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Aiming for the Stars

Christina Hammock Koch

NASA astronaut and NC State alumna Christina Hammock Koch has good news for young women who want to pursue careers in science.

“You get to do exactly what you want to do. Each one of you is perfectly poised to do just that,” Koch told a crowd of 200 students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of NC State at the College of Sciences’ second-annual Celebrating Women in STEM Dinner. The event was sponsored by BASF and held in partnership with NC State’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program.

Koch, who earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and electrical engineering and a master’s in electrical engineering from NC State, was one of only eight people selected from among thousands of applicants to NASA’s 21st astronaut training class. She completed the program last year and is now awaiting a flight assignment.

Koch’s astronaut class has received an unusual amount of popular media attention — including coverage on the Today show and in Glamour magazine — because it was NASA’s first to graduate equal numbers of male and female astronauts. But Koch acknowledged that her experiences in the sciences have not always been so gender-balanced.

Her love of science took her down an unconventional career path that included stints at research labs in far-flung areas like the South Pole, Greenland and American Samoa. In her labs and other professional settings, she was often the only woman or one of just a few, a disparity that’s common in many science and engineering fields. But she did not let this — or anything else — stop her as she pursued her goals.

Confronting her fears, she told the audience, has been an important part of her decision-making process.

“If you’re faced with a decision and one thing scares you and one is pretty mundane, I think the path you should take is pretty clear,” she said.

Koch has consistently followed her own advice throughout her career, which she calls “a series of intimidating events.” She described as one example the year she spent as a cryogenics technician at the South Pole, which was demanding in terms of both the work and the isolated and bitterly cold environment. She acknowledged that though this experience and others like it were indeed intimidating, they were ultimately incredibly valuable.

Among the benefits: the experiences helped her develop a standout résumé and prepared for her the diverse challenges of astronaut training.

“It really is true that when you follow your passions, not only are you guaranteed to excel, but also you’re positioned to give back to the world in the best way possible,” she said. “And that’s the best win-win out there.”

Christina Koch greeting students
Christina Koch (left) greets students after the Women in STEM Dinner.

She also encouraged her audience to support one another as they pursue their passions, recounting how one former supervisor told her early in her career that he knew she would do something great someday.

“Those words kept my dream alive and kept me on my path,” she said.

Koch’s speech was one of her several appearances on campus during the week, and she expressed how grateful she was to get to not only speak to the students but also hear their stories. She concluded by thanking the students for inspiring her and assured them that she would keep those stories with her.

“I always answer the question of ‘where did you go to school?’ with a lot of pride,” she said. “I am very proud of NC State, and I think you all exemplify why that is the case.”