Why I Refused To Choose Between Art And Science, And Why Other Women Should Do The Same

"Try something out and if doesn’t work, you can always come back.”

What is art without science? Can a ballerina pirouette en pointe without the laws of physics existing? Or can we hear a string quartet play their symphony without the existence of oxygen, which allows the strings to vibrate, creating sound waves that absorb into our ears? Science is just understanding who we are and what we have created in our very own existence. Ever since I was 3, I have been on the stage performing — utilizing multiple forms of art without truly understanding the format in which they all existed. How does music become created through frequency? Or what elements are required to create the perfect oil paint for Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa"? These questions only came to me later in my childhood, when I was given my first astronomy book at age 12. Now, 13 years later, I board a plane to NASA.

I grew up going to public schools for the arts in Brooklyn, N.Y., performing and training in dance, music, theater, and, shortly after, modeling. I was horrific at math, and although I loved chemistry, biology, earth science, physics, and astronomy, I not only struggled in these classes, but was often discouraged by the other students, and even the teachers. "I was a performer and entertainer, NOT an intellect." In high school, standing at 5-foot-10 with long, blond hair and green eyes, I received an abundance of cliché "dumb blonde" jokes from the science crowd and a lack of enthusiasm from the dance crowd, who often doubted my commitment and ability to pursue the arts professionally since I was not the average height and shape of a dancer.

It seemed like the two passions I had were completely out of reach. My discouragement with my test scores led to even more disappointment when I received my rejection letters from the colleges of my dreams. The one college I did get into ended up being the one City University of New York school with a dance program, an observatory, an astronomy department, and professor Dr. Charles Liu. Dr. Liu later became my mentor, and opened the world of astrophysics research to me. With him began my three-year journey of conducting research at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, where I quickly began learning how to track asteroids. I would run outside at night to catch the International Space Station as it would go overhead. Something inside me clicked — I knew that I had to honor my passion for this some way, some how. At that moment, I decided that I didn't care if it took five years to learn math, I would work that much harder just to be a part of the astronomy community.

The final year of my research was the hardest, solely because I couldn't admit to putting an end to my performing arts career. The strain between my research to satisfy the requirements for my NASA space grant as well as juggling castings, shoots, and rehearsals led to stern conversations with family or friends about how much a college student could truly handle. At 19 years old, and at a crossroad in my life, I asked for advice from all my mentors at the time, which included a few wonderful chats with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, as he caught me during a meltdown. Neil reassured me that my pursuit in the arts would someday benefit the science world in a way that could get people interested in scientific advancements and how it affects everyday life. He expressed that this was his passion (most people don't know that Neil is also a dancer), and it made me feel like the merging of the two worlds was possible.



Athena Brensberger
Athena Brensberger

Pursuing the arts and modeling led to traveling to a number of countries over the course of five years. My modeling walked me into acting and my acting back into dancing. I became well versed in many cultures, even picked up some languages, and though I did love my career of choice, I absolutely felt that I needed get back to being involved with astrophysics. Then, Astroathens was born. I created this vlog/blog sort of thing, and began volunteering wherever I could in ways that would at least fulfill this search for knowledge. After starting Astroathens, I worked really hard on building up a social media presence for my passion for science and applied for NASA Socials, a program where NASA provides an opportunity for science enthusiasts to showcase the work NASA is doing to the world. Almost instantly, my anxiety about my worthiness to discuss these topics came back. I was certain I wouldn't get accepted, and haunting memories flooded my mind of male classmates from school telling me that I'm too pretty to get involved in science, and that I should "just run for Miss USA." Then, after walking out of a job training for Cirque du Soleil, I received the acceptance letter for NASA Socials. I couldn't believe that after starting Astroathens in 2016, I was invited personally to witness the launch of the GOES-R satellite, something that most people don't know will revolutionize how we predict weather.

On my trip I learned that:

<!--[if !vml]-->Important information on what the GOES-R (now GOES-16) satellite has:

    •       Three times more spectral information

    •       Four times greater spatial resolution

    •       Five times faster coverage

    •       Real-time mapping of total lightning activity

    •       Increased thunderstorm and tornado warning lead time

    •       Improved hurricane track and intensity forecasts

    •       Improved monitoring of solar x-ray flux

    •       Improved monitoring of solar flares and coronal mass ejections

    •       Improved geomagnetic stormforecasting

<!--[if !supportAnnotations]-->How can I even begin to describe the journey to the NASA Kennedy Space Center? Man, did it feel great to be around like-minded people — this group was so diverse. Not only were there people from around the world, but there was a combination of graphic designers, comedians, painters, musicians, boys and girls, all who share in the same enthusiasm for space. This group was the epitome of who I am; they were people who merged art and science together.

The tours started at the 45th Space Wing at the Morrell Operations Center, and inside the weather squadron. The scientists here have to follow something called a launch commit criteria, and without going into too much detail, any atmospheric levels that don't abide by this criteria can cause the launch to be called off for a matter of hours or days. The details that go into it are insane.

Each scientist we spoke to began to give me the perspective of just how detail-oriented and important each job is. I had never known both patience and quick thinking — to handle mass data and for emergency situations, respectively — before meeting these scientists. Astronaut Paul Richards of STS 102, who did work on the ISS, told a story about having to turn his spacecraft to a 90-degree angle for an emergency de-orbit procedure due to an ice slug, only to later get information that it was all safe and had to the crew turn the spacecraft back the 90 degrees.

Athena Brensberger
Athena Brensberger

The day concluded with everyone in the Atlas Space Operations Center. To speak face to face to two female rocket engineers actually had me choked up. I wanted to ask a question and I stumbled on my words. I looked up to these two women so much. The first one I got a chance to meet was Amanda Kuker, during the NASA TV broadcast. She was the first female scientist that I saw the entire day, and I didn't even notice until that moment how male-dominated the sciences still are to this day.

At one point in my life, I had no idea what my purpose was. On this incredible and eye-opening trip, I recalled a memory I had of a girl who was 19 years old, who was in my exact same shoes, and came up to me after I spoke at my college and hugged me. Holding back tears, she thanked me because she, too, had been going through the same debate inside herself of pursuing the arts or the sciences. She expressed that she also was not feeling good enough because of stereotypes, being surrounded by those she thought we're better than her, and the frustration of not really having a female figure to look up to. The experience was so profound, it reminded me of a turning point in my life when I chose to purse both passions. If making a speech rambling about my story for only 20 minutes to complete strangers can have an impact on just one person, well, then I need to try and make that number grow. I am determined, despite all of my setbacks, to be some form of encouragement to others.

There was a piece of advice I received from my very first mentor in science, Dr. Liu, that is always going to be in my head: "The universe is always going to be here with open arms. Try something out and if doesn't work, you can always come back."

Check out Athena's blog at astroathens.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.  

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