September 12, 2023

Sophie’s ISS2023 Experience

How do I fit a universe of awesome in a blog? As I sit in my room typing this article, I find it absolutely crazy to think about how much has happened in just under one month— from all of the incredible science I got to experience to the unexpected adventures I happened to find myself in, to the best friends I made in such a short time, I think it is more than safe to say that whatever expectations I had prior to attending the International Science School, have been blasted to higher orbits! 

Firstly, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to represent the US contingent to this stellar gathering of some of the most promising STEM students from all over the world! I had to pinch myself many times—from the selection announcement all the way to my first day at the ISS (and even now I still do, because I still can’t believe how amazing this experience has been) even if certain obstacles made it extremely difficult to even get to the land down under which leads me to the beginning of this Dr. Karl style story (don’t worry because at least you can read this at your own pace haha, I have no idea how Dr. Karl speaks as fast as he does).

Every great adventure comes with its fair share of misadventure, I suppose, making one appreciate the journey even more…I remember arriving at the RDU International Airport in NC already exhausted from having stayed up too late the night before because I thought it was a brilliant idea to wait until the day before to pack for this trip. I figured I would have more than enough time to catch up on sleep during the endless hours I would be spending in the sky; however, the first bump in the trip occurred before I could even board the airplane: there were no more seats or space left for carry-on bags, and I waited anxiously as names were called off of the standby list (which I would become EXTREMELY familiar with by the end of this trip). Luckily, I managed to get a seat on the flight to Denver, albeit I had to kiss my carry-on goodbye. Armed with just my pink duffel and blanket, I took one last glance at the east coast before I took a much needed nap.

Before I knew it, I was surrounded by gargoyles as I stepped foot into the Denver Airport. At ISS, we would soon learn about all of the theorems and scientific laws that help to describe how our natural universe works— however, I believe they forgot to teach us about one very, very important law: Murphy’s Law. I’m pretty sure I became a living example of Murphy’s Law at the Denver Airport as every possible thing you could ever think of went perfectly wrong: Flight? Cancelled. Seats? All full. Line? Wrapped around the entire airport. The list could go on and on, but it would take up the entire blog! It was at this point that I was starting to reconsider my choices. I’m not too far from Virginia, right? If it was even possible to get a flight out of there, I probably would have taken it had Ms. Michelle not shown up like the superhero that she is, cheering me on through the exhausting battle for a coveted seat to LAX. Earlier, the line wasn’t too bad and as I was snaking my way through the customer service lines, I even bumped into what I call a meant-to-be encounter with none other than a (guest) professor at Stanford University (who attended USAFA and served in the Air Force) who is now a seasoned professor of mechanical engineering and aeronautics. We struck an unlikely friendly conversation as I helped him find his lost phone mainly because we were in the same boat as well, or should I say (not) plane: our flights had been delayed and canceled multiple times, and we both had places we really needed to be.  Now how was this chance encounter mind-blowing? Out of the hundreds of people at the airport that day, what are the chances that I would run into someone I actually needed to talk me through my college decision? As a recent high school grad about to embark on my college journey, I had been in a dilemma about choosing majors between mechanical VS aerospace engineering, and picking among Stanford, Purdue, and UVA were definitely some of the toughest decisions I had to make as Ms. Michelle can attest (of course I had to have my SpaceMom’s input). My chance encounter with this professor gave me the reassurance and pep talk boost that I needed, as he shared his insights with me both from an academic and professional perspectives. Free college advice from someone who’s been through it all? Priceless. 

After having spent close to four hours in a stagnant line, I was beginning to lose hope about catching my flight to LAX, until I heard a familiar voice past the ocean of people. Ms. Michelle somehow managed to find me, and we would spend the next few hours running from line to line trying to get a seat on the next flight to LAX, with donut breaks in-between of course. Being that this was technically my first solo trip on my own, I was glad that I wasn’t completely alone in facing the chaos. It helps to know that Ms. Michelle was right there with me doing what SpaceMoms do best when their SpaceKid is close to a complete meltdown. Grace under pressure was the lesson of the day for sure! After many failed attempts at getting a flight to LAX, much more, being on the same flight together, I managed to luck out as I happened to get the very last seat on her flight off of the standby list. I’m pretty sure karma from helping someone out earlier that day paid off big time. (Perhaps next time I go to ASCEND in Las Vegas, I should try that standby-list luck in the casino as well!)

The only downfall to getting a seat? I had to check-in my other carry-on leaving me with nothing but my blanket as we head to LA. It’s all a part of the journey, right?

As we arrived at LAX, I was excited to meet the rest of my team, but before the excitement can kick in, I had to race against time yet again. With barely less than an hour to our flight to Sydney, I had to recheck my luggage as I was bumped into a chance flight that I wasn’t supposed to be on. Given the fact that my luggage may or may NOT have made it to LA with all the cancellations in Denver, I had to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Thankfully,  one of Higher Orbits’ Board of Directors and Chief Pilot for Delta Air, Ritz, who kept watch on the team that made it to LAX before Ms. Michelle and I got there, helped me breeze through the luggage situation as fast he could. Mr. Ritz and I found ourselves sprinting straight to baggage claim as fast as we could to try to rescue at least one of my bags so I wouldn’t be going half-way around the world totally empty handed. With the clock ticking, we were able to save my pink duffel with barely enough time to get me back on track for our flight to Sydney (SHOUT OUT TO MR. Ritz, thank you for all you do for Higher Orbits and again, for being my luggage hero at LAX)!! Crisis averted as I found my seat on the plane. Next stop: Sydney, Australia!

After finally taking a seat and being able to take a breather, I was able to finally meet my team mates who would soon become some of my favorite people in the world. I feel confident in saying that these are some of the most intelligent, genuine, dancing-pros, inquisitive, star-spangled and cheerful people I have ever met in my entire life— I mean, they never even judged me for showing up to LAX with just a blanket in hand! In that brief moment of meeting each other, we connected right away and I just knew right there and then that we would make such a great team and even greater friends!

After the 15 hour flight, we all arrived in Sydney. The girls went on to claim their bags while Ms. Michelle and I dealt with my luggage situation as I found out that neither of my checked in luggages from Denver made it to LA or Sydney. Stress kicked back in as the realization dawned on me that I may have to rewear my clothes until my luggage made it to Australia, and the supplies I carefully packed were nowhere to be found for what I know is an uncertain period of time. I tried to settle my nerves and switched my mindset to glass half-full: the most important thing, after all, was that we all made it to Australia together! I called my parents to check in, and my mom could tell something was up, so she kept reminding me that the best adventures rise out of unexpected misadventures, and that this was good practice for handling stress and flexibility because life is full of detours. “How do you think astronauts deal with stress in space if something didn’t go as planned? You don’t just get on the next flight out back to Earth and give up, right? That’s when you do your best with what you have and make the best of what you can to complete your mission…So pretend you’re an astronaut and NASA forgot to load your luggage.” —exactly the golden nugget of advice my Mom had been telling me every time I checked in with her about my airport and luggage situation, and honestly, whenever I put that into perspective, I feel better because after hearing our astronaut mentors at Higher Orbits talk about their experiences in space missions, I can only imagine what they have to go through when they have to deal with unexpected situations and have limited resources and capabilities to deal with it. 

With that in mind, I proceeded to make the best of my situation and decided to have the best time despite of all the glitches. The two days prior to arriving at the International Science School were filled with so much fun— from sight-seeing to petting kangaroos and cassowaries and enjoying afternoon tea, I made some of the best memories with everyone on our team as we tried to tackle the jet lag. Our Sydney exploration was one for the books and our team bonded well over the course of two days. On the day before we would be shuttling over to ISS, I went on a short shopping spree as my luggage still didn’t come and I was living off of whatever I could find in my pink duffel—Stella, I owe you big time for your impeccable taste and for running around with me to pick out enough outfits to get by without my luggage HAHA. 

On the shuttle ride over to Kincoppal, I remember still feeling nervous that I wasn’t prepared for ISS, especially with the eventful detours I’ve had to take. However, when I made my first trip down the hill to Kambala and finally met new friends and my roommate, I began to feel much better as we cracked jokes about my huge shopping bags instead of suitcases. Gina introduced me to Kyla, and we headed over to the opening together. I think it would be impossible to forget the “mole-in-a-hole” game we played, just like the other ones we would learn later on during the next two weeks (WOAHHHH NINJAAA)!

After the opening, we were split into our color groups for the very first time. I remember heading over to the common room as Team Green began to meet each other for the very first time. Back then, I barely realized how much these people would come to mean to me— I truly mean it when I say that I have never felt more at “home” (even when I was millions of miles away from it!) than when I was surrounded by people from all over the world who would soon become some of my greatest friends. Apart from being the next brightest surgeons, engineers, computer scientists, theoreticians, and careers that do not even have a solid title yet, these people are some of the most supportive, kind, “light-up-the-room,” empathetic, and genuine individuals I have ever had the fortune of crossing orbits with— these were MY people. 

Throughout the two weeks, I got to live in some of the most incredible memories I have ever made, set in the most amazing place at the University of Sydney, with some of the most stellar people I’ve ever met, doing some out-of-this-world science! From trying to wrap my mind around tokamaks, dark matter, and stem cells to pipetting various sodas to determine the sugar levels through a biochemical lab to enjoying 5-star meals each and every day at the women’s college to dancing the night away on the harbor cruise— week one was over way too fast! Aryanna— I would not want to go through 4-D maths with anyone else; while it made me regret eating too much pavlova at the dining hall, it was fascinating to see the conceptualization of a fourth dimensions through the perspective of billiards! Celebrating the 4th of July in Australia was also one for the books! Brianna, Stella, Amrita, Kiera and I did not come to play with our red, white and blue! Vasu, Thomas, and I represented Team Green in the Job Juggle and Helter Skelter Shelter portions of the Science and Engineering Challenge; together, we made a pretty great team as we took on what I would say is probably the most difficult task I’d ever done in my entire life: scheduling. I came out of the challenge with not only a wealth of knowledge on designing structures that can withstand extreme conditions but also a newfound respect for everyone who has to create a multiplicity of schedules each week! The highlight of my week, however, definitely had to be the Chemistry challenge— Kate, Molly, and I raced around the lab trying to identify our mystery compound and ended up leaving the lab with TimTams in hand!

Week two could only get better as we kicked off the week with agriculture lab in which we created our own “burgers” made from vegetable proteins! We also had a variety of lectures ranging all the way from quantum computing to exploring the Antarctic! One of my all-time favorite lectures, however, was definitely Dr. Karl’s— I aspire to be half as cool as he is one day although now that I think of it, it’s probably not scientifically possible! After wrapping up ISS with a disco and talent show, I could not believe that the two weeks had already flown by. The goodbyes were hard, and I can only hope that I will see them again someway, somehow. I had such a fantastic time that I had already forgotten about my luggage and all of the mishaps that happened to me on the way to Sydney and wished I could spend even just one more day… so I did exactly that!

After taking a quick trip to New Zealand, I came back to Sydney to spend one last day with one of my best friends that I met the very first night of ISS, Kate Slade. I cannot begin to describe how you can absolutely find a best friend from half way around the world in the course of 2 weeks, but I did! Kate and I instantly became friends on the way to the common room  for the very first time after talking about everything from Harry Styles and Taylor Swift to Las Vegas and sausage dogs in the span of just 5 minutes. Coming from NZ, I remember feeling the immediate relief of seeing my luggage actually make it to Sydney this time around, and exiting the airport to see Kate already there! I had the most amazing dinner with her family and undeniably, the best pavlova ever. Kate and her family not only welcomed me, but they have also extended the grand Australian welcome that ISS had given our Higher Orbits crew in the previous couple of weeks, and I couldn’t be more grateful! THANK YOU to the Slades, and THANK YOU ISS!!!

It’s been a couple of weeks now. The jet lag has faded. My luggage made it back home all right. Memories are sinking in. Looking back at everything that happened, from the luggage mishaps to the early morning hikes and the ISS bug— I would NOT trade any of it for the world. This has been one of the greatest adventures I have ever had, and everything I had to go through to make it there was definitely worth it! Who knew that Sydney would become one of my favorite cities in the entire world because of the memories that it now holds? I am forever grateful to ISS, Higher Orbits, and to our SpaceMom, Michelle, for everything that she has done with this program and continues to do for us at Higher Orbits— none of this would have been possible without her dedication to inspire us with STEM and space! 

I am ever thankful to everyone who has been a part of this Australian journey. You guys are what made this adventure the best one yet! 

To all of the future Higher Orbits crew applying for this program, you will absolutely LOVE being part of the International Science School, so do your best to take part in this incredible program! 

I know ISS 2023 runs only for 2 weeks, but it doesn’t have to be the last time we can be part of ISS. See you soon, maybe? Staffie Sophie does have a nice ring to it, right?😉

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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