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Elizabeth Jens: Girl from Mars

Australian NASA scientist Elizabeth Jens knew by the age of 12 she wanted to be an astronaut. She wasn’t your typical teenager – boys didn’t rate – but solar systems, planets and watching the stars from her backyard in the coastal town of Torquay certainly did.


Now, at 32, Jens is based in NASA’s Pasadena, California office and has been working in the USA for the past eight years. She went there to do her masters in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and the rest is well…rocket science. What’s more, she’s just as keen to encourage more young women to embrace science in their undergraduate and post-graduate studies as there’s a shortage of them worldwide.


Jens is a guest of the Forefront 18 – Anticipating Future Culture held in Sydney on 19 July, where her conversation will revolve around whether there’s life on other planets to what can we do to save our own.


“There’s a chance life came from Mars to Earth back in the day, and then as Mars has cooled down it’s become a different planet,” offers Jens, who while fascinated with life on other planets, thinks more in terms of biological life than meeting a green alien.


“I’m certainly interested in the question of how do we define life and I think there is a form of life out there but it may not be what you imagine it to be.”


Jens, who has spent the last two years working in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, keeps a toy astronaut on her desk to serve as a reminder of where she came from. “There are days I have to pinch myself and say, wow, I’m doing exactly what I dreamed of as a kid,” she says.


“When things get stressful I remind myself this is exactly what I wanted,” she explains of working on a gas propulsion system bound for Mars. “I am lucky to get to work on building the hardware for a Mars rover in 2020.”


It’s the weird and wonderful world of science that drives her passion, and there were also a few significant teenage moments that sealed her fate.


“I remember watching Apollo 13 with my dad and noticing the engineers not the astronauts,” she recalls. “The engineers got me excited for science. It was the peg and the round hole problem and made want to do just that.”


There was also a book about planets by Peter Moore which shifted her perspective. “The book had all these images of the missions we had sent out at that point and it fascinated me. I wanted to learn more about it,” she says.


While her parents had a telescope in their backyard, Jens admits she spent more time trying to figure out how to use it with her dad than seeing anything through the lens, but it was the pursuit of star searching that inspired her.


“Dad also took me to a talk in Geelong by an Apollo astronaut. I remember being struck by the fact he was standing in front of me and showing us pictures of him on the moon. It made me think why not me. If I work hard and apply myself I could do that one day,” she says.


After completing her science degree at Melbourne University, she set off overseas and hasn’t looked back. Now, Jens is thrilled that an Australian space agency has been set up.


“Australia is in a period of change. There has been a lot of dedicated professionals pushing to establish an agency in Australia. In recent years there was a successful rocket launched by a NZ start-up called Rocket Lab and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of getting things moving. In a nutshell, if an institution wants to collaborate in the name of research, you now have somewhere to go, it’s a great starting point,” she adds.


Jens, who was featured in Vogue’s March edition as an industry ‘game changer’, says she hopes to see more women encouraged to pursue science excellence.


“It’s difficult to get women in and to keep them there,” she says of her experience at Stanford University. “It’s the culmination of a lot of small things that stem from when we’re kids. We’re more likely to be given a doll to play with than Lego and it’s all these things that build up to influencing your career decision.”


She says parents and teachers need to be active in encouraging young women to choose science.


FOREFRONT 18 on a new style of summit Anticipating Future Culture. 

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