Interview with Joalda Morancy

Joalda Morancy (@solarsystem)

  • Astrophysics/Geophysics Undergrad

  • University of Chicago

From childhood to now, what has your STEM journey been like? How has your understanding and interest towards science evolved?

I feel like when I was younger I was really interested in science. It was just like a thing. I didn’t have one thing that got me into science - I was always interested in it. I think during high school I was trying to figure out what I was actually into. So the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I found this video of an astronaut making a sandwich on the International Space Station and I thought this was really cool - it just popped up on my recommended feed. So I watched more videos and I learned more and realized I really like space science. That kind of kick started my space science journey. So ever since then, I’ve always wanted to work in the space industry in some format but I didn't know what exactly I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to do something regarding space science. That led me down this rabbit hole of figuring out what ı wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do engineering, then I realized I didn’t want to do engineering. That was a whole thing. I applied to college planning on going into engineering because that was the best idea I had at the moment. But then I landed at a school that had no engineering at it. So I decided to major in physics and I thought: “This isn’t really for me.” but it was the best I could get to. My second year of college I took this called “What Makes A Planet Habitable” and I thought it was cool. Learning about planetary science and everything. Then I thought: “Okay, I think I’ll do planetary science.” and that’s basically where I am now. I find the planet Mars really interesting. I find it really cool. That’s the basics of everything. 

What does your research and work at NASA JPL involve? 

Even though I’m really interested in space science, I’m an earth science intern at JPL. I mean, Earth is still a planet so it works. I work on this mission called ECO STRESS, which stands for Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station. Basically, it’s this instrument on the International space station that looks like temperature and plants. It looks for plant stress and whatnot. So I basically take the ECOSTRESS data and I use it to look for different climate events in the world. I look at a lot of droughts. Recently I’ve looked at fires, especially in California and everything. And I take those climate disasters and make maps out of them. I guess it’s useful information for the scientists who are looking at this data and also for the general science to learn information about the mission and data by looking at these maps. So yeah, that’s basically my job for now and I’m gonna be working on some other projects in the future. But I haven’t started on those yet. [It’s been a really good time even though I’ve been working remotely.]

What is something unforgettable you learned in a science class in high school or university?

I think, I don’t know if I learned this specifically from someone in a class but from taking classes I realized that there are many times where I feel super dumb and I’m like: “I don’t know what’s going on in class.” and I feel weird for asking a question cause everyone’s gonna think: “Wow, this girl is super dumb.” So in high school, I didn’t really ask too many questions. Actually, before that, in 3rd grade, I asked a lot of questions because I was a curious 3rd grader. And I got a C in conduct for asking too many questions. That made me slightly traumatized, maybe. Yeah, I never really asked many questions. I would just stay confused and it would be detrimental because I would not do well in assignments because I didn’t know what was going on. So something I learned to do more in college was ask a lot more questions. Even though it’s super scary at first - everyone’s staring at you, especially if you’re in a big lecture hall and there are 200 other kids - I realized that it’s worth the slight embarrassment to at least know more and gain more information on the topic so you don’t do poorly on an assignment. I always encourage asking as many questions as you can and along with that always looking for any opportunity that you can. These will always get you a lot further. There are many times where I’m like: “I’m not qualified for this.” I was applying for this JPL and I was like “I do not have the skills for this. But it can’t hurt.” So I applied and it worked out! So while it may not always work out, I think always seeking out opportunities and always asking questions - those in combination I think are really good. 

Why do you think science communication is important?

I definitely have a strong connection to science communication because I grew up without a lot of things, like I lived alone with my dad. I was pretty low income so I didn’t have money to go to space camp or something or do a lot of cool things that other people may be able to do. So I never knew about cool things such as NASA - there were no reasons for me to know about it because I didn’t have access to any good resources. I think that’s why I really care about science communication because you can impact so many people who might be in a similar situation. At least this is specific to me. But I think science communication gives people the ability to impact a lot of people’s lives in a way that you might not even know, which I think is really cool. If someone came to my middle school one day and told me about cool space science stuff, I probably may have been interested in it at a younger age and tried to do more or seek more opportunities that would help me. And get closer to my goals. But I didn’t. I think being able to be that person for other people is really inspiring, which is why I care about the topic so much.   

What was your motivation behind making twitter threads communicating different things in science? And how do you go about it?

My threads kind of resulted from me wanting to learn more information about certain topics. I feel like there are so many different types of people on Twitter - it’s so easy to get information to people who may not know about it. You can really interact with anyone on Twitter - for better or for worse. That was the main reason I started making threads because I thought it was interesting information to share with people. And then regarding making the threads, it’s a really time-consuming process that I get really about doing. It takes so much time but I still love doing it of course. After I figure out a topic to do, usually - this is me exposing myself but - I start on Wikipedia and I read through the page just to have knowledge of the subject. Then I usually go to the references and go from there and find links. Before I didn’t use to take notes but now I do because my threads are a lot longer. So I take a bunch of notes and if I write a blog post, I write one using my notes. And then I write a Twitter thread and make sure it fits all the character limits and everything and include cool graphics. Then I just tweet it out and see what people say. 

What non-inherent scientific skills do you think scientists should have?

I think there should be a tighter connection between science and the humanities. I think there’s this stereotype for scientists to be like: “Oh, I’m no artist.” or “Oh, there’s no reason for me to know how to write well or read well.” That’s so wrong. Regarding writing, for example, so many people write papers - that is a crucial skill that you won’t really see in college classes. In high school, you take your humanities courses and your language arts course but in college, you aren’t really seeing any writing requirements for many majors. It’s not really taught well in college and then some other things like ethics, which I think is really important. There are not many science programs that require an ethics course, which is important because there’s a lot of ethics in science. I think those types of subjects, along with an art course, are really important for scientists to take. All of those things are intertwined within the science community, whether people like it or not. Science is not only scientists, it’s also journalists and artists and more. A tighter connection between the two would be really beneficial for many people. 

What is an unanswered question about space that you find fascinating?

This is a good question. There are many. I guess the unanswered question of whether we’re alone in the universe will always be fascinating because even though I don’t expect any time soon for green aliens to show up on Earth, going to another planet or moon and finding microbial life would be super interesting. And that brings this broader question of: Are humans unique? It’s a question I feel has many loose ends. I think the question is just really interesting because there are so many other questions you can derive from it. 

Like in Titan, since there are lakes of methane, could different life forms be based off of methane instead of water? It’s super interesting and also super weird and wild. 

What do you think about the notion that “science isn’t political”?

I think many scientists want to believe that science shouldn’t be political but it is and we have to acknowledge that. Lately, I’ve been trying to get more political knowledge by following certain people and also reading more about politics because there are many times our government tries to ignore science or they don’t realize the impact of ignoring certain topics like climate change. I think even though I personally don’t like science being political because there are certain facts that everyone should just agree on but of course, that’s not the case. I just acknowledge that it exists and I think more people should decide to acknowledge it and also learn how to be more involved with the political side of science. It also ties into scientific communication in a way because you’re trying to communicate to politicians things such as why reducing our carbon emissions is important and whatnot. I think people need to take it into consideration more.  

Which moon and/or planet in our Solar System would you like to visit the most and why?

Definitely Mars. I think my answer would have been different if we were 50 years into the future. Since there’s so much work being put towards going to Mars, of course I would wanna go. I really like it. 

What are your current favorite fiction and nonfiction books?

I started a 100 book challenge this year so this probably will change. I’m pretty behind on the book challenge, unfortunately. I really love The Martian. I’m reading Dune right now and I really like that book.

What are your hobbies and interests besides science?

I really like playing video games. That’s my main one outside of science. That’s the main thing I’ve been doing since I was younger. I’m trying to make reading books a hobby, though it’s difficult because dedicating enough time to reading a book is for some reason challenging. I used to be very into music but that has kind of decreased once I got to college. I played the saxophone in high school; I was in the marching band. I’m on Twitter a lot as you can see. I like scrolling through Twitter to waste time. I also like Tik Tok. 

huge thank you to Joalda Morancy for joining us today! Be sure to subscribe to receive more STEM-related content coming to your inbox.