By Barrett Baker
Microbiologist and NASA Astronaut Candidate
Inspiration to achieve great things can come from almost anywhere. For Zena Cardman, her path to becoming a NASA astronaut candidate started with a man named Emil Davis, her high school biology teacher. She always loved science, but it was Davis who got her really excited about doing research outside the classroom and pursuing biology in college.
Then, while attending UNC as a biology major, she read an article written by an older student who had done some fieldwork in Antarctica and all around the world. She was so amazed by what she read, she set out to see some of those environments herself and got to be a part of several different research trips that eventually snowballed into a set of experiences she thought could be relevant to the space program.
“The hardest part was just getting a spot with one of those research teams to start with,” Cardman says. “When this dream sort of solidified itself, I wound up shamelessly emailing something close to 80 different scientists to try to become a member of their teams. Most of them didn’t write back. Those who did said things like, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the resources,’ or ‘We don’t have the funding.’ But I was very lucky that one of them eventually said OK. I was very inexperienced, so for someone to agree to take on an undergraduate whom they’ve never met, I’m really grateful for that. From there the experiences build on each other to make connections through these projects you work on. But it really takes that first mentor, that first person to say, ‘I’ll take you on board’ to make that break for a student like myself.”
Photo courtesy of NASA
Cardman credits her success to luck. But when you are one of 12 people chosen as a NASA astronaut candidate out of a field of 18,000 applicants, there has to be a lot more to it than that. However, she does have advice to pass on to anyone who wants to pursue their dreams.
“My first piece of advice is that it’s possible,” she says. “Growing up I would look at a career like being an astronaut, or any other dream career for a kid, and think of it more as fantasy than a real career goal. But it worked. So, it’s really possible. Any kid who is dreaming of a job they want to do when they grow up, they should just pursue it because it’s completely possible. My second piece of advice is, whatever you do, pursue it because you enjoy it, because you love it. I think if you spoke to anyone in my astronaut class, they wound up going down very different paths to get here. So, there is no one right path. And nobody along the way was just checking boxes saying, ‘OK, I’m going to learn how to fly a helicopter because that will make me an astronaut later.’ It was something that interested them and they loved it. I think if you love what you do you’ll wake up every day feeling curious and inspired and excited to do whatever is on your plate that day. You won’t be dragging your feet through your career. So, do what you love. That’s the most important thing.”
Now that she’s on the path to her dream career, where will it take her? “The ultimate goal for me, honestly, is to go anywhere they want to send me. I can probably pick 18 different places I’d like to go, but what it really comes down to is NASA deciding where my strengths fit into a team or crew if they are putting one together. So, I’m just going to have this ‘Have spacesuit, will travel’ mentality for now.”