I want to walk on Mars because it’s my dream, but even more so, because going to Mars represents the dreams of my generation and our future.” — Astronaut Abby
This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination. In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.
Abigail Harrison, popularly known as Astronaut Abby, has set her sight on not just being a NASA astronaut but on being the first astronaut to set foot on Mars. She started being vocal about her larger than life dream when she was only 13 years. She’s come a long way since then and today is a social-media influencer with over one million followers and fans to support her dreams and mission.
Abigail, who studied astrobiology and Russian at Wellesley College, graduated in 2019. Founder of The Mars Generation, 501c3 non-profit, when she was only 18 years in 2015, Abigail is also a big time advocate of STEM and Space Exploration. Through her outreach program she focuses on educating people around the world about the importance of science literacy and how space exploration is crucial to the future of mankind.
Astronaut Abby spoke to Urmila Marak, Head of Communications at Mand Labs, about her non-profit, The Mars Generation and what keeps her ticking. Excerpts.
1. You are just 21 and you have achieved so much at such a young age. What inspires you towards your dream of becoming the first astronaut to land on Mars?
I have wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I can remember- some of my first memories are of staring at the night sky and dreaming of going to space. Over the years this passion for space exploration has only grown stronger.
In addition, I’ve been inspired to continue reaching for this dream by all of the incredible people who I’ve met in the space and STEM industries. I want to walk on Mars because it’s my dream, but even more so, because going to Mars represents the dreams of my generation and our future.
2. Please tell us about your Mars Generation initiative.
The Mars Generation is a 501c3 non-profit which I founded when I was 18 in 2015. We focus on educating the public about the importance of science literacy, increasing interest in space exploration, and inspiring/supporting the next generation to pursue careers in space and STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math). The idea is that if we want younger generations to accomplish great things we need to be inspiring and supporting students today.
The Mars Generation provides educational programs and materials for students of all ages and all around the world through our Student Space Ambassador and Future of Space outreach programs. We also curate an annual awards list (24 under 24) of young people who are changing the world through their passion for STEAM and education.
In combination with my own channels (as Astronaut Abby) The Mars Generation has over 1 million followers on social channels, where we produce and share space and STEAM-based content. Finally, The Mars Generation provides fully paid (including transportation!) scholarships for students living in poverty to go to space camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM?
I think it’s absolutely essential that we do not underestimate the importance of representation. Role models are incredibly important, especially on a subconscious level. Girls need to be able to picture themselves excelling in STEM careers, and for that to be possible, they need to see women and girls who are already doing so. The most impactful way (both in reaching the largest number of young women and in making STEM ‘cool’ or engaging) is through pop culture and social media.
As an influencer I can utilize my channels and communities (1 million followers across social media) to be a role model, to engage more girls in STEM, and to encourage people to be more open to girls/women in traditionally male dominated fields. Additionally, being an influencer allows me to support STEM education and advocacy financially- I donate 100% of the proceeds from paid influencer work that I do (speaking/appearing at events/conferences, brand work, appearing in commercials, etc.) directly to The Mars Generation.
4. As a young girl pursuing a career in STEM, what major challenges do you face?
One of the greatest challenges I have faced as a woman pursuing a career in STEM is self doubt. Women and girls face an inordinate level of something known as ‘imposter syndrome’. Imposter syndrome is basically a nagging feeling that your achievements aren’t legitimate or deserved based on your skill and effort.
I have found that many women with equal or greater qualifications to men question their ability to succeed, especially in traditionally male dominated fields, such as STEM. I am no different. Despite having great self confidence, I definitely still sometimes struggle with believing in my abilities. Rather than trying to change this piece of myself I try to look at it as a positive quality that has the potential to be negative, if not kept in check. A little bit of self doubt isn’t a bad thing as it allows me to be introspective.
When I start to feel self doubt I use it as an opportunity to reflect on my actions, to ask myself questions such as; ‘have I given this task my all? What are my accomplishments? What defines success, to me?’ Asking these questions helps me to stay on track and stay motivated. However, self doubt can quickly become a slippery slope.
To avoid this, I try to stay vocal about my dream, so that people around me can remind me to believe in myself. I greatly appreciate my community- family members, friends, teachers, and all of my followers on social media- for being a part of my journey.
5. Who are your role models and why?
Role models are incredibly important to achieving big dreams and even more so for women. I was fortunate to have multiple people step in over the past 10 years to help guide my journey towards becoming an astronaut.
Notably, my 5th grade science teacher who assured that I didn’t lose an interest in STEM fields throughout middle school, Astronaut Wendy Lawrence whose belief and encouragement has helped me never give up, and my research advisor Dr. Andrew Schuerger who has helped guide me as I take the big leap from Undergrad to Grad school.
Despite each playing a unique role in my life, one thing which each of these people (and other mentors I have had) have in common is that they have believed strongly in me and my ability to succeed in STEM. Of course concrete help, such as career guidance, is important.
However, when entering fields (such as STEM) which women and girls have been dissuaded from for decades, I think it’s equally important for women to have guidance as it is to have someone who believes that they can accomplish their dreams. Knowing that someone who has already accomplished a career in STEM believes in you can be an incredible help.
6. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?
Kids are born as explorers. They have this natural sense of curiosity and wonder. Introducing them to engaging and exciting STEM education early on allows us to help them retain this curiosity and funnel it into their future education and careers. We need to make sure we teach kids how important having a strong base in STEM fields is (regardless of their future career path) and how much fun it can be to use STEM to explore.
7. What advice would you love to give your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
Be loud and be proud about your dreams! The first step in making a goal come true is believing in yourself- no one else can do that for you. The next step is talking about your dreams and goals and plans. Once you start being vocal about what it is you plan to do in the future other people can step in and help you. But others will not know to help you if they don’t know what you are planning to do.
One of the biggest problems we have with recruiting young women and minorities into STEM fields is that they often don’t feel supported and they often feel actively unwelcome in STEM fields/careers. By being loud and proud of your goals and dreams you can build a community of people around you who will support you during times when reaching those dreams may feel like a struggle.
8. How do you like to relax when you are not working?
My favorite way to relax is through dance! I am passionate about dance and am fortunate to have gotten to learn a handful of different styles over the last couple years. Currently, I do Ballet, Lindy Hop, West Coast Swing, Blues, Salsa, Bachata, Fusion, Contra, and Waltz. I have also always loved to relax through sports. Currently, I play Rugby, but in the past I have trained for marathons, been a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) collegiate diver, and a ton of other activities.
We wish her the very best in her future endeavors! Follow Astronaut Abby on Twitter @AstronautAbby