Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science on the Space Coast
Meet some of the Space Coast's most amazing women in science and technology
The 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science, created by the United Nations, is February 11th. The Space Coast is uniquely situated to be a launching pad for women and girls interested in science across multiple STEAM fields. As the Gateway to Space and the location where every astronaut has launched from, the technology behind rockets meets the science of space exploration and astronomy. As such, a growing aeronautics industry has taken root here.
Surrounding all the innovations in engineering and technology sits some incredibly diverse and unique ecosystems that biologists and ecologists can study. These include the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America, 20 sanctuaries and conservation areas as part of the Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) program, and 72-miles of beaches where 90% of sea turtle eggs in the US are laid yearly. There’s no shortage of opportunities for women in science or ways to encourage the imaginations of girls choosing a path.
When people think of the Space Coast, the image that comes to mind is often the Shuttle or rockets blazing across the sky. Sarah Miller was drawn here because she didn’t just want to design rockets on paper, but touch them and launch them into space. As the Payloads Engineering Manager for United Launch Alliance, she leads a team responsible for processing the payload fairings, which protect the spacecraft as the rocket travels through the atmosphere. “The best part of this job is knowing that what I do impacts countless people.” Miller says. “The satellites we launch protect our country, lead to advancements in science and enable technologies, like GPS, that we use every day.” Like many women before her, she’s a trailblazer herself. When she became a manager, she was the only female Engineering Manager at that Cape launch site, and was about 15 years younger than her fellow managers. “I had to learn how to advocate for my team in a sometimes overwhelming and intimidating environment. This is far easier said than done but it pushes me to make a conscious effort to integrate myself with and learn from the other managers.”
Like Miller, Jessica Couch was also drawn to the Space Coast due to a love of all things space. Her career went down a different path, however. She is the Director & Chief Engineer, Advanced Programs at Northrop Grumman. She’s responsible for the technical baseline of their program, and is the key technical voice assuring the technical solution is optimized to meet all the challenging requirements. Couch began with a passion for astronomy, but discovered other opportunities. “Pairing the science of astronomy and physics with engineering allowed me to learn how to design telescopes, which led to a broader understanding of Optical Sciences and Engineering that woke a new passion in the science of light.” Her advice to girls looking for a science career? “Find the element that excites you the most.” She began with a hobby that helped her hone her interests and find aspects of it she wanted to pursue.
The last thing astronauts see as they lift off to space is the incredible natural wonders along the Space Coast. The Indian River Lagoon is home to 2,200 animal species and 2,100 plant species in a very delicate ecosystem. Jennifer Thompson, Environmental Specialist, Brevard County’s Natural Resources Department, knows just how delicate it is. After multiple field trips to the lagoon in classes at Florida Tech, “I quickly realized that the Indian River Lagoon needed big help,” Thompson says. “I absolutely fell in love with the eclectic creatures found in a water body just a few feet deep. I promised myself I would do everything in my power to clean this impaired waterway and protect the fauna, most of which is endangered.” To do this, she analyzes water quality data to determine if a water body is impaired, if a treatment project is working as expected, and more. She also tests stormwater and investigates pollution discharges. “Every time I sample, I see wildlife and get a moment of serenity while checking the water quality.” Thompson did have to convince management early in her career she didn’t mind getting dirty or wet, as many of her internships only sent the men into the field. It has continued to be her favorite part of her job. It should come as no surprise that many of the women interviewed here point to outdoor activities including enjoying the beach, paddleboarding, and hiking among their favorite recreational activities on the Space Coast.
Environmental quality isn’t just important for the creatures that live here, but also the tourists and residents as well. University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) program teaches research and science-based facts and technologies to the community from how to garden to environmental and climate change education. Holly Abeels is a Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent in the Brevard County UF/IFAS office. Her extension programs include teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program, working with communities to address climate change and sea level rise, and working with citizen scientist volunteers on projects like the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch. “I love when people get excited about something you taught them or when they have that aha moment when an idea clicks,” Abeels says. “I work and teach adults and it’s not always easy to change someone’s mind or behavior. But when that does happen it makes my job and what I do worth it every time.” Abeels acknowledges that there are less women in science than men, but has seen a shift with more women colleagues these days. She reminds girls looking to enter STEM to not give up. “Being a women in science isn’t easy but it helps to have other women at your side going through the same thing you are and to have the support of one another.”
People may not realize the level of conservation that Brevard Zoo is involved with, from the Sea Turtle Healing Center and working behind the scenes on the Indian River Lagoon with oyster mats and mangroves, to assisting Sea World with manatee rescues and sending funds across the world with specialty programs. Jody Palmer, Director of Conservation, loves that no two days are the same in her job. “Some days I’m working on grant writing and budgeting and others I’m wading through our beloved Indian River Lagoon building oyster reefs and monitoring sea grass.” Her most memorable moment was caring for a manatee calf during a rescue with FWC, SeaWorld, and UF when six manatees became stranded in a residential pond after a hurricane. As the team worked together to get them to safety, Palmer cradled the baby, keeping it calm and counting breaths until it could be reunited with its mom. “As they swam away together, the mother turned and looked back. I’d like to think she was saying ‘thank you’ to the team who had rescued them.” Palmer encourages girls to get into STEM and reminds them to find a network of like-minded women for support. “I’ve built a network that is always ebbing and flowing with a diverse group of women from a variety of science fields and in different stages of life. Without these women, I’d feel lost and alone but with them I feel strong and powerful and that gives me the energy to continue to do this challenging work in conservation.”
That active conservation with a think globally, act locally outlook is what drew Kyle Donnelly, DVM, MPH, DACZM to Brevard Zoo to become a staff veterinarian. She recently became a Diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine, which means she’s part of a group of specialists practicing at the highest level of medicine for zoological species. Donnelly provides preventative healthcare and care for injured and sick animals across the Zoo, the Sea Turtle Healing Center, and wildlife from the Florida Wildlife Hospital. “I am lucky that my job with the zoo is mainly trying to keep healthy animals healthy,” Donnelly says. “The sea turtle hospital is very different in that these patients present to us in extremely debilitated states. I love seeing their transformations from intake to release. Watching them swim back into the ocean is always a special experience.”
Brevard Zoo was named 5th best zoo in North America by readers of USA Today’s 10Best, and part of that is due to the dedicated team working to improve the quality of life and habitats for the more than 900 animals that call the Zoo home. Leading the charge is Lauren Hinson, General Curator. She oversees all animal-related activities including husbandry, training, enrichment, habitat design and overall animal wellness and is responsible for making sure the animal keepers are trained and comfortable working with a variety of species. As a part of this, she has assisted in hand raising many animals including Brody the Florida black bear and Lilly the red kangaroo, and became the zoo’s resident farrier after attending a Zoo Hoofstock Trim Program (ZHTP) led program to implement a hoofcare program at the zoo. “Making hoofcare a priority and teaching others about it has been great but watching a 17ft tall giraffe or a zebra feel relief from pain and discomfort by voluntarily participating in their own healthcare is the best part.” Hinson says. When it comes to memorable moments, nothing beats the bonds with the animals she cares for. “Every animal I have hand raised has taught me so much and even though it is hard work, time consuming and exhausting I always remember all the details about each individual. Watching a giraffe be born and then stand on its own is always memorable.” Hinson joined the team after hearing great things about Brevard Zoo and their work in animal care and conservation from many respected colleagues. Like others, Hinton has noticed a shift over the years where more and more of her colleagues are women these days. “When I first began in the field 18 years ago, I felt I needed to work twice as hard to be noticed,” she says, noting that male keepers were chosen for more physical or dangerous tasks. “This made me push myself to be more assertive and confident and to learn anything and everything so I could to prove myself. In the end it helped me succeed.”
From launching into the great unknown to exploring the world right under our feet, there are countless opportunities for women to come to the Space Coast to journey down their career path, and for young girls to get inspired at our amazing attractions and natural wonders. These examples are only a small sample of what women and girls in science can discover and accomplish on the Space Coast.