Countdown with a Rocket Scientist: Stephanie Evans of The STEMulus

Stephanie Evans at launch site in French Guiana
Stephanie Evans at launch site in French Guiana

On a launch pad located amidst a remote jungle in South America, 26 year old Stephanie Evans has been preparing for the past six weeks for her first-ever satellite launch. Evans, an aerospace engineer with SSL MDA, and her team built four of the five satellites that will hitch a ride into space aboard Arianespace's Vega rocket on September 15th, 2016.

Stephanie is the lone female among a crew of six other engineers on their mission to French Guiana. The creator of the popular science channel The STEMulus is no stranger to hard work - she grew up in the Mascoutah, Illinois and was raised by her parents who are both teachers. Evans strong work ethic was also influenced not only by her love of science, but in part by attending the late great Pat Summitt's basketball camps.

She recently took some time out of her busy pre-launch schedule to do a Q & A, and share a bit more about her experiencing her first launch.

Stephanie Evans age 9
Stephanie Evans age 9

Where did the interest in science come from?

SE: My love for science has always existed for as far back as I can remember. I've always had an interest in the world around me and wanting to understand more about it, but space and exploration have by far been the most interesting science topics for me, and growing up watching Star Trek: TNG, I realized that space really was "the Final Frontier", and I wanted to do everything I could to learn more about it.

I was very lucky in that my parents encouraged any and all interests I had. They really only had one rule, and it's something I carry with me today, which is: "Whatever you do with your life, make sure you love doing it, and do your best at it.”

I'd tell them I wanted to know more about space, and they'd take me to the public library and get me every book and VHS available on space and answer any questions I had. The biggest one I had that no one could seem to answer was "Why don't we go to the moon anymore?" or "Why aren't we going to other planets?" It was something I wanted to see change, and as I got older, I realized I really wanted to be a part of that change.

Did you have any favorite science shows as a kid that helped lead you down this career path?

SE: Bill Nye The Science Guy! I watched him daily as a kid, and I really do credit that show as being one of the reasons I fell in love with science. Bill Nye made science fun, and the way he presented information made it really digestible for kids. It's something I really thought about and tried to emulate when I started my YouTube channel, The STEMulus.

Stephanie Evans with her idol Bill Nye, and Heather Archuletta from StarTalk Live.
Stephanie Evans with her idol Bill Nye, and Heather Archuletta from StarTalk Live.

What is The STEMulus? What are you hoping to accomplish with it?

SE: The STEMulus is a science communication YouTube channel that, at the moment, mostly talks about current STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) news and also kind of documents my experience as a female engineer. In college, I immediately noticed how few females there were on campus. I attended Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri, and women really only make up a little over one fourth of STEM fields. It made me realize that, growing up, I really hadn't had any visible female STEM role models. We learned about Marie Curie, and that was it. I don't think I learned about Sally Ride until I was in at least middle school, and even then, I think that was in a book I read outside of class. I had grown up envisioning engineers as what you see in "Apollo 13"; white nerdy guys with thick glasses, thin black ties, and pocket protectors. I wanted to change that and be a visible female engineer so that maybe some kids on YouTube can see that women can be engineers as well.

You attended Pat Summitt's basketball camp as a young girl. What did you take away from that experience?

SE: It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life. Pat had always been this intangible giant of a human that I'd watched on television growing up, so to see her in the flesh was incredibly intimidating.

Attending those camps really made me understand the importance of communication. You see, a lot of coaches that will yell and scream and stomp up and down the sidelines. Pat can be intimidating, but not for those reasons. It was a certain respect she just commanded when she walked the floor.

The players would demonstrate drills for us, and if they weren't cutting it, she'd call them on it. She would have harsh words, but then she'd tell them exactly what they needed to do to be better, and then have them run it again. She demanded perfection, and the way she coached her team made them want to do everything in their power to deliver. The way you communicate to the people you’re leading can determine your success or your failure, and I think Pat's coaching style was an excellent example of that.

Artwork Courtesy: Creative Squirrels by Rob Cabrera
Artwork Courtesy: Creative Squirrels by Rob Cabrera

Do you have a favorite motivational quote that inspires you daily?

SE: I've got one Bible verse that I've always kind of gone back to. It's Isaiah 57.10. In the Bible I had growing up as a kid, it read as "You grew weary from your many wanderings, but you did not say ''It is useless'. You found your desire rekindled, and so you did not weaken."

As a sports broadcaster, I work mostly with men. What is it like for you in engineering -working with that similar dynamic?

SE: It's fun to be part of the boys' club, but there are struggles. I've dealt with my fair share of sexism, whether it was in the form of a "get back to the kitchen joke" or straight up getting pulled off of engineering tasks to play secretary in a meeting. It's something I accepted early on as something I'd have to deal with, and I always try to kind of turn those moments into teachable moments. "Hey, maybe you don't say that to me, and here's why." The group of guys I work with now is an excellent team. They check each other on stuff like that, and I really appreciate that.

Satellite getting mounted in its MLB (mechanical light bands)
Satellite getting mounted in its MLB (mechanical light bands)

What are you feeling exactly as you prepare your first launch?

SE: So much excitement! This is going to be a huge checkbox for me in terms of life goals. I actually got to watch my first rocket launch while I was down here, the Ariane 5 launch of Intelsat-36 and Intelsat-33e. It was a really emotional thing for me. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever witnessed, and I actually got really choked up. It was a career-affirming sort of moment for me where I realized I'm doing exactly what I am meant to be doing. I can't imagine what it's going to be like on Thursday when I watch our Vega go up. Even though it's a significantly smaller rocket, that rocket is gonna have my "kids" on it. It's insane but so cool!

If you would like to watch the live stream of the launch on September 15, 2016 at 9:35PM EST, please head to thestemulus.com. Or for more information, follow Stephanie Evans on Twitter and Instagram.

Artwork courtesy: Creative Squirrels by Rob Cabrera

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