This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.
Technologist and data scientist Jennifer W. Lopez is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.
Name a technology you’ve heard about as key to the future, and Jennifer Lopez has probably worked with it. Virtual reality, 3-D printing, robots: As part of her role at CASIS, the U.S. national lab aboard the International Space Station, Lopez helps get those new technologies into space to see how they can help improve life here on Earth.
While she advises big companies on how to bring their R&D efforts into space, Lopez also aims to inspire individuals—especially women—to get more involved with technology. She’s a founding member of Datanauts, NASA’s effort to recruit data scientists from all types of backgrounds, and also works with Johns Hopkins University’s CLASS telescope project, aiming to inspire a new generation of scientists to understand the origins of the universe.
What are you trying to achieve through virtual reality experiences from the space station?
We’re looking at how we can use virtual reality to open a window into what we’re doing and why it matters.
It’s not just that we have our astronauts up there engaging in various experimentations every day. They’re risking their lives to make sure that they can accomplish important advances that we need, or that companies need, to help with drug therapies (for example), or using the microgravity environment to create novel materials that we otherwise would not be able to create on Earth.
There’s only so many people that have had the incredible opportunity to travel to space. What we’re trying to do is show the world that experience, [and communicate that] it’s important not just for the future of space exploration, but the future of innovation and technology advancements on our planet.
How did you get interested in technology and space?
My passion for these areas really started when I was at a very young age. In second grade I had my first computer class with the old-school Apple computers, and was in complete awe of computers in general and the potential for what they could do.
My school [Francis R. Scobee Middle School in San Antonio, Texas] was actually named after one of the astronauts that unfortunately passed away in the space shuttle Challenger mission back in 1986. Literally everything in the school was space-related, from the names of the hallways to the mascot (the Scobee Challengers) to the theme of the school, “Reach for the Stars.”
Just being exposed to something like that really played a big role in my initial interest in terms of science, space exploration, and technology. I still have same T-shirt that I wore when I was in the Young Astronaut Program—I kept it after all these years. I was just really proud to be a part of something like that and knew it was a unique opportunity.
Of all the technologies you work with, which stand out to you as being really pivotal?
First is In-Space Manufacturing. The work we’re doing with in-space manufacturing is extremely important and will continue to lead to improvements in our knowledge of materials sciences, new manufacturing techniques on Earth, and potentially important discoveries of in-space manufacturing methods. With 3-D printing technologies, rather than exporting tools and equipment from Earth into space, astronauts have the ability to manufacture items directly. On-demand patterns of manufacturing make long-duration space travel more feasible and self-sufficient as space excursions require less cargo.
The other is Artificial Intelligence. Increased access to vast amounts of data, especially fused data, is having a transformative impact on our society and will continue with more advanced technologies, better systems, and better algorithms in terms of artificial intelligence and machine-learning solving complex global problems.
Speaking of data science, tell us more about the Datanauts project.
The thought is to reach out to broader audiences, versus just looking at the traditional data scientists, engineers, and developers. You don’t have to have any knowledge of coding, or have worked in C++, or built a website or anything like that. You can come in completely from scratch not having any prior knowledge and learn as you go along.
What’s an example of the types of things people are doing with the data?
A great case study to look at is Starry Night. One of the Datanaut members created this concept to use paper with a circuit board, conductive ink, and sensors to create this interactive musical instrument. There’s a whole trove of various audio files as part of the NASA open data platform. She was able to create this interactive toolkit, and now people around the world have attended Starry Night gatherings. It was just really a cool way to show that there was a different way to engage with NASA’s data.
The founding class of Datanauts was all women. What are you hoping to change about the STEM landscape?
The intent was to really create a safe space for newcomers, for people that potentially have never engaged with data science—trying to highlight that for girls and for women. That was very strategic on NASA’s part. We really wanted to make sure that it would be this legacy-creating, all-inclusive community.
I didn’t have an ability to access anything like that, going through my science and tech career when I was in school. Back then I didn’t know who to turn to, I didn’t have any advisers or mentors or anything. And of course I would get questions from family, because I come from a family of lawyers and I was sort of the black sheep going into science.
Even though I didn’t have these support communities, I still moved forward and tried to block out those negative messages that I received going through my career. I wanted to prove them wrong and to show that women do belong in tech, women do belong in science.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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