Come explore the universe with Alice Wessen, Manager, Solar System Missions Education and Public Outreach at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)! Learn about her inspirations, thoughts on science in entertainment, and bringing the JPL missions to life for students and the general public.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to work at the JPL?
I fell into this! I was a social worker, working with gang kids and counseling students who had fallen through the cracks and were in various continuation programs. I loved the job, but part of my reality was that as I was starting my own family, I couldn't save the world and not be there for my own kids. I reluctantly gave up my social work and went back to school and worked part time at JPL, which had a great Academic Part Time program, allowing me to finish my master’s in education and finance, while working. My first job was in the Professional Development Program at JPL, working as a personnel specialist, supporting the JPL/Caltech student programs. I fell in love with JPL. That was 20+ years ago. Also my husband Randii works at JPL. The funny thing is we hardly ever see each other at work!
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science while you were growing up?
There was not any one movie or TV show. But I was sparked by my mother. My mother was a sci-fi buff. Through her, we grew up watching Space Family Robinson and Star Trek and saw movies like War of the Worlds. My siblings and I were with my mother on the opening weekend of Star Wars. She instilled the love of a good story, though partial to sci-fi and fantasy.
You help bring JPL missions to life for students and the general public. Tell us about your work. What is your favorite mission?
I manage Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) for many of the Solar System missions at JPL. And I get to do that with NASA, which has been sharing its discoveries since it was founded in 1958.
The original Space Act of 1958 states “that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind” and NASA has actively shared its discoveries and science with the public. We want to make a difference, especially with students. So we look for ways in our missions to engage students to ask informed questions, so they can draw their own conclusions and communicate their findings to others.
As for a favorite mission, there are too many, and each has its joyful moments. That would be like asking which of my kids is my favorite. Seeing the first image back from Mars, or Saturn, or watching the magic of a launch. We are all 8 years old again.
What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science and engineering?
Reach out to schools, work with museums, be present at the major science conferences and talk with scientists, work with NASA!
If you could choose someone from the entertainment industry to have dinner with, who would that be?
I love the writers, those unsung heroes of the script. Give me a writer to talk with any day, for they make magic happen.
Do you think a show like The Big Bang Theory, whose characters are modeled after researchers at Caltech, has a positive or negative influence on young people choosing careers in science?
I enjoy the Big Bang show, but it is a show and it uses more of the stereotype to elicit laughs. Not necessarily bad or good, but not a fully developed character or situation from which students should base their careers. When we move away from the stereotype of the nerd-scientist to a more fully developed character, I am in. That being said, Big Bang makes me laugh out loud. And characters have some ring of truth and they are likeable. The ball pit episode with Sheldon made me giggle so hard. Bazinga!
How important is it that the audience sees science portrayed accurately in film and television?
I am not sure the word “accurate” is the one I would use. Credible seems a better word. Artistic license for the storyline is fine. I may not remember a series of facts, accurate though they may be, but a great story? Priceless.
What should we have asked you that we did not? Any projects you want to share with us?
My career is only one part of my life. I also volunteer in my community, including hosting an annual block party for our neighborhood, and I enjoy my family. Life is so much more than work. I have many fishing trips ahead of me, and places to travel to, and friends to share with. My husband and I still laugh a lot, and we enjoy the heck out of our kids who are now in college but still like to hang out. And I love to read and go to the movies. In that, I am my mother’s daughter. She was always searching for a good story to enjoy.
There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. —Ursula K. Le Guin
Photo credits: Raina Wessen