Science Writer Nathalia Holt Talks to PLOS About Rocket Girls, Silly Questions, and Trading Pipet for Pen
Nathalia Holt, Ph.D. is a science writer and the New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Little, Brown, 2016) and Cured: The People who Defeated HIV (Penguin Random House 2014). Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, and Time. She has trained at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and Tulane University.
Rise of the Rocket Girls is an engaging true story about unsung heroes in science, in this case the women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who were hired as “computers” during World War II. These talented women have been about as visible as the dark side of the moon, but Rise of the Rocket Girls brings their story out of the shadows. In this interview, Nathalia explains the inspiration behind her books, describes the challenges women face in the sciences, and shares her insights into science communication.
Sullivan: Walk us through the transition you made from microbiologist to popular science writer. What prompted you to trade pipet for pen and write for a larger audience? Do you ever find yourself missing the lab bench?
Holt: As most scientists can attest, there is enormous pressure to remain in academia. Part of that influence comes from a sense of loyalty to one’s mentors. These are individuals and institutions who have spent years training you, who have invested large sums of grant money betting on your future potential, and who ultimately are depending on you to advance the field. After you finish a Ph.D., and finish your postdoctoral research, it seems the epitome of ingratitude to turn your back on a field to which you’ve devoted a decade of your life. And yet, there are other demands too, positions where scientists are desperately needed away from the bench. For me personally, I knew there was a piece of history that only I could tell, and I needed the time to do so. Although I struggled with the decision, it was the right choice for me.
Sullivan: Your first book (Cured: The People who Defeated HIV) had clear ties to the HIV research you conducted at the Keck School of Medicine (University of Southern California), so where did you get the inspiration for Rise of the Rocket Girls?
Holt: My research for Rocket Girls began in 2010 when I was pregnant with my daughter. My husband and I were arguing over baby names, unable to find one agreed on, when he suggested the name Eleanor Frances. I liked the name but was still unsure. After all, it is an old-fashioned name. So I did what parents do these days, and I googled the name. The first person to come up in my search was a woman named Eleanor Francis Helin. She had a long career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California and I found myself entranced by a single photograph of her–one where she is accepting an award from NASA in the 1960s. Although I’m passionate about the contributions of female scientists, I realized I had never heard about the early women of NASA. I soon learned that Helin was just one of a large group of women who worked at the Jet Propulsion laboratory starting in the 1940s and I became obsessed with finding them and learning their stories.
Sullivan: Was it more difficult to write about a subject that was outside the realm of your microbiology training?
Holt: While research for the book was more difficult, it was also more rewarding. I entered the writing process with fewer assumptions and greater curiosity. Writing outside your field allows you to view the subject more objectively, and perhaps most importantly, to ask the silly, obvious questions. Because I was writing on a subject outside my research area, I branched out significantly, bringing in readers with expertise in astrobiology, planetary science, astrophysics, and computer engineering, among others. As paradoxical as it seems, I believe my ignorance helped make the science in the book stronger.
Sullivan: What were some of the biggest surprises you discovered while researching Rise of the Rocket Girls?
Holt: There were so many–I was shocked to learn that the United States could have launched the world’s first satellite, a full year ahead of Sputnik. I was astonished to learn how many failures there were in our earliest missions to the moon and planets. Yet the most surprising thing I learned was that the accomplishments, and even the names, of a group of women who worked for NASA for five decades could nearly vanish from our records. The experience has made me realize how fragile our history truly is.
Sullivan: By bringing the stories of these extraordinary women who worked behind the scenes at NASA to light, Rise of the Rocket Girls shatters stereotypes about women in science and math. What do you see as some of the challenges women still face in the sciences today and what can we do to overcome those obstacles?
Holt: There is no quick answer to this question, but I take heart in how some individuals and institutions are addressing the very real challenges that exist for women in science. A promising example is that of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. In 2006, roughly ten percent of the school’s computer science graduates were women. In response, the administrators made some pivotal changes, opening up introductory computer science classes for those with no prior experience, making research opportunities available sooner, and sending female students to the Grace Hopper Conference. This has had a remarkable impact; in 2017 roughly 49 percent of students graduating with a degree in computer science were women.
There are a multitude of changes we can make, both in education and outside it, that we know are critical to both supporting scientists today, and growing the next generation of researchers.
Sullivan: Finally, would you like to offer any advice for our budding science communicators?
Holt: WE NEED YOU. Accurate reporting of science is essential, particularly at this moment in history, with eroding trust in scientific exploration and expertise.
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