by Nancy Santagata
I was sitting in my office on the night of Monday, July 23rd, when I received an email from my father asking if I had read the news that Sally Ride had passed away. I hadn’t yet heard and was completely shocked and immediately saddened. “People like Sally Ride aren’t supposed to die,” I wrote in an email to fellow female scientist.
Sally Ride has been an inspiration to me since I first saw her photo in one of my elementary school textbooks. The instant I laid eyes on that photo, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up: I was going to be an astronaut like Sally Ride.
Sally Ride’s historic 1983 flight aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
As a young girl, I couldn’t fully appreciate the sentiment that the photo conveys to me today because I didn’t understand that women faced these things called “barriers.” But if you think about it, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the pint sized version of me understood the existence of barriers. What I saw in my textbook then was a poofy haired woman smiling as she floated around the innards of a space shuttle, surrounded by weightless calculators, flying manuals, a jillion buttons, and some unidentifiable specimen of astronaut food. To me, this particular photo indicated that women hanging out in space were a totally normal sight.
When I was in my early 20s and studying toward a PhD in chemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I realized that Professor Sally Ride worked just a few buildings away in the Physics Department. I excitedly asked my academic advisor if we could invite her to make the long and arduous journey over to the chemistry building and tell us about the scientific research that she carried out at UCSD. He was enthusiastic as well, but soon informed me that Prof. Ride had shifted her focus away from research to start a company called Sally Ride Science that encourages young women to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Coincidentally, around the same time an opportunity to volunteer for that very company landed in my lap. I jumped into my little white VW and sped up the coast to Los Angeles for the day long festival, which was held on the Pasdena campus of the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).
At CalTech I had an absolute blast using gummy bears to demonstrate the inheritance of genetic traits, like tongue rolling, to eager and intelligent young girls. During a break in the activity, I was introduced to the real live Sally Ride and thanked her both for being an inspiration and for taking up such an important cause. She graciously autographed my name tag. Over the years I’ve met and chatted with several astronauts, a few of them household names. But this particular encounter by far outshines the brightest stars in the sky because, as we chatted, I realized that Sally Ride wasn’t just the poofy haired pioneer from my grammar school text book. She was a humble, compassionate peer who sincerely appreciated that we walked together in pursuit of gender equality in the sciences.
My little piece of history.
Thirty one years after Sally Ride earned her PhD in physics at Standford University, I successfully earned my PhD in chemistry. I haven’t experienced zero gravity in low Earth orbit (yet!), but it turns out that Sally Ride and I have more than just PhDs in common. Like her, I adore interacting with aspiring young female scientists and actively devote my time to events similar to those like the one at CalTech. In the Physics Department here at Ohio State, where I am currently employed as a Postdoctoral Researcher, we host a week long interactive summer camp called GRASP, or Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics. Before a lecture on the physics of gymnastics at last year’s camp, I donned a bright blue NASA flight suit and asked the campers one very important question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” To my absolute delight I was barraged with answers that varied from chef to archeologist and that included every imaginable profession in between. They were admittedly a bit confused by my dramatic wardrobe choices until Dr. Nancy explained what she was going to be when she grew up and that she wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stand in her way.
Dr. Nancy, aspiring astronaut, lectures on the physics of gymnastics at GRASP.
It is now a few weeks later and I’m sitting in my office again, the dreary skies above echoing my somber mood. Some time has passed since I heard the news, but it still brings tears to my eyes to think that the first American woman to fly in space has succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
People like Sally Ride are supposed to be invincible and unstoppable and are supposed to live forever. People like Sally Ride aren’t supposed to die. But with her death this week a torch was passed to the next generation, a torch that was lit nearly three decades ago aboard the Challenger. And although we may feel unprepared to accept this mountainous responsibility on such short notice, it is the least we can do to honor the women who paved the road before us. Because in carrying the torch we keep people like Sally Ride alive. Because people like Sally Ride aren’t allowed to die.
Credit: Getty Images
About Nancy Santagata
I obtained my PhD from North Carolina State University in 2009, MS from University of California, San Diego in 2003, and BS from Monmouth University in 2001. Although I am a chemist by training, my research lies at the intersection of chemistry and physics. I use cryogenic scanning tunneling microscopy to study the properties of atoms and molecules at surfaces and interfaces. Basically, with my microscope I can “see” atoms and molecules, it’s pretty cool!
Outside of the lab, outreach is a personal priority. In addition to lecturing at GRASP, volunteering for Sally Ride Science, and helping to create this blog, I have participated in Expanding Your Horizons conferences for girls. I hope that you might also volunteer, attend, or encourage an aspiring young scientist to participate in these or similar events in your own community.