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Anna G. Larson, Published March 21 2013

Solar system ambassadors are trying to make learning a science affair

FARGO – “To infinity and beyond” is more than Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase from “Toy Story” – it’s what keeps five North Dakota women interested in astronomy.

“Space is inherently cool. We’re just such a small part – it’s fun learning about things outside of our daily lives, thinking about what other life there might be,” Katrina Jackson, of Grand Forks, says.

Jackson, along with Kristin Brevik, Scarlet Gray Bernard, Carrie Leopold and Annie Wargetz, is a Solar System Ambassador this year in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory public outreach program.

Through the volunteer program, the women organize community events in the state about space and NASA missions. They’re able to connect with mission scientists and offer the public in-depth, understandable information about the solar system through presentations and events.

“We live in an area where you can get a telescope and use it,” Brevik, of Fargo, says. “Some places, you can’t do that.”

There are nearly 500 ambassadors in 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Ambassadors are “geared toward getting the word out about science,” Wargetz, of Grand Forks, says.

North Dakota has been previously underrepresented in the Solar System Ambassador program.

“It’s a high-needs area – not a lot of people in this area doing it,” Leopold says.

The women’s passion for astronomy and the sciences stems from education, curiosity and a desire to share knowledge. Gray Bernard, who has a background in English and music, explains that astronomy and sciences aren’t limited to mathematical equations and mixing chemicals in a lab.

“It can be very interdisciplinary – it can be history, music, art and creation,” the Fargo resident says.

For example, artists illustrate concepts developed by NASA scientists to help the scientists better understand ideas.

“There is a place for everybody somewhere in science,” Leopold, of Fargo, says. “I think sometimes people are very intimidated by the sciences. You don’t have to be the A-plus student to go into science. You have to be a hard worker and have a passion.”

The women hope to encourage people, especially women and girls, to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Although women fill close to half (48 percent) of all jobs in the U.S., they hold less than 25 (24 percent) percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration.

Women with a STEM degree are also less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation. They are more likely to work in education or health care.

“The major faces of science and astronomy in the media have still all been primarily male – Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Brian Cox,” Jackson says. “I hope to eventually give my own female face to that.”

The percentage of women in STEM careers has been gradually increasing, although women are still underrepresented in many fields, particularly in mathematical and computer sciences and engineering, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Wargetz attended the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ SPACE 2012 conference last year in Pasadena, Calif., and says it felt like there were only 10 females in the crowd of 1,500.

The deputy administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, spoke at the event, and Wargetz says it was inspiring to see a female executive since most are male. She hopes to inspire other women through her work in the sciences.

“My primary goal is to give females a face to look up to and say ‘Hey, girls can do this, too,’ ” Wargetz says.

She and Jackson will present “Outer Space in the Great Plains: Resources for Aliens” at the next North Dakota Solar System Ambassadors event on April 6.

The interactive presentation will focus on where aliens might find useful resources in our solar system.

The women encourage the public to come to solar ambassador events to be entertained and learn more about “infinity and beyond.”

“There are big, profound scientific discoveries every single day, and it affects everything,” Leopold says.

North Dakota’s Solar System Ambassadors can be contacted via www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador or ndssa.wordpress.com.

If you go

What: Outer Space in the Great Plains: Resources for Aliens

When: 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. on April 6

Where: Clifford Hall, Room 210 at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks

Info: The event is free and open to the public.

Meet the five women

Kristin Brevik

Hometown: Wahpeton

Education: Undergraduate degree in physics from Minnesota State University Moorhead and currently pursuing a graduate degree in chemical engineering at the University of North Dakota

Other: She was the International Year of Astronomy Ambassador for North Dakota in 2009.


Scarlet Gray Bernard

Hometown: Valley City

Education: Music and English undergraduate degrees from Valley City State University and a graduate degree in English from UND

Other: She’s been a planetarium assistant at MSUM since 2006 and is a member of the Fargo-Moorhead Astronomy Club.


Katrina Jackson

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Education: Currently pursuing graduate degree in the space studies program at UND

Other: She previously interned at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Office of Communications in Greenbelt, Md.


Annie Wargetz

Hometown: Houston

Education: Current graduate student in the space studies program at UND, where she volunteers for the UND Observatory and is a research assistant for the Human Spaceflight Laboratory

Other: She has a background in technical communications and teaching in the software industry.


Carrie Leopold

Education: Undergraduate degree in biology from MSUM and a master’s in education from the University of Mary in Bismarck, currently pursuing her doctorate in education research at UND

Other: Leopold is the STEM Outreach Co-ordinator for the North Dakota College of Science. She is also part of NASA’s professional development network, which provides resources and training to area teachers.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525