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Alumna Jessica Watkins answers questions from International Space Station

Astronaut and Geological Sciences alumna Jessica Watkins discussed her career path, her future mission to the moon, and seeing her former field sites from space.

People watching screen with astronaut in International Space Station
(Photo credit: Heidi Campbell)

Jessica Watkins, BS ’10, floated onscreen to gasps from 60 faculty, students, and staff assembled on the Stanford campus to ask her questions and enjoy the thrill of viewing a live feed from the International Space Station on Oct. 5. Her entrance was followed by loud applause when crisp audio could be heard with only a few seconds of delay from hundreds of miles above Earth’s surface. Online, more than 200 people from nine different countries tuned in to the livestream.

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“I recognize that my shirt is maybe a little bit out of date,” said Watkins, wearing a Stanford Earth T-shirt and offering her congratulations on the launch of the Doerr School of Sustainability. “I didn’t have time to get a new one flown up here.”

Watkins, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences (now Geological Sciences), is currently serving as a mission specialist on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the ISS that launched on April 27, 2022. As a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech, Watkins was a science team collaborator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, where she met Mathieu Lapôtre, long before he became an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Stanford. Lapôtre, who organized the live Q&A for the Stanford community, considers Watkins both a friend and an inspiration.

“I hope this has shown our audience that space exploration is a critical component to our quest for sustainability on our own planet,” Lapôtre said. “I also hope that some of our audience members on the livestream, which included kids, will maybe feel inspired and pursue a career in planetary science. We need to inspire the next generation.”

Live event attendees were selected because they submitted questions for Watkins in the weeks leading up to the Q&A. Participants included graduate students, undergraduate students, and postdoctoral researchers in the Doerr School of Sustainability, School of Engineering, and School of Humanities and Sciences, in addition to faculty from the departments of Geological Sciences and Geophysics. Their questions spanned research objectives, sports, exercise, and inquiries about Watkins’ personal experiences.

Geological Sciences professor Jonathan Payne asked about lessons that have been learned from putting astronauts on the ISS and the moon that could be applied to sustainability on Earth. Watkins responded with a tangible analogy:

“We end up spending about 30 percent of our time up here on maintenance of the station,” Watkins said. “If we adopted that when we think about how we take care of the Earth – if we all spent 30 percent of our time or something close to that considering how we could build a more sustainable future – I think we would have really different results.”

Elizabeth Wig
Electrical Engineering PhD student Elizabeth Wig (Photo credit: Heidi Campbell)

She discussed how technologies used to conserve and reuse water on the space station could become the future of fresh water on Earth. The team’s research on growing plants without soil – they’re currently raising tomatoes and peas – could not only help grow food on Mars, but also support food security in areas where fertile soil is not available, she added.

Assistant professor Laura Schaefer asked Watkins how her training as a geologist has prepared her for astronaut life and future missions.

“We all have different pathways that led us here, but I am so grateful for my pathway, my geology background … especially on the International Space Station, where we have these beautiful windows to look out at the Earth,” Watkins said. “I think my crewmates are sick of me talking about all the rocks as we pass over, but I really enjoy it.”

Katrina Magno, a PhD student in Geophysics, asked Watkins how her experiences have changed her view of the world.

“It is abundantly clear how important the teamwork that I mentioned and that international collaboration and collaboration across disciplines – how necessary that is to accomplish these hard things, these goals that we set out for ourselves as humankind,” Watkins said. “Just the importance of being able to work together and use each other’s resources, celebrate each other’s diversity, and come together to accomplish things that we would not be able to accomplish on our own.”

Michael Hasson, a graduate student in Geological Sciences, wanted to hear about her view from the space station. Watkins discussed the power of seeing field sites she studied as a geologist from a completely different vantage point, in addition to the beauty of Africa and the moon from space.

“You can come around the corner … and see the colors flooding the whole module, and you know then that we’re over Africa – you can tell just by the saturation of the colors. It’s just absolutely gorgeous,” Watkins said. “The moon from this perspective is just absolutely gorgeous – gorgeous from the Earth, as well. She’s really definitely stolen the show for me up here.”

After Lapôtre thanked Watkins for her time and called her “a literal rock star,” she concluded the Q&A session with a series of slow-motion backflips that left the audience cheering.

Grant Long
Geological Sciences master's student Grant Long (Photo credit: Heidi Campbell)

The experience “brings me back to when I was a kid and looking up at the stars,” said Geological Sciences master’s student Grant Long.

“I don’t know what I was expecting when I first came to this, but just seeing her come into frame was so mind blowing to me and thinking that we’re in a small communication window with ISS is just amazing to think about,” Long said. “It makes me want to go into that field of space exploration.”

Maryann Benny Fernandes, a master’s student in Electrical Engineering who wants to work at the intersection of antennas and spacecraft design, said she looks up to Watkins as an astronaut. Fernandes is currently doing an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where “everyone talks about her.”

“I had tears in my eyes,” Fernandes said. “This showed me how inspired I am by her.”

Following her bachelor’s at Stanford, Watkins earned a PhD in Geology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She received Stanford Earth’s Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award in 2018. Learn more about her journey in this career profile.

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