Kara Schmitt, B.S. physics ’06, M.S. Space Systems ’09 and Ph.D Human-Centered Design ’13 currently works in Washington D.C. for the Aerospace Corporation helping NASA and other government agencies assure mission success. Previously, she worked on the Space Shuttle Program as a Structural Engineer as well as for a small business doing everything from propulsion system development to software project management.
What inspired you to pursue a STEM education and career?
My inspiration to go into physics was my high school instructor, Mr. Pate. He was able to teach us the magic in understanding the way the world around us works. From there, it was a pretty easy jump into engineering – and who wouldn’t want to work on rocket ships?!
What do think are some of the most shared/common challenges women in STEM fields encounter?
Honestly, in this day and age, I think we all share common challenges – men and women. Knowing when you don’t know, and having the courage to speak up and ask even simple questions was one of my biggest challenges. I find that sometimes no one knows the answer, but everyone is too afraid to ask. I think that lesson applies equally to everyone.
How have you overcome obstacles/challenges as a woman in STEM?
Experience, mostly. The more you do anything, the better internal sense you get at knowing if it’s right or not – and as that sense develops, you gain confidence to overcome bigger and harder challenges on your own. At the same time, you have to know when you’re creating your own obstacles due to your own perspective. We all have control of our situations, so I regularly ask myself how I can change my behavior to change the outcome.
Knowing what you know now, what advice you would give your younger self?
I suppose it’d just be to hang in there. I know it’s not that helpful, but it’s the hard process of learning that makes us grow.
What one takeaway would you want to impart on a young woman thinking of pursuing an education/career in STEM?
If you’re feeling comfortable in your position, it means you’re not growing. Have a little faith when things get hard – it means you’re learning.
What is an aspect of being a woman in STEM you were surprised to discover?
I was surprised at how much of your day goes into the “softer skills.” A lot more of the day is spent working with other people, trying to figure out the right way to communicate a message, or just setting up goals and laying out boundaries than it is working with equations.
In your experience, what are the top things leaders could do to encourage more young women to enter STEM fields?
I think we should expose everyone to the STEM fields, but it’s important to expose them to everything. We need engineers and scientists, but we still need historians and musicians too. To encourage the youth, we should do as much outreach as we can and try to help kids find the magic in the way the world around us works.