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July 5, 2011 / TechFemme

Anyone Can be a Space Explorer – Ariel Waldman Says So

Ariel Waldman, Founder, Spacehack.org

Most of my profiles trend towards women in technology, more specifically women in the wonderful world of tech startups.  Admittedly, that’s where lots of my passion lies.  But once in a while, I come across someone who reminds me that there’s more to the world of technology and science than a really awesome mobile app.  Meet Ariel Waldman, founder of Spacehack.org, a directory of ways that anyone can get involved in Space Exploration.  She showed me how, even if I never put on an astronaut suit, I can still be involved in significant programs, initiatives and even some discoveries in Space.

TechFemme:  How did you become interested in Outer Space?

Ariel Waldman:  I’ve always been excited about space exploration and some parts of science.  But I wasn’t really that into it growing up.  I’d put myself in the category of watching the Discovery Channel on weekends.  But that changed a couple of years ago when I realized being involved in space was accessible to me.

TF:  How did you come across that discovery?

AW:  I was watching program about Apollo 11 and I said to a friend that I’d love to work for NASA.  That friend randomly had a contact at NASA.  I sent a shot-in-the-dark email  and received one back that they just created a job description that was a perfect fit for me.   It changed my life – I fell totally in love with Space and Science.  I learned that anyone can contribute to Space and Science without having a formal background in it.

TF:  What is your background in?

AW:  I have a degree in Graphic Design.  I started out as a graphic designer and became more involved in digital anthropology and digital behaviors.  I always jumped from thing to thing. I was working at an interactive agency for about eight years but at some point along the way, they wanted to introduce a group that did digital anthropology work so brands could have better understanding of their audience. Then I quit my job and moved to San Francisco, where I was doing that work as a consultant.  Until I applied to NASA.   Now I focus on Spacehack.org and also do consulting work on interaction design.

TF:  Why did you move to San Francisco?

AW:  I went to SXSW and the main influencer of me wanting to move somewhere was to go where people actually made things.  There was also a strong community support system for taking risks, trying out things, supporting you when you fail.   No matter how drunk people were and how late at night it got at SXSW, everyone would not stop talking about websites.  I loved it – I felt like such a geek in Kansas City.  It felt right to move to San Francisco.

TF:  What was it like working at NASA?  Were you working mostly with males?

AW:   I was expecting it to be male dominant but it wasn’t that way.  My first week there, I was pleasantly surprised at a decent balance of men and women.

TF:  What are some of the ways people can get involved with space exploration?

AW:  Spacehack.org lists ways of getting involved with a  variety of learning curves so as many different people can get involved as possible.  Through Galaxyzoo.org people could use data analysis to discover galaxies on their own.  Some people have discovered galaxies.

TF:   So you’ve also founded both Science Hack Day SF and Cupcake Camp – two seemingly unrelated events.

AW:  A lot of it is just a passion for wanting to try out things you find cool.  Cupcake Camp was with some friends and we were joking around about what if you combined a barcamp with cupcakes?  I thought maybe at most 40 of our friends would shop up and 300 showed up.  A lot of the stuff I do is about wanting to experiment with stuff that excites me and not care so much if it fails.

TF: Why did you found Science Hack Day SF?

AW:  We have both the technology and science industries here.  My motivation is that the science and tech industries are fascinated with each other but not very socially connected.  Out of that frustration, I was compelled to make it happen in SF.  I’ve witnessed it happen so many times.  If you take NASA scientists and give them a tour Google, the Google people will think it’s cool that NASA scientists are there and equally, the people at NASA will think it’s cool that Googlers are walking around.

TF:  How would you get more young girls involved/exposed/interested in Science?

AW:    I was always a straight A student in math.  Math was super easy for me but I was incredibly bored with it.  I had no interest in being a mathematician.  I’m frustrated that nowhere along the way did anyone say hey, if you’re really good at math, you’d be really good at programming.  If someone had told me the options, I would have looked into it.  Now, I’ve dabbled in it (python, etc.) and I’m fascinated with solving problems but it’s frustrating because I could’ve been proficient by now.  Tell kids about opportunities depending on their skills.  If someone is interested in science, and math, let them know their opportunities.  I never had the idea that you could create things with a logical mind so I decided to go to art school and go into design to feed my creative side.

TF:  What would your advice to young girls interested in Science be?

AW: Get involved in various science-related competitions that are open to middle and high school students. The Spirit of Innovation Awards is a great example of a competition for high school students where they not only compete but are given the chance to turn their creation into a commercial success that could benefit the science industry. If competing isn’t your style, get involved in the Maker culture through tinkering with tutorials from Make magazine or by going to Maker Faire to be inspired.

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