We’re kicking off a new series today featuring women changing the world with their innovative work in STEM fields. In interviews conducted by Technovation Girls alumni and student ambassadors, we’re sharing HERstory in the making. 

Women account for 53% of the world’s undergraduate and master’s degrees in STEM, but only 30% of researchers. Women also leave STEM fields at much higher rates than men, both of which point to structural problems within STEM fields, particularly when it comes to retaining women in STEM careers. We want to hear from women about what working in those fields is like – what they’ve learned, what they need, who they turn to, and why they keep pushing forward.

Women do important work. Let’s talk about it. Better yet, let’s let them talk about it. 

Over the next few months, stay tuned to hear women talking about the value of their female role models, how to approach the ideation and brainstorming processes, how to market an innovative product, how to innovate ethically – and more. Hear from women working at tech companies and engineering firms, interviewed by the young women coming up behind them.

Simonetta Di Pippo is the Director of United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). She recently spoke with Technovation Girls alumni and Student Ambassador (and 2016 season winner) Jennifer John. Jennifer is currently a student at Stanford University and had some great questions for Simonetta about how she chose a career in aerospace, what it’s like to work at UNOOSA, and their Space for Women program. Watch the full interview, or keep reading for some of our favorite parts.

On seeking a career in aerospace

Simonetta was always “fascinated by science in general” with broad interests in several STEM fields, including biology and neuroscience. But her passions sharpened in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon as part of their Apollo 11 mission. “I remember [Neil] Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon being one of the key highlights in my life. I still remember that and it was 50 years ago.”

Inspired by Apollo 11, Simonetta decided to focus on Astrophysics and Space Physics. While pursuing her Master’s in both subjects, she saw STEM’s retention problem firsthand. “In the first year at the university, we were more or less 50% female and 50% male.” At graduation, female representation dropped to just 10%.

“You have to consider that I started university in 1979, and I graduated in 1984. So that situation was different. For us, it was a continuous fight. Every single moment was a fight to demonstrate that we were at least equal to others, to the men.”

On what it’s like to work at UNOOSA 

The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) was created in 1959 to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space, including creating international laws for space. Simonetta explains UNOOSA’s main goal is “trying to bring the benefits of space to everyone, everywhere” specifically by “promot[ing] international cooperation to help member states—in particular emerging and developing countries – get the maximum from space infrastructures and space data.”

Among the many challenges of this sort of collaborative work is “the huge problem which we call the ‘space divide’, where you have a small number of countries that can really master space technologies.” UNOOSA helps “connect the dots” as Simonetta puts it, “try[ing] to put spacefaring and non-spacefaring countries together” as in when they recently helped pair the University of Nairobi with JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, helping Kenya launch its first satellite and become a space-faring nation.

About the Space for Women project

Jennifer also asked to hear more about Simonetta’s work to get more women and girls interested in astrophysics and STEM in general, including the Space for Women project.

“We look carefully at our balance when we do capacity building activities or training courses, and try to invite more and more women from developing and emerging countries. If you [pay] attention, then you can also build capacity. You can select women or girls who don’t necessarily know how to present a paper… and they can learn [how to do that] through us.”

“But the Space for Women project has a different origin. In September 2015, the UN and all member states approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is the one underpinning the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

Although space exploration can contribute to addressing all 17 SDGs, Simonetta explains that UNOOSA decided to tackle two specifically – SDG 4, which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, and SDG 5, which is to empower women and girls and achieve gender equality. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we link the two?’ and we created the Space for Women project, which has several goals. One is to be the platform for women and girls all over the world to exchange views, [and connect] with role models in STEM. A place where they can exchange experiences and best practices, and also not feel alone. Because the problem is not only bringing girls to study STEM. It’s also an issue of supporting them in building their career paths.

On role models – and being your own inspiration

As for being a role model for young girls and women, Simonetta is flattered, but thinks that girls and women should most want to be…themselves!

“I understand the role of a role model – it’s happening to me! It started a few years ago, with young girls telling me, ‘I want to become like you.’ I said, ‘Sorry, no. I like that, but not like me. You have to become yourself.’ ” You can (and should) seek advice from mentors and experts in the field, “but you cannot become like me, because no one is the same as anyone else. Each of us is [a combination] of all our experiences, culture, everything. Each of us is different. You have to become yourself. A stronger you.‘”

We’re so grateful to Jennifer and Simonetta for sharing their time and conversation with us. Stay tuned for more interviews between women in STEM and Technovation alumni as part of HERStory. You can make HERstory too – join Technovation Girls as a student or support girls around the world as a mentor, or help us support more girls and families this year.