To acquire wisdom, one must observe

NASA Deputy Chief Technologist lectures on the methodology of space exploration

Julie Williams-Byrd, Deputy Chief Technologist at NASA, lectured on the space agency’s methodology in research and analysis activities on Nov. 14 at an event called “Hidden Figures: Women at NASA Yesterday and Today.” Williams-Byrd responded to questions during a Q&A session before showing the film, “Hidden Figures.”

Williams Byrd’s lecture was part of the Brandeis Martin Weiner Lecture Series Department of Physics Colloquium. In her lecture, Williams-Byrd focused on her role at NASA as Deputy Chief Technologist. She mentioned that NASA aims is to identify technologies and capabilities that would enable human exploration missions and decides which ones to invest in the near term, which ones to delay and which ones are crucial to the mission.

NASA works with limited budgets to investment in technology with the highest probability of success. NASA Langley Research Center’s (LaRC) Technology Assessment and Integration Team (TAIT) was created to develop processes to rank technologies over various exploration missions. According to Williams-Byrd, in order to find the best technologies and capabilities, NASA researchers use quantitative data, collaborate with experts and stakeholders, assess uncertainty/quantifying risk and provide a method for weighing evaluation data.

Williams-Byrd has been working for NASA for 29 years. “When I started working at NASA, I was developing solid-state lasers for light R systems that did remote sensing of the atmosphere. I was able to do laser research, go to domestic and international conferences, and publish articles. I was also able to work on the project-side … One of the [projects] that I am very happy about is the CALIPSO instrument that is continually flying out in the atmosphere and in space taking data,” Williams-Burd said in an interview after her lecture.

After spending time in laser labs, Williams-Byrd moved to the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate where she was able to develop tools, algorithms and models to prioritize technologies and capabilities, specifically for human exploration of Mars.

“Now, as Deputy Chief Technologist, I advise the NASA Langley director on the technology portfolio that we have at Langley to make sure that it is balanced in early stage and the actual demonstrations and developments. I also make sure that the technology meets the core needs of the organization,” she said.

Williams-Byrd addressed how themes of diversity, equity and inclusion play out at NASA. “I think that NASA is trying to address diversity and they feel that diversity of thought is really important. I’ve seen women go into high-level management positions at NASA headquarters. Our Deputy Associate Administrator was a female, Lesa Roe. I see women having the opportunities to rise up, hit the glass ceiling, and open the doors for others. We also have different employee groups, such as Hispanic employee groups, Veteran employee groups and LGBT employee groups. We’re trying to make sure that they are at the table so when we have to make decisions, we get their thoughts,” Williams-Bryd said.

The second component of the event was a Q&A session with Williams-Byrd and a showing of the film, “Hidden Figures.” “Hidden Figures,” based on a true story, focuses on the lives of three female African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.

“I think about the three ladies specifically in the movie. But in the book, there are other ladies who blazed a trail for what they called at the time, computers who wore skirts. And I’m so thankful for those women who showed excellence and brought a benefit to others. Without them doing that, I don’t know what the future might have held for people like myself,” said Williams-Byrd in an interview.

Anique Olivier-Mason, director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity for the Materials Research Science Engineering Center (MRSEC), worked to bring Williams-Byrd to campus.

“Within the role [as Director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity], I work to broaden participation of underrepresented minorities within science and to increase awareness of science and engineering. Bringing a NASA engineer to Brandeis exposes students to potential career possibilities and options that exist within STEM fields. Also, having such a successful black woman, who is a NASA scientist, can be a great role model for our students,” she said.

Hidden Figures: Women at NASA Yesterday and Today event was sponsored by the Heller School, IBS, Chief Diversity Officer, Provost and the Dean of Arts and Sciences.

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