NASA makes grant awards in program to increase diversity in the STEM fields and its workforce

The Space Hour's Eric White speaks with Padi Boyd, director of NASA's Science Mission Directorate Bridge Program.

NASA has made it’s latest grant awards for its Bridge Program, run by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The program aims to improve diversity in the science and engineering communities, as well as NASA‘s workforce itself.  The Space Hour wanted to hear more about this program and some of the projects it’s sponsoring this go round, and I did so by speaking with Padi Boyd, who is the director of the Bridge Program at NASA.

Interview Transcript: 

Padi Boyd The SMD bridge program is a program whose goal is to expand the opportunities for research experiences to students from a very wide array of institutions, many of which do not partner with NASA traditionally. So, the goal of the program is to make basically triads of faculty at what we call under-resourced institutions. Students at those schools, and scientific researchers at NASA centers to work together on cutting edge research that is important to NASA and can be a really, great bridge for the student into a Stem career.

Eric White Yeah. So, bridge there, you obviously use the title of the movie within the dialog, you know, as a bridge, how does that work? You know, you’re working with these folks and, you know, is that’s just sort of a way for them to build a relationship and say, you know, hey, maybe I’ve made some connections, and I might be able to make a career out of this.

Padi Boyd There’s I would say two goals. There are short term goals for students, to either propel them into a Stem career or help them to persist in something that they’re interested in by having a really exciting experience with NASA research. But there’s also, a very intentional desire to build new partnerships between NASA research projects and the people who do them and faculty at under-resourced institutions.

Eric White Yeah, you all definitely get something out of this as well. You know, DEIA has been a big push for all agencies because it’s been a big push of this administration. Where does this lie within NASA’s overall DEIA hopes?

Padi Boyd So I would say not, like 100% DEIA program specifically. But certainly, it was encouraged by executive orders and presidential directives, that basically, at the top level, have the goal of making the federal workforce look like America. And if you look at the science and technical workforce, demographics, they are far from that. So, there was a report, that’s done every decade called the Decadal Survey. Each science, area does something like this. And the 2020 decadal survey in astrophysics had a finding that bridge programs, which already exist out there, are something that is showing some promise in this area, giving opportunities to students from different schools, rural schools, small schools, community colleges, an opportunity to do research in an area where they’re connected by this type of bridge to a place where the research is going on, does help students persist in those careers. And these are great careers, right? Stem careers are high paying. They’re very exciting. They really are helping humanity do the next great thing out in space. So, the subject matter is very, very intriguing, motivating. And this is a program that is definitely looking to expand opportunities to get your foot in the door to research while you’re still a student, to students at a wide array of, of institutions.

Eric White Working in an arena, as NASA does, where innovation is so important. I’m wondering if you might be able to talk a little bit about how you personally have seen how important equality efforts are and diversity efforts are in the Stem realm.

Padi Boyd Well, I think innovation is basically baked into what we do at NASA. The missions that we launch are first of their kind. And when they get old, and they start to break down in space, you don’t just fly out there and fix them. Many times, you are trying to fix them from the ground, and you need all kinds of ideas, and you need them quickly. And of course, people bring to the table their experiences, their lived experiences. And when you see innovative ideas coming into the table, to the discussion, these are often ideas that are not traditional ideas that are coming from, you know, kind of the tried-and-true methods. A lot of times you’re seeing ideas coming in from left field that are like, well, I hadn’t really thought of that. That’s a solution we should try. So, innovation is really important to get us new ideas. You know, things to try that we may not have thought of before. And it’s definitely true that people bring their experience in life and their ideas to the table in these types of situations. So, diversifying the people in that conversation can lead to great new, innovative ideas for sure.

Eric White So let’s turn the focus back to the project itself. You all have made the selections so far for 11 projects that are being supported within this program. I want to first get into the selection process. How do you all choose which one you would like to undertake for this program?

Padi Boyd Great question. So, before we even began the project, we spent a good amount of time. Listening to the community of potential partners, and we did that through a community workshop that took place over a week virtually in October of 2022. And it was organized around the goal of hearing from communities that don’t traditionally partner with NASA. What do the faculty want to see in a program like this? What do their students need? Students were involved as well. NASA was involved. What would NASA like to see out of this program? What existing programs at NASA are similar to this? Where are there gaps where we could fill this meaningfully? So, we spent a lot of time listening to the community discussing the program and what a new bridge program would look like. And based on what we learned, there’s two pieces of the puzzle going forward. We’ve got a workshop report that’s public, and if you look for the SMD bridge program online, you can find a link to the public workshop report. And it includes many statistics about students, their desires from the faculty for this program. What could we do new. And we took the perspectives and themes found in that workshop report. And we wrote what we call a call for proposals. And this is the way that NASA gets the majority of its grant funding out to the community through calls for proposals. So that’s sort of like a piece of the machinery that’s been, you know, existing, at NASA and other federal agencies for quite a while. But we got to design our program in our call for proposals to reach out to new institutions that don’t traditionally partner. And one of our first steps that we were very committed to was offering something called seed funding. So, if you’re looking to build a new partnership and you don’t have a partner yet, how do you fix that? You don’t just, you know, pick up the phone and, expect somebody on the other end to be, you know, yes, let’s be new partners and let’s write a proposal quickly. So, the seed funding opportunity is, what we have on the streets now. It’s still open. It’s what we call new due date proposal opportunity. We’ve selected, the first 11 teams, as you mentioned, from the first review of proposals that came in, over the summer of 2023. And one of our main goals is to fund new partnerships, based on something that is of interest to NASA. So, what’s strategically relevant to one of the science divisions of the Science Mission Directorate? And we’re also looking to hear what the faculty will get out of that. So, what new research will they be doing that can propel their career forward? What proposals do they see themselves and their new NASA partner, proposing for together in the next five years? But then, most importantly, we would like to see the faculty and the NASA researchers really focusing attention on the mentoring of the students. That will be, it’s a critical part of this triad, the student research experiences. So, we ask for a mentoring plan. One of the goals of the mentorship for the student, for the faculty, for NASA. And those are the elements of our proposal. Tell us about your partnership. Tell us what the impacts will be and tell us how the mentoring will work. And those proposals are reviewed by a panel of peers. And that’s how we select the best ones according to the peer reviewers’ opinions.

Eric White I hope I don’t get you into any trouble here for this one, but I’m going to ask if there are a couple that you could highlight for me from the projects that you did select this year.

Padi Boyd So I think one of the elements that was very exciting to see is how the faculty and the NASA folks worked together to, design research programs that were really relevant to the environment that the students live in. So, some of the most exciting proposals that have come in have focused on things like, you know, what can we learn about, say, wildfires and responding to wildfires from space? So that’s got a lot of relevance to NASA. What we do in space, how we observe the Earth from space. But it’s also very relevant to students in California’s lived experience. And how do wildfires impact their lives, the lives of their families? We saw some other proposals coming in about water health. And, you know, how do you monitor the health of waterways? Proposals about mosquito borne illnesses. And those are the just the ones that are focused on, you know, science that is really relevant to people’s lives on Earth. I think that was very rewarding and motivational, from, from the whole program. But we’re also seeing some, proposals coming in from engineering department. So, NASA does cutting edge technology development that leads to future missions. So, this is the type of thing that NASA invests in long term. You know, how are we going to design a mission that, say, will launch in 25 years, that might be able to disentangle the fingerprints of atmospheres of planets around other stars, to tell us if there are potential biosignatures, signs of life in those atmospheres of planets. That’s a very lofty goal, and it requires exquisite technology development. And people who develop technology are often engineers, and many small schools may not have an earth science major or an astronomy major, but they certainly have engineering and computer science programs. So, it was also very exciting to see, you know, some cutting-edge technology development proposals coming in from faculty at engineering, departments that is directly related to. The types of observations that NASA wants to be making from space in the next generation. And of course, those students will be the ones that will, you know, benefit from the fruits of that labor because they’ll be the scientists of the future.

Eric White Right. And it seems as if, you know, some of these ideas listed, you know, just additive manufacturing of electronics, you know, that could have implications within like the space industry itself. Even if they don’t come on to work for NASA, they could very well create a, a product or a technology that NASA could use down the road to make their make the agency’s job easier, no?

Padi Boyd Absolutely. Thank you for highlighting that, actually, because NASA is only one part of, you know, a very rich and vibrant space ecosystem. And we’ve got commercial space companies that are thriving and growing and doing, you know, all kinds of new things and exciting things and really expanding that envelope of what we can do as humans from space. And all of those careers are very rewarding. So, we’re not really necessarily singularly focused on the NASA workforce of the future. We’re focused on the Stem workforce of in the US in the future, and there are great jobs there in the commercial space field as well. And I’m very excited to think that students may see themselves in that role in, say, the next ten years.

Eric White And there is actually still time for other people to send in those applications to be part of the program. Can you just talk a little bit about how anybody who’s listening to this might still be able to be a part of it?

Padi Boyd Sure. If you are a faculty or, NASA researcher or even a student at a smaller institution, please check out the call for proposals. It’s part of something called ROSES, which stands for Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences. And the 2023 ROSES includes the bridge seed funding. Call for proposals. We’re still accepting proposals through March 29th of this year. I mean, those proposals will lead to projects that we expect will start by the end of the calendar year. And we’re also planning to be offering new opportunities. And the next ROSES. So, ROSES 2024 will also have some proposal opportunities for the bridge program coming forward.

Eric White If there’s somebody yourself, you are an astrophysicist. You’re in sort of an administrative role now. And I just want to pick your brain a little bit about, you know, what that transition has been like instead of, you know, are you still kind of working in the field? Do you still consider yourself an astrophysicist or what do you see yourself as now?

Padi Boyd I absolutely still consider myself an astrophysicist. But, you know, careers, they grow, and they evolve just like human beings. I mean, that’s a really important part of the human experience, I think. So certainly, now where I am, my role is not necessarily so focused on my own personal research output. You know, what data am I collecting? What papers am I writing based on that? My conclusions am I drawing and where would that go? You know, forward with me in that role personally. But a huge part of what I do now is the development of younger scientists. And you see this in the scientific community at large. You know, students come along, they find an advisor. Hopefully that person is also a very good mentor. And in that relationship, they’re sharing the load on the research. And at some point you, you know, you hand that research down to your student and they take it to a much higher level than you ever could. So, I, I’m very focused on developing scientists of the future. And I still see that as a very key role to astrophysicists, working astrophysicist. And I hope that we all see it that way.

Eric White Let’s turn the clock back. And let’s say Patty Boyd is a student sending in an application to NASA Science Directorate. What area would you be sending that application for? What would be something that you would be excited to study if you were an up-and-coming student?

Padi Boyd That’s a great question. So, these proposals come in from faculty, but they’re focused on student opportunities as well as faculty opportunities.

Eric White Yeah. Yeah. I mean, come on. It’s all hypothetical. I’m doing my best.

Padi Boyd The first thing I would have to do is convince one of my, professors to apply for the program, and I think they would have been very excited about it because I went to a small, undergraduate focused institution. And in fact, if you look at the Stem workforce of today, 80% of the students, of the working scientists today were students at smaller institutions that were focused on undergraduate work or even community colleges. So, I think my faculty would have been very excited to get involved for our school. We had a ground-based observatory, so a small telescope on the top of a building there at the university. So, I think we would have looked into expanding that into combining observations from the ground and space. And I think one of the most exciting areas where you can do that today is in exoplanet detection. So, you’re looking at light dimming of a star when a planet crosses in front of it. That’s called a transit there. What is being used by the test mission and was used by the Kepler mission before that to detect now thousands of exoplanets just in our Milky Way galaxy. So, I would really encourage my faculty to think of putting a proposal in so that we could combine our telescopes on the ground and what’s going on in space to confirm some of those exoplanets and, you know, find those Earth twins out there someday in the future. I would add that we’re, you know, very excited about the teams that we have selected. We. Are looking to build community as well. So, another important part of a student’s experience is the other students that they know, and you know, getting through it together and supporting each other. Same thing is true of new partnerships. We want to make sure that we’re nurturing new partnerships. And so, we’re very excited to take some opportunities, within the SMD Bridge Program at NASA to start building some community between the teams that we’re selecting. And we definitely want to be, learning from them as we go. What about the bridge program is working and where it could be better? We would like this program to grow and evolve, as we bring teams on and learn more about, their needs and their desires from the program.

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