RALEIGH — NASA astronaut Christina Koch holds the record for the longest single spaceflight completed by a woman and participated in the first three all-women spacewalks late last year.

This week, the NC State graduate added another accolade to her long list of achievements – the 2020 Global ATHENA Leadership Award.

As part of a live virtual event co-hosted by Cary-based software analytics firm SAS on Tuesday, the 41-year-old received the honor, joining notable past recipients that include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

NASA photo

Christina Koch (NASA photo)

“This award means a lot to me. To be a part of this elite group, many of whom are my heroes, is almost unbelievable,” she said during the one-hour webinar.

WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam had the chance to speak with her one-on-one shortly after the presentation. Here’s what she had to say:

  • What it was like for you at NC State? Were there many women taking the classes with you?

At NC State, I was there from about 1997 to 2002, and it was a mix. It also varied between what subject it was. I would say that in my Physics classes, there was usually a little bit of a higher ratio, usually around a quarter of the students.  In my upper level electrical engineering classes, maybe it was more like 10 percent were women. In some classes, I was the only female. I remember I took an elective in the Mechanical Engineering Department of automotive engineering, and I was the only woman in that class.

But interestingly, often I was the only woman instructing. I was a teacher’s assistant (TA) once I started my graduate studies in electrical engineering, and there were plenty of instructional sessions that I led where I was the only female but I was teaching other college students. So that was also an interesting dynamic. But it definitely came up, and I would say that rarely was I the only woman in the room, but definitely in the minority.

I hear that’s changing, though. At NC State, the numbers are changing. They’re prioritizing inclusion and making sure that the female students know how good they’re doing so they stick with it. Because I found, even I was told before I became a TA, your female students are going to think they’re doing the worst when they’re actually doing the best and I found that to be the case.

  • What do you think needs to be done to get more young women in STEM-related fields?

It really runs the gamut. I’m no expert in in education, so I really just like to think about what motivated me to choose it and to keep with it. A big part of it is mentorship and sharing what the true job really is and making sure that students see that it’s not all just rote schoolwork; that there’s a lot more to it that involves basically every aspect of our personality, teamwork, communication, bringing people together, seeing opportunities, seizing them, being innovative. When people see the full picture of what some of these STEM fields mean, in terms of when you actually get to be able to do the work and you aren’t just in school, it can be really motivating. They can see there’s a niche for everyone.

I’ve said in the past, cast a wider net and you can make sure that you keep the most people included in that net. That can mean varying the language that you use when you talk about those fields. It can also vary how you present the work of those fields; the people they see that are doing the work in those fields. I read one thing that was really interesting: research has shown that when you talk to students about, either say being a physicist versus doing physics, the girls in the classrooms feel more included. When you talk about doing the physics rather than being a physicist, there may be some work there with “imposter syndrome” or some other reasons behind that. If that’s what the research is showing, I say vary what’s presented to the students and you’ll cast a wider net.

  • Who were some of your mentors when you were at NC State?

One mentor that I had was in the Electrical Engineering department, and her name was Cecilia Townsend. She was an instructor that was just very outgoing. She was always interested in including people. She had a great attitude, and she really encouraged me. She was always telling me about different opportunities with the department; how my skills might fit into those and identifying some of the things that I was doing that stood out that I wasn’t even aware of. For example, she nominated me for an award that I didn’t even know I was so competitive for; and a lot of that had to do with some of my extracurricular interests. I was really interested in community service and quality work, and she pointed out that there were actually awards for scholars that also spent so much time doing community action and things like that. So I would say she was definitely a mentor for me.

Then also inside my family, my grandmother was a mentor. She ran an entire farm in Michigan. She was in the fields working; she was running the finances and also managing the selling of the produce. Watching her work from sunup to sundown, not complaining a bit throughout the day, just operating with a sense of duty — sort of holding hard work, above everything else. Her work ethic was just such an inspiration to me.

This photo provided by NASA, astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch float outside the International Space Station, Friday, March 29, 2019, a week after the first spacewalk to install new and stronger batteries for the station’s solar power grid. Koch was supposed to go out with Anne McClain, but there weren’t enough medium suits readily available. So the first all-female spacewalk had to be scrapped. (NASA via AP)

  • What were some of the challenges that you faced as a woman as you started rising through the ranks of NASA?

In my early career, I was not as aware of the ways that being a woman in those fields might have been affecting me. I got better at developing strategies to overcome some of those disadvantages once I learned more about them. One example is a few years ago I learned about a phenomenon that’s called “stereotype threat.” This is a research phenomenon that has shown that women oftentimes actually will perform worse when they’re doing so in front of a group that they perceive to have a stereotype against them. So I developed this countermeasure strategy to that, in particular in spacewalking. Because there are huge disparities in the number of women that do spacewalks versus men, and there’s a lot of preconceived notions about how successful a woman can be in that field. I would actually combat this effect by telling myself that the people around me who were watching and grading me thought that I was awesome. I would visualize them thinking how great I was doing up in the control room, watching me on the cameras and whatnot. And it would really help me replace that kind of ongoing thread of worry that otherwise would have been there about performing well and that would have otherwise taken over, say, when I did make a mistake, because to dwell on it and not to move on — that was a big thing. So for me, it was all about learning about what may be affecting my performance and developing strategies to counteract that.

Imposter syndrome is another big one that can affect a lot of women in scientific and technology fields. And so, I would say, a lot of us aren’t experiencing overt sexism or overt things that are making it difficult or creating barriers. But overall, the playing field is not level and understanding what is out there and how you can combat it, is really key.

  • Take us again to that moment when you realize that you’re about to make history by participating in the first all-female spacewalk with fellow astronaut Jessica Meir.

We had a lot to study because it was a contingency spacewalk that wasn’t planned. Jessica and I sort of made a pact to focus on a lot of the technical aspects prior to the spacewalk. We knew that there was a big moment happening, and we recognized that internally, but we didn’t want to get distracted by interviews or worrying too much about it, or picturing how many people might be watching prior to it. Then afterwards, when we were able to kind of look out, we saw this huge outpouring of support. We saw how many people were following along, how many messages of people telling us that they inspired them. And that’s when I think it dawned on us kind of the gravity of what we had been able to do. We really both just felt a sense of gratefulness to be in that moment where so many people had paved the way. We both just happened to be up there on the space station, we saw this just doing our job. But the fact that we had an opportunity to inspire was just such an honor.

When Jessica and I came out of the hatch, there was a moment when we caught each other’s eye on the outside of the hatch and we smiled at each other because we knew, at that moment, what we had done. It was a moment I will never forget.

  • Once you were back on board, how did you celebrate?

I celebrated with a hot chocolate, and that was my tradition after a spacewalk. As a team, one of our dear friends and colleagues, Andrew Morgan, made a little speech, both when we left the airlock and when we came back. So just hearing his words meant so much to me. Of course, I’m sure that weekend we had a big group meal, including our Russian colleagues, and made sure to spend some time together and sort of debrief.

  • What do you think about the commercial partnerships with SpaceX and what’s happening there? Are you excited about it? Would you have any hesitation riding on one of these vehicles?

I am so excited about it. I would ride a vehicle with no hesitation whatsoever. I would be very excited to be a part of that mission. I think it’s really great how NASA has gone about that partnership. While we’ve gone to low Earth orbit so many decades in a row, we know how to do that. Let’s go ahead now that we’ve incubated and fostered this ability, let’s hand it off to the innovator and innovative spirit of the commercial industry. Meanwhile, we’re looking deeper into space. We’re looking to go back to the moon to do the science and the technology development that happens there, and then take that even deeper onto Mars. It’s been great to see what SpaceX has done; it’s been great to see new ideas on the table, and I’m excited also that NASA has been able to focus back on true exploration into some new things.

  • Are you going back to space anytime soon?

I don’t know. I wish I knew, but the astronaut corps is small. Someone’s going to be assigned to that mission soon, so I’m just excited to know that person, whoever it is.

Astronaut, NCSU graduate receives Global ATHENA Leadership Award during live SAS webinar