Kim Arcand is the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, studying the perception and comprehension of science images by people of various degrees of expertise. She’s also co-authored a non-fiction book, “Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos” for Smithsonian Books which is aimed at attracting more novice science readers, particularly women. Her background is eclectic — jumping from biology (parasitology) as an undergrad, to computer science, to research and dissemination of astrophysics communications. We’re happy to have her share her story with us.
Sarah Worsham: Tell us about your job at NASA.
Kim Arcand: I’m the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, a satellite that looks at super hot regions of the Universe from exploding stars to colliding galaxies. My job is essentially telling stories about science, and those stories can take shape as a data image of a cluster of galaxies, a 3-D representation of an exploded star, an interactive piece about physics across scales, or just a tweet about a planet. I collaborate with scientists, researchers, writers, educators, graphic artists and many others to not only create stories about science but also to study how we understand science and the images that come out of it. My work is often computer based, and technology has been an important component of my career, but I also travel occasionally, give talks, and even write books.
Sarah: What’s been your favorite project or job of your career so far?
Kim: It’s so hard to pick just one! But since I must, I would say the “From Earth to the Universe” program, nicknamed “FETTU” that I created and co-led with Megan Watzke. FETTU was a public science exhibition for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009), in partnership with the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO. The project lead to over 1,000 astronomy exhibit sites in unusual public places – from prisons to cafes, from art galleries to airports – in over 70 countries, with materials translated into 40 languages. I am very passionate about projects and policies that can benefit international audiences with a particular focus on underserved groups such as women in science and the visually impaired, and FETTU was able to reach many people in these groups.
Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?
Kim: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to work in science. Growing up, each year I seemed to pick a different branch – astronomy or medicine? zoology or environmental science? parasitology or computer science? I’ve found that I like to delve into one area and then meander on to something related and learn about how the topics might connect. This learning style has benefited me in that I have been able to grow tremendously in my job, letting new skills and ideas guide the projects and goals in different directions.
Sarah: You’ve had an interesting journey to your current job — tell us what lead you to change jobs and how this non-traditional pathway has impacted you.
Kim: It stems perhaps from being interested in many things. I started out as an undergraduate in biology, then decided to focus on medicine, and then veered into parasitology and public health. It was difficult for me to pick a single area that I wanted to learn about consistently and consecutively. Eventually after graduating, I made my way into computer science and information technology, teaching Computer Science 101, and taking classes in IT, multimedia, and programming as part of a masters certification.
I was working at the time for the Chandra X-ray Center but yet I still hadn’t figure out what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” I knew however, that I had landed an amazing position with a group of people that encouraged creativity, growth and taking risks. So I continued happily on my journey under the umbrella of astronomy and eventually found myself doing such diverse things as data visualization, image and meaning research, and communications and public engagement implementation and research. I am addicted to learning, so I went back to school again, this time to work on a degree in public humanities. This last program helped me expand from being a specialist to more of a generalist, improving my critical thinking skills, collaborative project planning and provided a new lens to view not only my work and research but also broader opportunities.
Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?
Kim: I had a favorite science teacher in high school who let us have a lot of fun in his classroom. Even if we were getting boisterous or silly as long as we were genuinely curious about something, he’d let us try it out. We hoisted him up to the ceiling for one unit on pulleys…and then let him dangle there long enough to snap some photos. (We had to do this with a film camera that someone had to go find — this was way before the era of the iPhone!) He was a great sport about it and seemed to enjoy letting us “play” in science even though you would never have guessed that from his slightly gruff personality.
I have also had a mentor in my job at Chandra who has played an important role in my career. As my current group leader, she has enabled me to grow exponentially by helping to provide me with a supportive work environment, even while I took classes, had children and wrote a book.
Sarah: How did you get involved in writing a book?
Kim: My FETTU co-creator, Megan, and I were busy in 2009 trying to promote the IYA2009 project and get exhibits set up across the world. One article we wrote was for Sky and Telescope’s Beautiful Universe annual publication. A literary agent, Elizabeth Evans of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency saw the piece and contacted us to talk about a book. I was completely surprised and thrilled. I had always wanted to write a book and this was such a great opportunity to actually do it.
Beginning with our home planet, the book, Your Ticket to the Universe, aims to take the reader on an entertaining and understandable trip to the most interesting stops known in the cosmos. There are objects nearby within our Solar System (our backyard in space, so to speak) as well as sources that are found throughout our Milky Way galaxy and well beyond. Accompanied by photographs that bring the reading experience to life, Your Ticket to the Universe is designed to make space exploration accessible.
Sarah: How has your book impacted novice science readers, especially girls?
Kim: I’ve been very surprised to see such a wide age range for the book, much wider than I expected. I’ve heard from grandparents reading it at night to their young (4 or 5 year old) grandchildren. I’ve heard from friends who had 3rd and 4th grade children reading it on their own. And I even learned that an astronomy class at a university is using it as a reference.
A major part of my experience has been about getting out into the community and talking about space with people of all sorts of backgrounds, whether kids at a library or amateur astronomers at a meeting. Much of my day job has been behind the scenes, so to speak. Writing the book has let me have more direct communication with people and that has been both fun and rewarding. I think it’s important for children of all genders to see a woman, a “typical mom,” interacting with science and doing something interesting.
Two of my proudest moments this year were actually when my children came home with drawings from school. One was from my daughter (who’s now 8; left), and the other was from my son (now 10; right).
Sarah: What was your favorite game or toy growing up? Why?
Kim: Over a few Christmases, my parents gave me a microscope, a stellarium and a chemistry set, and they were all incredibly special to me. I felt empowered that my parents would trust me with such “grown up” toys. And then, I was completely fascinated by what I could do and learn with each of them. Of course, I also absolutely loved a dollhouse they had built for me, so it wasn’t all science all the time!
Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?
Kim: I am sure being female has had an impact on my career, but it’s hard to think of specific instances where I had a challenge due to my gender to overcome. One general issue, however, was that as an undergraduate I had neither female science professors nor any other women mentors in science around me. When I wavered about pursuing a graduate degree in science, I didn’t have an experienced female perspective to help out.
I know that many girls and women face serious hurdles to getting involved in science and that’s why I’ve dedicated my career to helping where I can.
Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?
Kim: The best advice I can give anyone about any career is to do what you love and be honest about what gets you excited. Try new things, take risks and give it your best. Sometimes it’s not obvious how to make your passion financially rewarding enough early on, but don’t let that discourage you. I’ve always believed if you do what you love, the rest will follow.
Sarah: In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?
Kim: It’s very important to infuse science into our popular culture. What I mean by that is that we need stop thinking of science as a separate entity from our everyday lives. Many people – especially girls – think of science as something that only certain people can and should do. What I think is critical is that we realize that science is all around us and impacts us throughout our daily lives. It’s also knowledge that can be gained just like many other fields – science is not just for geniuses. If more people realized that, then I think that at least one barrier that girls face would be lowered.
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Thank you very much, Kim! We hope you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring. If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!