NASA scientist Dr Camille Wardrop Alleyne leads the way for women of colour
Looking around one day as she sat in a conference room at US space agency NASA’s headquarters in Houston, Texas, Dr Camille Wardrop Alleyne realised something shocking.
“There were no little ones like me coming through the pipeline,” she told Business Day recently. Specifically, there weren’t enough young people of colour, much less young women of colour.
“This was in 2005. I wanted to figure out how to increase the voices at the table when it came to space exploration,” the NASA aerospace engineer said. She started the Brightest Star Foundation in 2007 to change that.
“Young women weren’t really pursing these science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. So I wanted to state a foundation that targets young people, especially young women, to become the future leaders of STEM. I’m passionate about young women finding their voice and being able to see themselves and see greatness in themselves,” she said.
She’s definitely made an impact. She recalled her first interaction with cosmologist Dr Alexandra Amon when she was in sixth form.
“Years ago, ago doing a keynote at UWI, she was in the audience with this dream. She loved space but didn’t know there was any way she could do that. But you know what they say, representation matters. She didn’t know how to get from Trinidad to where she wanted to be until she heard my story. Now she has her PhD and doing amazing things.”
Wardrop Alleyne, who was born in Port of Spain, however, didn’t have those role models. But she was plucky and admits some naivete about the world that thankfully, prevented her from overthinking the challenges in pursuit of her dreams.
“I blazed my trail but some girls need to see people doing great things in STEM so they can feel the confidence to even pursue it.”
What she had though was the support of her parents and her teachers, and unwavering belief in herself.
“I grew up in a house where I was allowed to explore things I loved. I loved to build things – and break them. And my mom would let me. She’d bring things for me to fix when they were broken instead of taking them to my dad. Now when I look back on it, it really was creating that foundation for me to explore the things I loved.”
Next was going to an all-girls school, St Francois Girls' College in Port of Spain.
“I loved math and I loved science. I was really good in those subjects and my teachers encouraged me. That was very important because in co-educational environments we often don’t encourage girls, we encourage boys to do math and science. I was one of ten in a hundred-strong class who really pursued the sciences at a time when that wasn’t really a thing. But I knew my proclivity and I wanted to do what I wanted.”
Her love of planes led her to aerospace engineering, but it was while she was at Howard University in 1986 during the Space Shuttle Challenger’s tragic explosion at liftoff that she became convinced her future lay in space exploration.
“It changed my trajectory because at that time I didn’t know about NASA. But when I saw that I knew that is what I wanted to do. I set my mind to it and six years later I was driving through the gates of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That was almost 26 years ago.”
Alleyne acknowledges that she is a minority – a black Caribbean woman working in the white male-dominated aerospace industry. But she didn’t let that hold her back.
“I always had this inner drive and fortitude to do the things I love. To this day I tell young people life isn’t worth living if you aren’t doing what you love. I think I had this innocence about pursuing what I wanted and looking back now, I think, wow, I can’t believe I navigated those waters,” she laughed. “It wasn’t easy. Black women make up less than one per cent of all aerospace engineers in the country so it’s really rare. But I think it’s resilience. Courage to go forth and do the things I love. Fortitude and not allowing myself to stay down. I have an ability if I’m knocked down to get back up and keep moving forward.”
She started her career working on the Space Shuttle testing systems. She’s led teams designing the Orion capsule, which will take humans back to the moon in 2024, and up until last month, she was deputy manager of the commercial lunar payload services, working with commercial entities to build an economy on the moon. Now, she’s the deputy manager of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) programme that lays the foundation for future sustainability of space commercialisation. She’s also the first African American to lead or co-lead a programme, “which is a big deal at NASA.”
She’s also an advocate for STEM studies on earth to transform economies.
“Countries that are developed and economically sustainable have invested in research and entrepreneurship. If the Caribbean can do that then they can get on the road to economic prosperity. It’s through STEM you are able to generate economic growth – it’s technology, innovation and invention that is driving the economy of the US, for example, along with research and development. It’s important for country to see the value in STEM and really start investing. It’s the only way to start advancing.”
"NASA scientist Dr Camille Wardrop Alleyne leads the way for women of colour"