November 8, 2022

Sophie’s ASCEND Experience

ASCENDing into a space conference was truly a blast! From the amazing people I was able to meet (known and just known) to new knowledge gained from all the insightful sessions and networking events, I couldn’t think of a better way to describe it other than: it was truly out-of-this-world! ASCEND is easily one of the favorite conferences I have ever attended!

Not only do I feel fortunate to be able to share a panel with some of the most brilliant humans I have ever come to know, I am so grateful to have been able to just be there and soak in all the incredible experience with people I have such profound respect for like the legendary Purdue AE Professor, Steven Collicott , AIAA’s Executive Director, Mr. Dan Dumbacher, my fellow Higher Orbits student ambassador Graham Shunk, and of course, our mentor extraordinaire and Space Mom, Miss Michelle Lucas, and her stellar sidekick, Katy Thompson, who both made sure that our ASCEND experience will be one for the books!

Being able to share my STEM journey and how the mentorship we have received from Higher Orbits has given us clarity and direction in pursuing our passion for space science, is always a tremendous honor and privilege for me. As I have always pointed out, it was my Go For Launch! experience that has put me on this trajectory to follow my curiosity and passion for space, truly encapsulating the Higher Orbits motto that “Space inspires.”

This inspiration is of course—rooted in the mentorship that Higher Orbits extends to every student that needed guidance and direction in realizing their potential and capabilities. I, for one, will always be grateful for what Higher Orbits means to me. Not only has Higher Orbits and Miss Michelle transformed my life and potentially my future, it has also given me the ability and opportunity to give back and share what I can to my community and inspire other kids all over the world with what I am able to do and what I hope to be.

Mentorship is a powerful tool to be the change you want to see. By inspiring and guiding others, you better yourself and those whose lives you touch. This is what Higher Orbits has done and continue to do for me. It’s like a ripple effect of one person making a difference in the life of another and so on. Seeing how Professor Collicott impacted Miss Michelle’s life to later create a foundation that impacts the lives of hundreds of students through STEM and space, makes me profusely thankful to have been part of this “ripple” that is helping shape the future of space and beyond.

Now facing the crossroads of college planning, I am more confident than ever that this conference has only strengthened my resolve to continue on this academic path as I aspire to be an innovator for the space program someday and be part of this extraordinary cadre of humans breaking new frontiers of discovery and innovation for the benefit of mankind.

Some of the other highlights of my ASCEND experience was seeing familiar faces from SciTech and IAC, such as JAXA’s Masami Onoda and NASA Deputy Director Pamela Melroy who both gave such an exciting talk about our off-world future. Also really loved (finally) meeting Dr. Tara Ruttley in person who moderated one of the best panel discussions touching on the importance of biotechnology and microgravity experimentation which featured an empowering all-women panel including STEM rockstars such as Dr. Grisanti and Dr. Wagner. I have to note and thank Dr. Ruttley for being such a staunch supporter of Higher Orbits, hearing her speak and basking in her encouraging words made us believe that we, too, can be amazing scientists someday—just like her!

And that’s not where all the good stuff ends. ASCEND also enabled me to have the coolest lunch buddies a high school kid from rural Virginia can ever dream of: lunch break means I was able to chat with Director Vanessa Wyche of Nasa Johnson Space Center who gladly shared her story and offered me some academic and career advice, along with Mr. Sam Gunderson who works along with her on the ARTEMIS Missions. Although space is vast, the space industry is a small world when it comes to networking. It was awesome to finally meet Director Wyche in person as I had already heard so much about her from Mr. Mark Kirisich whom I met at IAC in 2019!

Perhaps one of my favorite sessions as well was the one hosted by the uber-cool Dr. Moriba Jah, chief scientist and co-founder of Privateer, who presented the Diversity Dozen highlighting the importance of sustainability with our presence in space from a global perspective. Thinking about our future in space, we cannot undermine the importance of sustainability here on earth as well as our planetary backyard, and hearing from their perspectives give me so much hope for humanity.

I was also delighted to hear from Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno of the US Space Force, whose talk enlightened me about the politics and legislation involved in our interactions with other countries especially in making space accessible and safe for everyone, a challenge that we are now poised to take in this new era of the space race.

Summing it up, attending ASCEND has reiterated what I already believe: that Space truly does inspire! Seeing how the love of space, exploration, and discovery bring so many different people together from all over the world and industry, I now realize why the panelists always exclaim that space is for everyone~ no matter where you’re from or what you do, there is a place in space for you; whether through scientific exploration or biomedical experimentation, policy and legislation, or construction and manufacturing—it takes each and every one of us to push humanity forward on to bigger, brighter, and better things on and off-world.

As you can probably tell, I hope this is not my last time attending ASCEND, but rather the first of many! Ad Astra per Aspera!!

*Special shout out to AIAA and United Miles on a Mission—thank you for supporting organizations like Higher Orbits because in turn, you are supporting students like me to reach for the stars—literally and figuratively. THANK YOU!

About the author

Sophia Crowder – is a Student Ambassador for Higher Orbits, a STEMflights aviation scholar, a Space Coast Scholar of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium/NASA-Wallops, & founder of a girl-empowering initiative, #ItGirls. Sophie aspires to inspire the next generation of STEMists, Innovators, and Space Explorers with her work and advocacy. Her biggest aspiration is to be an innovator for the space program as an engineer and test pilot! Aside from STEM, Sophie is also an avid musician (she plays the violin and guitar), a trained fencer and martial artist, and a multi-awarded essayist, speaker, and student leader. She is a staunch advocate for gender equity and serves as a board member for Être Girls, as well as founded an initiative (ItGirls) to help empower other girls to pursue non-traditional career pathways such as those in IT & STEM. She is 16 years old



Sophie Crowder


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