Interplanetary Initiative Deputy Director Jessica Rousset discusses her path to working in the space industry
Only 11% of all astronauts have been women, and the number of women working in the aerospace industry has hovered around 20% for the last 30 years.
The Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University is on a mission to create a positive — and more equitable — future for all humans in space.
Jessica Rousset is deputy director of the Interplanetary Initiative, leading its strategy, collaborations and operations. She is also co-chair of the ASU-led University Advisory Council for Orbital Reef, a mixed-use business park being built in low Earth orbit, led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space. The advisory council of more than a dozen international universities will establish standards of conduct for ethical research on the station and conduct STEM outreach and education programs, among other activities.
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, which has a theme this year of #BreakTheBias, we spoke with Rousset about her pathway to a career in the space industry and how the Interplanetary Initiative is working to break the bias that women and other underrepresented groups face when launching space careers.
Question: How did you become interested in space, and how did you come to be at the Interplanetary Initiative?
Answer: Growing up, I was drawn to either becoming an astrophysicist or a microbiologist, studying the world through telescopes or microscopes. My path would lead me to becoming a biomedical engineer, starting my career in molecular biology working on cancer vaccines and making my way through roles in clinical drug development, medical device commercialization and health solution innovation, with a particular focus on children’s health — a greatly rewarding path. All the while, however, my interest in understanding the nature of matter, the universe and the big question of consciousness never strayed very far. I have a yearning to understand how everything is connected, from the very large to the very small.
As for many of us, the pandemic triggered considerable self-reflection and brought on new perspectives, including a rekindling of these big questions around the universe and our place within it. When a former pediatric innovation colleague mentioned a leadership position opening at the Interplanetary Initiative with its notable leader, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, my attention was piqued. I perused the Interplanetary Initiative’s website, where I clicked on a video, and eight minutes later, was completely inspired by the mission, goals and ambitions of the initiative and ASU in advancing society through space exploration.
Q: What do you love most about your work?
A: I have the privilege of working with inspirational and highly effective people, who every day aim for transformational change, not incremental improvement. The culture at ASU is one that places the bar high for impact while providing a very supportive environment. This is a combination that brings out the best in people, and I’m fortunate to contribute to this culture and the mission of the university.
Q: What’s your favorite book about space and why?
A: “The Tao of Physics,” by Fritjof Capra. This book is about the nature of reality, matter and the universe that examines humans’ separate but convergent endeavors at understanding these topics through the study of subatomic physics and Eastern mysticism, respectively. I am driven to see connections among phenomena, and this book compellingly connects two seemingly unrelated fields, with profound implications that I enjoy contemplating.
Q: Who was your biggest role model when you were growing up?
A: My mother. She is the quintessential renaissance woman — a serial entrepreneur, artist and bonafide hustler. She has been and continues to be my North Star, imparting on me her fearlessness, strength, resourcefulness and resilience.
Q: What advice do you have for girls or women interested in pursuing science careers?
A: My advice to girls or women interested in pursuing science careers is to be selective about where you choose to develop and share your talents. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you and push you to express your creativity without conforming to outdated norms or limiting beliefs. Also, don’t be afraid to change your situation, even if it feels risky, and go after your most authentic ambitions.
Q: If you could go back and give your younger self advice, what would it be?
A: Reflecting on my career path, both the opportunities and challenges, the advice I’d give my younger self is to trust my instincts more, to act on those “gut” feelings rather than do what I thought I “should” be doing or, worse, ignore the signs. I suppose this might be the type of wisdom that comes with age, but I believe this is a superpower we can cultivate in ourselves and each other at any time in our lives.
Q: How is ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative working to #BreakTheBias against women in space exploration?
A: Change starts at the top. Regents Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, is an inspiration for women and men alike. She exemplifies brilliance, grit and compassion. At the interplanetary Initiative, our mission is to shape an inclusive and sustainable interplanetary future by engaging across sectors, disciplines and cultures. Building diverse teams is core to our ability to have the impact we seek. While women are a growing force in the space industry, we still have work to do in order to see more women in positions of leadership.
Top image courtesy Orbital Reef