Lauren B. Worley, Press Secretary for the Stars (at NASA)

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 07/23/2015 2:13PM
Category: Women in Science

LAUREN WORLEY. CREDIT: Stephen Gosling

When talking to Lauren Worley, it’s hard to get her to stop talking about NASA. That’s partially because she’s a big fan, and partially because she’s responsible for getting their stories out to the press. For almost 4 years Lauren has done everything she can think of to help NASA get the word out about all of their programs, and explain everything they do both on and off our planet in plain English. We sat down with her to find out just how she does it.

FP: Congratulations on being Presidentially-appointed to work for NASA! It sounds like a dream job.

LW: (laughs) Well if the hardest part of my day is putting on pants and talking about space, it’s a good day.

FP: Have you always wanted to work for NASA?

LW: I didn’t even know NASA had a press secretary! (laughs) I had my own jewelry store on Etsy and wanted to work again, so I sent my resume to the advisor from my first internship – who happened to work at NASA. Several interviews later, here I am!

FP: Were you a space kid?

I was a HUGE Star Wars fan as a kid. I did the science fair every year. I went to science camp. I was a nerd, don’t get me wrong! Mostly, I grew up on a farm. Farmers are natural scientists, and growing up like that inspired me to want to do something in science. I thought maybe medicine, but I spent a whole summer candystriping at a hospital and discovered I get woozy at the sight of blood.
I was the class clown in high school, too. I’ve always had a sense of humor, and I think it helps. That way, I can talk to all the engineers working on amazing projects and approach them like, “I’m an idiot. Help me be the person who can deliver this information to other people.”

FP: You’ve got a background in public policy, entrepreneurship, and science. Are there any skills that transfer over? Any you wish you had?

LW: Huh… great question! You know, running your own business is really hard (laughs). I have so much new respect for people who do that.

I think running my own business made me a bit more maverick. When you’ve sold yourself to a client and then have to deliver all the stuff you promised, “doing things the way we’ve always done” is not part of your vocabulary, as it would be in the private sector. Like using an iPhone to talk to astronauts in space. We were in a warehouse trying to talk to the ISS and had an hour to set everything up – and the phone line didn’t work. We tried everything, and I suggested the iPhone and we made it work.

That said, it is nice to be working around other people again. Sitting by myself, the only brain I have to pick is my own. Plus, I like being around people smarter than me.

Lauren inside the James Webb Space Telescope Mockup at Northrup Grumman. CREDIT: Joshua Krohn

FP: What’s the hardest part of explaining NASA to the public, and how do you overcome it?

LW: Social media is great. It’s an exciting time to get stuff out because it goes directly to the people who want to see it. It’s a little bit of trial and error to figure out what to post – and knowing how to put things in a funny, interesting way that exudes personality. I rely on subject matter experts to tell me what’s important, and I’m excited for the ability to tell those stories visually.

One of my favorite examples is NASA’s partnership with Angry Birds. “Angry Birds: Space” has over 100 million downloads. Everyone has played it. I remember seeing a friend's kid playing it, and when I asked him about it he didn’t explain the point of the game; he was describing how he had to play it differently due to the lack of gravity. I mean, here was this 7-year-old explaining the basics of orbital mechanics to me without even knowing it was orbital mechanics!

That’s what everything we do at NASA is about – inspiring a generation of kids to go into science because it’s cool. That’s what STEM education is about, not getting kids into MIT.

FP: So do you consider yourself a woman in STEM?

LW: I do! At first I felt like a little bit of an imposter, like, “Well I just… I just talk about this stuff, right?” But from our Deputy Administrator on down, we have an amazing group of women, who are astronauts – who lead this organization on a lot of levels – who think a lot about this. And they are like, “No, you’re a woman in STEM, too. You’re not an engineer, but you’re definitely in this area.” That makes me feel really good to be included among these very, very amazing, accomplished women. But secondly, going back to the example of that 7-year-old, we need people to use scientific decision-making in whatever it is that they’re trying to accomplish. If we’re going to get to Mars by the mid 2030s – that’s our goal – then we’re gonna get there not only with scientists and astronauts and engineers, but also accountants and makers and nurses and people all along the spectrum.

NASA knows that we have a very large role to play in inspiring young people to study math and science. And so, we just kicked off a new mentor program. In fact, I’m going to be meeting with my mentee this week. We’re folks who are mentoring children in the area, and I think that’s really important because we all need someone to say, “You know what? Calculus is tough. Physics is tough. But you can do it. You can study – here’s a new way to look at problem, here’s a tutor who can work with you.”

I have a journalism degree. I don’t have to be a physicist to help inspire another young woman to become a physicist. What she needs to know is that I’m there to be supportive, I can be helpful in terms of, “Hey, here are your options. Here are some ways to help you out.” and be an enthusiastic cheerleader for their success.

FP: How do you translate science into stories?

LW: Space is interesting to lots of different people, for lots of different reasons. People have a hard time relating to the “perfection” of NASA – planets and robots and such. They see it as cold and distant. My job is to put it in a frame people can understand. That’s why the Curiosity Rover tweets in first person. And that’s the challenge of telling a 30-year story. Thankfully, interest in space is something that doesn’t go away; it just may seem a little dormant.

I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. Everyone at NASA is, even if they don’t know it. Telling a story of people going to Mars is an underdog story in the biggest sense – the astronauts are heroes, and they’re struggling against the scientific challenges of leaving here (and surviving there!). They’re going to have a whole new view of us as a species that we can’t even contemplate, like when [explorers] found the New World…. it’s really important we all go along this journey and that we all use our gifts and our talents and our passion to get up there, because we can get there. We are so close. We are closer than humanity has ever been to getting to Mars, and that is a really exciting time to be here at NASA… and to be an American engaged in the space program.

FP: How does the rest of the world respond to NASA?

LW: As Americans, we’re brought up to believe that we can do things others can’t, like go into space. That spirit inspires the rest of the world. I was in Addis Ababba, Ethiopia, which is 180 degrees different than what you and I know here in the US. These kids barely have shoes on their feet. But, it was incredible how inspired they are by the space program. They know about the Curiosity Rover! There was a 14-year-old kid who built a robot out of LEGOs to help aid workers in case Ebola came to his country. I mean, how can you NOT be inspired by that?!

LISTEN TO THE STORY HERE!

AUDIO CREDIT: Fiat Physica

FP: How does the rest of the world respond to NASA?

LW: As Americans, we’re brought up to believe that we can do things others can’t, like go into space. That spirit inspires the rest of the world. I was in Addis Ababba, Ethiopia, which is 180 degrees different than what you and I know here in the US. These kids barely have shoes on their feet. But, it was incredible how inspired they are by the space program. They know about the Curiosity Rover! There was a 14-year-old kid who built a robot out of LEGOs to help aid workers in case Ebola came to his country. I mean, how can you NOT be inspired by that?!

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Posted on: 07/23/15 2:13PM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
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#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

Szabolcs Marka

Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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