From NASA to Nigeria: How Leedjia Svec is Creating Culturally Relevant Ways to Teach Science

Leedjia Svec ● Scientist ● US Navy
“I think science and engineering are the foundation of exploration and application.”

From a young age, Leedjia Svec was deeply influenced by her mother’s traditional yet entrepreneurial background. Her Eastern European ancestry has shaped her perspective and she recalls her mother’s words: “Every woman has a torch and we carry it on. We all carry it on for our children.” Unsure about the prospect of having kids, but determined to pay it forward in her own way, Leedjia focused on pursuing a PhD and using science as a tool for improving the world. Her impressive list of degrees — a BS in Psychology and Technology Engineering from University of the Pacific, an MA & PhD in Vision Science from the University of Nevada, Reno and a second MA in International Relations at Saint Mary’s University — proves how hard she has worked to make her mother’s message a reality.

The ‘traditional’ fields of science didn’t really appeal to her. “I loved art but was also drawn to the technical side of things. When I was younger however, people viewed my interests as far apart from each other and unrelated, now of course there are PhD programs in engineering psychology! I pursued my passions because they were fun, challenging, and enabled positive impact.”

Pursuing those diverse interests took Leedjia on an exciting journey from serving in the US Navy to becoming the Director of Military Programs at NASA. Privacy regulations and government policy prevent her from sharing the specifics of her current job, however, she happily tells stories of her advocacy work supporting women and promoting science education around the world. Be that mentoring, teaching or helping non scientists see science in their daily lives. Leedjia also promotes diversity and representation via Lesbians Who Tech.

Another example where her eclectic interests intersect to make something awesome is the fusion of fashion and STEM. Leedjia created a personal blog, StylishSTEM, to share her unique perspective on how math and science are found throughout the art and fashion industries. She found that even her interns who ‘hated’ doing math connected passionately with design and product development when shown from a perspective that made it relevant to their interests. That creative approach inspired her interns to realistically see themselves in STEM careers.

The connection between fashion and STEM continues to be a big part of her volunteer work. As a past mentor in the State Department’s TechWomen program, Leedjia traveled to Nigeria where she was inspired by the African Technology Foundation’s work on NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge. The project aims to make Nigeria a leader in the space industry. “What if we combine space concepts into their fabric? Nigerian textiles are a huge part of their culture and are present everywhere. If we incorporate space themes into their fabric, they will begin to see space everywhere and their own identity in space. It would be a fun way to learn and see themselves in these industries.”

Leedjia is excited to combine her interests and design “a way to teach science that is personally and culturally relevant.” She is looking forward to spending this summer at Oxford to refresh her skills on color vision and build something with Nigerian fashion.

Her advice for others is to tap into the power of being positive. “A positive attitude is crucial to overcoming challenges, it won’t make them go away, but it will make them manageable. My biggest challenge is often myself! So I hit the books, I talk to people, I try new approaches, eventually, you may get somewhere or to a solution even better than what you started out for!”