Beyond Expectations

Photo by Liz Chrisman

My seven-year-old daughter Pearly is planning to travel to Mars. For at least a year now she’s been devouring anything she can about space. She asks to watch space documentaries on Netflix and TedEd. She pours over kids books about the solar system. And she routinely draws pictures of spaceships en route. For her seventh birthday party she requested a swimming and space theme. She even made her very own birthday equation on one of the party decorations because: “scientists do a lot of math.” I was telling our editor, Johnny Sain, about my daughter’s love for the astral plane. “She needs to meet Grace,” he said.

A 2017 Dover graduate and music major turned physicist, Grace is finishing up her second NASA internship. She recently graduated from UCA with a degree in physics and is about to head to the University of Maryland where she’ll pursue aerospace engineering. Naturally I jumped at the chance to take my daughter to meet a real life, local, soon-to-be space traveler.

My daughter and I met Grace at the ABOUT office and sat down to learn more about her path from small-town girl to rocket scientist in training. Wearing a NASA T-shirt and kind smile, Grace was quick to remind us that the study of space is about so much more than just planets and stars and galaxies. As a student of aerospace engineering, Grace is most interested in how we get there.

“I’m really interested in outer planetary stuff,” she explains. “So if they’re going to send a probe to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, which is actually a mission that’s coming up, then I’m really interested in things like, okay, what kind of propulsion are we going to use in the inner solar system? What planets are you going to use for a gravity assist, like, what can help us minimize fuel consumption and weight on the spacecraft and everything to get us to our location?” Grace says she especially loves the study of gravity and wants that to be at the forefront of her work.

My daughter looks up at us and purposefully drops the pen she’s been using to draw. She’s quick-witted and loves a good laugh, so I knew this was her way of talking about gravity, too. “What’s your favorite planet,” Grace asks my daughter. Pearly thinks for a moment then answers, “Uranus. Because it spins on its side.” Grace gets excited and shares that last summer she got to work on a project that’s going to send a spacecraft to Uranus and Neptune. “It’s going to be the first one ever sent out there,” Grace says. “So hopefully, we’ll learn a lot more about those planets. And you’ll get to hear about that!”

Grace says when she was Pearly’s age, her first interest was dinosaurs and anything she could see in a telescope.

“As a kid, I just ate up everything about as far away as possible, you know, the farthest reaches of what we can see with our telescopes,” she explains. She recalls spending hours with both a dinosaur and a space encyclopedia. “I would just sit there and read through those,” Grace says,” because I felt like there was always something out there that I didn’t know that I wanted to learn about.”

When she wasn’t reading she was looking through an actual telescope. “I still have the telescope. It’s a beginner telescope, and I use that a lot. And I look online and look at Skymaps to see if Venus or Jupiter were in our sky that night because you can see those, of course, with the naked eye,” she explains. Grace kindly gives us pointers on how we can start paying more attention to the night sky at our home, something my daughter has mentioned several times since that conversation.

Grace has come a long way from sitting in her room reading dinosaur and space encyclopedias. COVID-19 made it impossible for her to travel to NASA, but she’s been interning virtually NASA’s Langley Research Center on the OASiS (On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) Architecture Simulation System) project. Last summer she interned with NASA Goddard on a net flux radiometer for the Ice Giants, a term for Uranus and Neptune.

One of the main reasons I wanted my daughter to meet Grace was for her to see and hear a real life, everyday local person throwing around science language. I’m ecstatic that our daughter wants to study space, but we’re certainly not a family who knows how to help her get there. Grace says that in her early days she found support and inspiration in Atkins-based University of Central Arkansas professor and astrophysicist Dr. Debra Burris. Grace learned about Dr. Burris through a family friend who rode horses with her and put them in touch. “Normally when someone says their kids will get in touch with you, never hear anything,” laughs Dr. Burris. But Grace was different. “She put a lot of thought into this obsession, ‘’ Dr. Burris explains. “It was not a passing thing to her.”

Dr. Burris is a local herself. She graduated from high school in Atkins in 1987, a time when there was virtually no encouragement for a woman to study any kind of physics. Today she has two facets to her work: research and public-facing work. “I look at how elements are made in astrophysical environments, such as supernova explosions or black holes,” she explains. “Those elements on the table have to come from somewhere.” 

But she says she puts much of her energy into her public-facing work, educating policymakers and the public. “Science literacy is something we desperately need to work on,” she says. She wants students and policymakers to be able to answer the question: “What does science actually look like?”

Meeting Dr. Burris as a child was an inspiration for Grace. But as she got older, she had her doubts. “As I got older, I just thought, you know, I don’t see a lot of astronomers or astrophysicists around here. So I was like, I probably can’t do that. That’s what I always told myself.” She decided to head to college to pursue another passion: playing flute. “So I said, Okay, I’ll be a music performer, and it was a great experience. But after a year, I felt like I couldn’t follow that path for a lifetime,” she explains.

Grace knew she still wanted to work in space. “I just decided that I didn’t want to spend my life doing something I couldn’t see myself doing forever just because I thought I wasn’t smart enough for physics. So I said, you know, I’m just going to, instead of practicing my flute, all these hours, I’m instead gonna work on homework all these hours, and I’m gonna make it work.” When she was ready to make that switch she reconnected with Dr. Burris. “I called her and said, ‘I know we talked a while ago, but I think I’m actually ready to do it.’” Grace makes it clear Dr. Burris wasn’t just a role model or abstract inspiration. She helped Grace develop a course of action. She helped her find which classes she needed and gave her tools to succeed in them. She also asked Grace to volunteer with her public-facing outreach work.

Dr. Burris refers to Grace as a “once in a lifetime student.” She tells me about Grace’s work with her through a service-learning program at Community Connections, a Conway-based organization that works to improve the lives of children with disabilities and provides extra curricular activities that support children and their families. Dr. Burris offers a science-based day camp where students develop and run the experiments. Volunteers like Grace help set up the camp and foster an environment that makes that happen. “How do you communicate science to a broad range of kids?” Dr. Burris asks. “Neurodivergent kids? These classes help break down preconceived notions and show us that we don’t always have an accurate picture in our head. I know part of the reason Grace got that NASA fellowship,” says Dr. Burris, “is because they want to know how you’re gonna give back to the community.” Grace knows exactly how to do that.

Dr. Burris is a dedicated researcher and leader in her field. She studies stellar nucleosynthesis, cosmochronology and spectroscopy. But what she really wants to talk about is why she thinks it’s essential that we don’t regulate science to a select few. “I think that the biggest obstacle here is just getting anyone interested because we just don’t do as good a job of saying this is what you can do with this degree,” she says. “And we need to change this.”

Though Arkansas may not seem like the most tech-driven state, Dr. Burris points out that physics and agri business go hand in hand. “Even a tractor has a GPS now,” she explains. And she’s quick to note that if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we desperately need more science literacy.

I think about my own daughter and recognize that she may eventually lose interest in places like Uranus. Or she may wind up on Mars one day. Either way, I know that her curiosity now — and the example of a woman like Grace, and, by extension, Dr. Burris — lays the foundation for what my daughter, my sons, your children, see as possible. I ask Grace about what it’s like being a small-town girl pursuing this dream. “At UCA about half my classes, I was the only girl in the class. And even at NASA there’s a lot more men than women, but it’s changing really quickly,” she says. “And I was actually telling my dad earlier today, what’s great is that we haven’t yet reached just equal numbers of representation in terms of gender or race. But we’re getting there. And the great thing is, most people are pushing for that. The people who want it to stay a male-dominated club are very much in the minority. So we’re really getting a lot better about being progressive and that makes me really excited for the future.”

I look over at my daughter who has been doodling in her notebook. She holds up her drawing, one of her many space travel illustrations. Grace tells us about the James Webb Space telescope and how they’re building a mirror to see further into the galaxy. I’m grateful that my daughter can hear how this work happens, talk about how the space telescope will do its work, and all the nuances of this research. “This work will take people of all areas of physics and astrophysics working together,” says Grace. “You’re going to have your aerospace engineer saying, ‘okay, we need this kind of rocket to get it up there.’ And you’re going to have your physicists say, ‘we need this kind of propulsion to keep it in the air.’ So that’s what a lot of people don’t know,” she explains. “And I didn’t know until I was, like, halfway through my physics degree. All these different components go hand in hand.”

In a follow up email, Grace told me that Dr. Burris was the one who was able to slice through the doubts and remind Grace that she was cut out to be a rocket scientist. Grace said she was shown time and time again that it’s about how hard you’re willing to work for things you love. “I’m humbled and honored she sought me out,” Dr. Burris shared with me. “And I fully expect to one day be watching the NASA Mars landing stream and see her there. I’ll say, ‘Hey! I knew her!’”

A few days after we sat down with Grace in the ABOUT office, we met her and her sister and ABOUT photographer Liz Chrisman up on Mount Nebo for pictures that accompany this story. At our home, the sun rises between Nebo and Jones mountains and a trip up to its peak is always a joy. Grace brought along her trusty telescope and showed my children some basics of how to use it and how to find some of the planets with the naked eye.

My daughter, ever the jokester and conversationalist, chatted it up with Grace as we overlooked the River Valley. I heard them talking about Uranus and the moons and their rotational pattern and space travel, where you could go online to watch live feeds from NASA, and how to find a few planets with the naked eye. Later, on our way down the mountain, Pearly said, “I have an idea! Let’s have family space nights!” I said, “Okay great! What do we do during family space nights?,” She paused for a moment, looked out the window, and said, “Well, it’s where you all go sit outside and look at the sky and you really study what’s there!”

We all agreed this was an excellent plan.