Alicia Townsend sat in the back row in a roomful of fellow Girl Scouts at Microsoft’s Policy & Innovation Center listening to female scientists – including the chief scientist for NASA – talk about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
But the Girl Scout from Ellicott City, Maryland, was light years ahead of her peers, some of whom were learning about space and aeronautics careers for the first time. Her grandmother, Marjorie Townsend, was a female pioneer who started working for the space agency nearly six decades ago.
The Washington, D.C., native died on April 4 at age 85, according to family members.
She had been the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree from George Washington University after enrolling at age 15, and the first woman to manage the launch of a U.S. spacecraft in 1965.
“When I was a young child, it wasn’t even a consideration to go to engineering school for a female,” Townsend, who continued her education at night after she got married in 1948, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2010.
The machinery maven went on to do sonar research at the Naval Research Laboratory before she landed at NASA in 1959, where she was project manager of the Small Astronomy Satellite program and studied celestial X-ray and gamma-ray sources within and beyond the galaxy. She was later awarded the agency’s Exceptional Service Medal in 1971 and Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1980.
“My grammy was my role model,” the younger Townsend told FedScoop during the event on Thursday. “She inspired me because she knew she didn’t belong, but she said, ‘I belong here. This is what I’m doing. You can’t push me away.'”
And now, the 17-year-old high school senior is following in her trailblazing grandmother’s footsteps: she is planning to study industrial engineering at West Virginia University in the fall.
She is keeping her grandmother’s legacy alive, and raised her hand frequently to ask questions and listened intently to the speakers about why girls should pursue careers in STEM.
Allyson Knox, director of education policy and programs for Microsoft, moderated the panel. Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, along with physicist Elizabeth Grossman and legal fellow Dana Campos – both Microsoft employees – shared professional advice and emphasized that STEM careers for girls isn’t a concept from outer space anymore.
In fact, Stofan said, that’s where they should go.
“I see my future Mars astronauts,” said Stofan, who rose up the ranks at NASA much like Townsend, and now serves as principal advisor to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the agency’s science programs.
“I see the people who are going to be critical to studying those extra solar planets, to working on climate change to mitigate the worst effects,” she told the students. “By not having women, we’re losing the ability to actually solve the tough problems that we have. That’s why we need you guys to consider careers in [STEM], because we need to solve these big problems and we can’t just rely on the guys to do it.”
Stofan said there are opportunities at NASA to pursue a career as a computer scientist, astronomer, engineer and even a veterinarian – to treat the mice that get launched to the International Space Station for research.
She and her fellow panel members also fielded questions from the Girl Scouts, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, about how to land internships, what to study in college and how women’s clothing and appearance could change how they are perceived.
Catherine Broadway, 14, an aspiring engineer, said after the event that she pledged to speak up more.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” the Delaware native said she learned. “I don’t usually ask a lot of questions. I usually just try to listen and figure stuff out.”
Townsend said she “loved to see all the women who are involved with big company names” speak to the Girl Scout troops from Chesapeake Bay, Central Maryland and D.C.
And, of course, “getting off school was a lot of fun,” she added, laughing.