship, she helped to launch the Ask a Brookie program to connect fellows to K-college level students with questions ranging from space and aviation to career development opportunities. We’re thrilled to introduce you all to Sophia!
How did you find out about aerospace and become so involved?
For me, space was a convergence of many themes during middle and high school. The most influential might have been Cosmos: A Field Guide, a huge picture book of astronomical objects, that I found at a used bookstore in downtown Kansas City. Growing up in Kansas, it wasn’t hard to find stunning night skies, and I loved knowing that the light from the objects in my book had traveled unimaginable distances just to stream into my eyes. I joined the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, a group of extremely knowledgeable adults who had ready access to big telescopes and were willing to share them. Star Parties were my first exposure to field science, and I began asking bigger and bigger questions about the universe. From there, it was only a short jump to studying physics and applied mathematics at Johns Hopkins University.
Since then, I’ve become captivated by space travel. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging, collaborative, exciting pursuit than putting people in space, and that’s exactly why I think it’s valuable. It’s safe to say that my personal life and my career are completely intertwined at this point — I really love what I do.
How has the Brooke Owens Fellowship changed your relationship with aerospace, your views on women in science, and accessibility of science to women and underrepresented minorities?
Each year, the Brooke Owens Fellowship brings together a new group of 40 undergraduate women for competitive summer aerospace internships, executive-level mentorship, and a week-long summit in Washington, DC. Joining a cohort of 39 like-minded women scientists and engineers knocked my socks off! Aerospace had never looked so much like me. Watching my Brooke Owens classmates move on to win major scholarships, accept competitive jobs, and bring passion and enthusiasm to everything they do has been invigorating.
Having a support network has made a huge difference as well. The international policy forum OECD reports that even among boys and girls who perform equally well in math, girls tend to exhibit less confidence. Having faced challenges even in classes for my majors, I know that the math “fear response” can be very real. Hearing other Fellows talk about overcoming their own roadblocks and facing challenging work with ferocity was instrumental for me. I can only imagine the difference it would make for people who don’t have a community of students and professionals who understand the challenges of pursuing an intensive career in a technical field.
Where did you get the idea to start the Ask A Brookie program and what are your goals with the program?
The aerospace community has really poured their hearts into the Brooke Owens Fellowship. As a recipient of so much time and energy, I recognized that I had something to offer to students two or three steps behind me who were also interested in aerospace careers, and the other Fellows agreed. Nine of us got together and created Ask A Brookie, a page on the Brooke Owens Fellowship website where students aged K-college can submit questions about space, scholarships, college, or most anything else under the sun. When an inquiry comes in, we match the student with one of the now-76 Fellows who is in their region and has experience with that particular topic. These range from concrete subjects like space medicine and pilot licenses to broader topics like coping with internship burnout or raising kids while balancing a course load. You name it, we probably have someone who’s been through it! We’re willing to write one-time responses or form lasting peer/mentor relationships. Our goal is to provide encouragement and support to students from all backgrounds and disciplines. The 76 of us have been fortunate to receive the resources we’ve needed to get here and become Fellows, but we recognize that there are other would-be Fellows who need more help. It’s our goal to serve as a bridge for them.
What are your future plans, and how did that come about?
I recently accepted a job with Blue Origin, a space travel company that is successfully re-landing suborbital boosters and will fly commercial customers to space as early as next year. I was actually placed with Blue as my Brooke Owens internship match—they were my first choice—and spent the summer of 2018 engaged in projects supporting the flight of the New Shepard rocket. I flew to Texas to watch the launch and landing of New Shepard Mission 9 in July, and that really sealed the deal. Starting as a test engineer in April, I will train to run the facility where Blue Origin throttles up its world-class BE-3 and BE-4 engines to test them before they’re used on the rocket.
What message do you want to share with young girls who are interested in aerospace or what would you say to get them interested?
The space industry needs you! As the applications for space continue to grow, we’re seeing more opportunities for law, agriculture, communications, engineering, and so many other disciplines. If you have the passion, nothing will stop you from fulfilling your dreams—especially in an industry where the stars are literally within reach. Still not convinced? I encourage you to drop by the Ask A Brookie website and talk with one of us, or pass the link on to a friend.
Sophia Porter is a senior physics and applied mathematics dual major at Johns Hopkins University. She is a recipient of the Brooke Owens and Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, and has previously interned at Blue Origin, SpaceX, NASA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. Following her graduation in December 2018, Sophia will begin supporting private crewed space exploration full-time in April 2019 as a test engineer at Blue Origin.