OU: Given your background and expertise, when you watch movies like “Interstellar,” “The Martian” and “Gravity,” are you frustrated to find that they’re based on fact, but they sometimes favor storytelling over accuracy?
RL: I don’t take that attitude. I know a lot of my colleagues do and then they go on Facebook and start saying “That’s wrong in the movie!” But I have the attitude that it’s a movie, not a documentary, and there’s a big difference between the two. It’s entertaining. I try not to be frustrated. Sometimes I have wondered, “Ugh, if they had only talked to me!” But maybe they don’t want to talk to me because they want to show something that’s going to be more dramatic. And so you have to go with the attitude that this is for entertainment and it’s a movie. If they got something wrong in a documentary, I would be much more upset. I think all those movies were really well done and entertaining. I was actually amazed in “Gravity” how I was at the edge of my seat all the time and I thought it was going to be a slow movie. It was very, very gripping and really well done. I just recently saw “The Martian” and thought it was very clever. OK, that dust storm wouldn’t have happened but, you know … putting that aside, there were a lot of really clever ideas.
OU: We saw NASA has a site, Women@NASA. That got us thinking if there are other ways you think NASA encourages women to pursue careers or degrees in the STEM field?
RL: We have a whole education department that does some of that. I’m not terribly qualified to talk about our education programs, but I know that we always try to be as inclusive as possible. I certainly have not seen any discrimination of any kind at JPL. In planetary science, which is my particular area, I’m seeing a lot of women come into the field, particularly young women. I think it’s about 50 percent female now. And in fact, the last three people we have employed in my section have all been women, and my manager, who is a man, joked with me: “You know, we’ve got to think about hiring some men!” For so many years we were thinking “Well, we should think about hiring females.” But at the end of the day, you want to hire the best candidate, and it so happened for our last three openings, the best candidates have been female.
OU: Do you have any advice for those students who’ve dreamt of working with NASA or the National Laboratories, or maybe they want to do something similar?
RL: The most important thing for any student is to do what they love, to find that passion, that subject they really want to work on — that’s the first step. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we have about 5,000 employees. We have people working on a variety of different things. Usually a lot of engineers just come in with a first degree or a master’s. The scientists usually come in as postdocs or after even after postdocs. If they want to see how JPL or another NASA lab works, I would recommend investigating the student internship programs. For example, we have a variety of internship programs. We have programs where students come in from a variety of different places. We even have some high school students come in after age 16. That’s really a good thing for when you’re an undergrad is to do some summer internships at different places. It can help you find out what you love.