Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey

17Jul/16

Why Women in Tech and Science Know Well About Pulling off the Impossible!

Dr. Mark Ryman lecturing on the Dawn Mission at JPL, July 14, 2016

Dr. Mark Rayman lecturing on the Dawn Mission at JPL, Thursday July 14, 2016

Dr. Marc Rayman, Chief Engineer and Mission Director of NASA's Dawn Mission told an audience at JPL last Thursday night: "NASA's motto is  'If it isn't impossible, it isn't worth doing.' "

I think this will be my new motto, too. It seems to be a pretty good description of my life!

I remember one of the first space scientist lectures I attended after moving to Pasadena. It was at Caltech, and it was celebrating all the scientists who worked on the various missions over the many years leading up to the Curiosity Mission to Mars. One of the speakers explained to us about the earliest space scientists: "You need to remember that they had no mentors, no role models! There was no such thing a a spaceship or space travel before they built the first one."  Turns out many of them had been driven and "ideaized" by sci-fi! I love it!

When I finish my Light 2.0 interactive multimedia novel, I really want to write something that draws the parallels between these scientist starting off to invent space travel, and the life of a woman in tech and science - who typically has no role models or mentors simply by the fact of her gender. I'm starting here.

In college (BA Film Undergraduate) I was once hired to record the live performance of a 300 voice choir, with soloists and musicians and a pianist, in San Francisco's Civic Center Auditorium. Before that the most I had ever recorded on location was a band and a small school choir with a Nagra recorder hooked up to a film camera.

There were no mentors or advisors for me to turn to. On concert day, the director of the project simply pointed to a box of gear and told me where to set up my mixing station and whom to talk to if I wanted to tap into the auditorium's PA. When I opened the very large crate, I had no idea what half the items in it even were. I skipped the PA tap because, truthfully, I didn't  know what that meant. I will save the details for some essay in the future, but, I will share here that somehow with the help of my little sister whom I had dragged along with me and who was furious because she knew that neither of us knew what we were doing, I pulled it off.

I put all that equipment together, remembered pictures in my sound books about mic placement, circumvented the PA, taught myself how to solder, mixed a 16-channel recording of a live performance, and a few weeks later got a call from the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in San Francisco (the performance I recorded was of a choir composed of choirs of every religion from all over San Francisco) thanking me for the outstanding recording I had created of the day's performance. To this day I can't believe I pulled it off!

For years when people asked me how I learned so much about sound in college (I wound up building an Academy Award winning sound post-production studio for producer Saul Zaentz after I completed my undergraduate degree in film), I used to tell them how I apprenticed with the staff engineer at my university. For years I did not know why I gave that as my standard answer. For it was a lie. I am going to speculate today, because I am thinking more deeply about these things now, that I said it because I figured it would give me more credibility than telling people I taught myself. Especially because I was a girl, and was always struggling to be taken seriously. That and the fact that the truth somehow embarrassed and humiliated (and hurt?) me.

The truth being that when I asked him if he would mentor me, he said no. Not only that, but when I went back to him, after learning he had a daughter, and posed the question to him differently, persuasively: "How would you feel if you knew your daughter, like me, some day went to some man and asked for help so she could get a leg up in the world and he said no?" - Unmoved, he still said no.

And yet for years I told people that I went to him with that question, and he agreed to mentor me and that was how I came to know all about sound engineering. When in truth I learned by doing my Workstudy in the sound lab of the university for 20 hours a week. And by engineering and mixing the soundtracks of all my peer's college movies. And by reading every sound recording and physics of sound book I could get my hands on. And by listening to sound. Everywhere.

So, yeah, I kinda know what it has been like for these scientists, inventing things that have never existed before, pulling off feats and expeditions of great complexity - each usually for the first time. But one big difference is that they have each other. Maybe no mentors of people who have gone before, but each other. Most of us women who have been raised in this patriarchal society have pulled off the things we have done for the most part on our own. I hope that will change one day.

 

P.S. If you would like to learn about the Dawn Mission to Vespa and Ceres (exoplanets in our solar system that were thought to be actual planets until the mid 1800s, but which are actually planetary bodies whose growth was stunted by other solar system happenings before they could become full-fledged planets), check out the video of Dr. Rayman's wonderful, and curiously amusing, lecture here: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/events/lectures_archive.php?year=2016&month=7

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