NASA rep inspirational

Bywaters conquers adversity

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It was standing-room only last Friday in the MESA Science Center as members of the college community eagerly waited for astrobiologist Kathryn Bywaters to share motivational words on her success.

“What does it mean to be successful? To be happy? Fulfillment?” asked Bywaters rhetorically.

She said the key to happiness is to love what you do.

“You can be making a ton of money, working 60 hours a week doing something that you don’t like that’s not going to make the cut,” said Bywaters.

The space scientist, whom eventually found her way to a career she loves, offered words of encouragement and used her story as an example to show that it doesn’t matter where you start, you can still get where you want to go in life.

As a child, her father was in the business of importing and exporting, which eventually led her family to Russia. And, even though they tried to stay on top of her studies, the mail system wasn’t reliable, making it difficult to complete her education.

Although Bywaters didn’t make it past the sixth-grade, she didn’t allow those roadblocks to interfere with her eagerness to learn.

“I didn’t finish high school or junior high,” said Bywaters. “But that was one of the reasons why school, to me, when I did finally go, was like a whole new world.”

She filled the science classroom with words of hope, letting them now she had once been in their shoes and understands the struggle of low-paying jobs. But Bywaters, who worked as a telemarketer after returning to the states in 1997, emphasized how important an education is to success.

“If I was lucky I was broke by Wednesday and if not, I was broke by Monday,” said Bywaters, who got paid on Fridays and was living paycheck to paycheck. “And that’s when it really hit me. Without an education, without a skill set, that was going to be my life.”

So she signed up for classes at Mira Costa College, a community college in Southern California much like LMC, and began to form relationships and contacts. The bonds she built with teachers and fellow students sparked her interest in chemistry and were a ladder to her success as an astrobiologist.

But the key moment in her community college education was meeting Shannon Rupert, a scientist with the Mars Society — a space advocacy group —as she was volunteering in the chemistry lab. That connection was a bridge to her own work with the Mars Society, and led to her doing some volunteer work with the organization in Utah.

After earning an Associate of Arts from Mira Costa, Bywaters — who received acceptance letters from the University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Davis; and California State University, San Marcos — chose to continue her education at Cal State San Marcos, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s in biochemistry.

Her passion to know more about physical science led her to do graduate and doctoral studies in San Antonio, Texas, and then got a job with the City of Houston’s bio-terrorism unit.

Because she wanted to do more fieldwork, she chose a post-doctoral fellowship and wound up working in the Planetary Science Branch of National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

As if making it from 6th grade to community college to NASA isn’t impressive enough, 20th Century Fox decided to make “The Martian,” a movie in which she and six other scientists were selected for interviews about their research.

Bywater’s story inspired many of those who came to hear her speak and gave them knowledge of opportunities they may not have been aware of before, such as LMC student Prince Singh.

“I didn’t know that anyone could go and visit the science and research center. Now I can go and become an intern and meet cool people like her,” said Singh.

Her story also provided encouragement to individuals who may be struggling like she did and gave to get a better outlook to students like Laya Clark.

“I know what I want to do after college, but I wasn’t quite sure on how I’m going to get there and how it all will work out,” said Clark. “I feel like I got a better gasp on how there’s more than one path on where I need to go.”