Punny title aside, this interview is about to bring you some serious inspiration. Bethany Downer is a 24-year-old space scientist, entrepreneur, and communications professional from Atlantic Canada. An inspiration for women and men, young and old, she has dedicated her career to informing the general public about everything space. Through her hard work and dedication, she has had phenomenal opportunities for learning and change-making all around the world.
Bethany was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to answer some of our most burning questions. Keep reading!
twowildtides: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What are your dreams and passions? What makes you tick?
Bethany Downer: Born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland. My passion is for educating anyone and everyone about all things space, whether engaging with those who are active in the industry or those who are not informed about space at all, whether young or old. Space is an important and exciting field, it’s my job to effectively communicate how and why!
What makes me tick… closed-mindedness. Cooperation is key to success, and I think its an integral trait to be open-minded to the opinions, values, beliefs and feelings of others.
twt: We first heard your name when we heard about a project called One Step Shoe Recycling. Can you tell us about that?
BD: In 2014 I founded a federally-incorporated non-profit organization that operated across Canada to encourage sustainable practices by bringing unwanted shoes to those in need. Called One Step Shoe Recycling, this organization was a combination of my passions for sustainability and community engagement. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, we organized shoe drives across the countries and redistributed these footwear to those in need around the world. Through the education of sustainable consumerism, the program redistributed over 18,000 shoes to more than fifteen countries worldwide and retained over 14,000lbs of waste from Canadian landfills. I brought talks and lectures to more than 5,000 youth of Newfoundland and I truly feel this experienced developed necessary skills that I still rely on today in the space domain, such as public speaking, media relations, leadership and networking. I was very humbled by this experience. Not only from the massive outpouring of support and encouragement from friends and family, but of the generosity of volunteers. It was also startling to learn the extent of need a program like this had, even close to home. This project helped me develop a public platform that I used when transitioning to space, through awards like Starfish Canada’s Top 25 Under 25 in Sustainability in 2015 and 2016 (I’m now a judge for this contest), the Bay Street Bull’s 30×30 Guide of Leaders and Innovators in 2016, Corporate Knight’s Top 30 Under 30 in Canada in 2017, Memorial University’s Student Leader of the Year in 2016, and Newfoundland’s Environmental Award in 2015.
twt: Can you explain to our readers how you got into lecturing and public speaking, and what it is you tell people about?
BD: When I began pursuing space studies I knew I had a passion for space, but it was unclear in what specific domain I wanted to focus or specialize in. With time, I learned that communications and outreach was my personal niche. It allowed me to stay intellectually challenged by new and upcoming space technology and space science advances, while drawing on my passion for education and outreach with the public engagement focus. I’ve never been one to get nervous about public speaking, as this became a big part of my job, I learned to embrace these opportunities as education platforms. Much of my larger-scale public speaking opportunities started with One Step, and now it’s my daily job in the space industry.
twt: We understand that you’ve earned your BSc from Memorial University and a Masters degree from a university in France. Which university and what did you study?
BD: BSc from Memorial University with a Major in Geography and Minor in English. I initially began in the Engineering faculty, as I then (naively) assumed my only way to work in space was through an engineering background. When I learned I was not stimulated sufficiently, I pursued other domains and found a love for Geography. This subject allowed me to learn as much about the Earth as possible, everything from the atmosphere, to geography, to the management of its resources. I was also granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to assist with the reintroduction project of wood bison to Alaska, USA. This effort resulted in research and papers that I got to present at an international wildlife conference in Kenya in 2016. I have also always found a love for English, particularly writing and analysis, so it was a good fit to complete my minor concentration in this area – which turned out to be quite useful considering my current profession.
MSc in Space Studies from the International Space University in France. This was a special masters program, consisting of roughly 40 students from all around the world. Subjects covered include economics, law, business, art, science, robotics, engineering, and more – but all within the space domain. We had field trips all over Europe and we got to learn about space in an international context from leaders in each respective space field. Friendships and connections made here will last a lifetime and I will forever be grateful for this degree because it served as my transition into the space sector. The masters program also consisted of a work-term, which I completed in the communications department at the European Space Agency. I helped represent the agency at public events, assisted in astronaut outreach events, and contributed to various communications campaigns and projects internally. I then presented my masters research at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia in September 2017.
twt: What advice would you give people applying to competitive educational programs abroad?
BD: Think about what you can give to the program. When you’re applying to a school, or anything for that matter, you are not only applying in hopes of them seeing the benefit in you, but you are also illustrating how a mutually-beneficial relationship can be established. What can you offer the school or the program? Don’t underestimate your own self-worth. I also encourage recommendation letters that can not only speak on behalf of your academic and professional experience, but also your character.
twt: Can you tell our readers about your work with the European Space Agency?
BD: This was a great experience all around. Working with astronauts every day was always motivating and it felt comfortable to be working amongst others who shared my passion for space exploration. I was trusted with a variety of important tasks and established a strong network of professionals who were doing the work I was interested in. This was a great starting point for me to then take my communications work independently.
twt: What about project PoSSUM?
BD: It’s an understatement to say that I’m honoured to be the first scientist-astronaut candidate from Newfoundland through Project POSSUM – the first and only crewed suborbital research program. Our particular mission concerns the study of noctilucent clouds that are present in the upper atmosphere. These clouds are becoming increasingly prevalent with the effects of climate change, however we know very little about these clouds at all. They are also valuable analogs for other celestial environments and for re-entry considerations of rockets. Designed and instructed by former NASA astronaut instructors and PoSSUM team scientists, some of the training that the program that I’ve done thus far includes is high and-G aerobatic flight training (to experience higher gravitational forces like those experienced during rocket liftoff and re-entry to Earth), crew resource management training, spacesuit training, high-altitude training, biometric analysis, and camera operations.
It’s very exciting to be part of something so incremental, and while I take this acceptance very seriously (particularly considering my public platform in my home province) I’ve also prioritized seeking enjoyment throughout the whole journey. Growing up, I never had an accessible example of someone who was achieving great things in space – I want to change that for the youth of Newfoundland and to assure I fit in every school visit request as humanly possible.
twt: Finally, can you tell us about your very own company, Reaching Space Science?
BD: I think this is an important time for everyone to get involved with the activities of the space industry. Many are intimidated by the term “rocket science” and thus perceive the industry’s findings, science and advances as being incomprehensible or beyond public understanding. My goal is to communicate everything space in a way that it can be easily understood, valued, and shared by the general public. I am personally motivated to educate about how the space industry needs qualified individuals of all backgrounds (everything from doctors, lawyers, scientists and nutritionists). This is an exciting time for the space industry, so there is no better time to get excited, informed and involved with space activities. To facilitate this, the Reaching Space Science website includes articles that I’ve written to explain anything in space – whether a new astronomy discovery, the inner workings of a rocket engine, or about what it takes to be an astronaut. It also features my work and what I do for a living – this is usually how I first engage with new clients. I work for space companies, organizations, academia and individuals to do communications for space. This can be anything from summarizing a scientific article or specific technology in simple English for a new demographic (such as the general public, kids, non-space professionals, or potential investors), website design for a new space start-up, public speaking for space companies and organizations at professional events or conferences, coordinating international astronomy events, social media content development, writing of announcements or press releases, and event planning support. I also use this website for connecting with teachers around the world about helping with space talks, answering students questions, etc. I also offer to send a free signed postcard of my flight suit portrait to anyone interested from anywhere in the world. Although my life is very busy, taking the time to engage with those interested in my story and my profession or their space queries and aspirations is my absolute top priority.
twt: You’ve accomplished so much! Have we missed anything that you would like our readers to know about?
BD: That’s too kind! I don’t think so! I would love to stress that anyone (especially women), who have an interest in a space or STEM field that they can get in touch anytime and I will support in any way I can.
twt: We understand that you’ve met some phenomenal individuals including Chris Hadfield and Julie Payette. That is exciting! What did you learn from these inspirational people?
BD: I spoke with Chris Hadfield at a sustainability conference in 2014 in Guelph, Ontario. He encouraged me, while I was still an undergraduate student at the time, to develop my own personal skills and capabilities through my own initiative, which did not need to be space specific. Combined with inspiration from attending this particular conference, this is where the idea for One Step was born.
I was fortunate to meet Julie Payette prior to flying to Florida for PoSSUM training. She is a former astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency during the Space Shuttle era and is currently our country’s Governor General. I stressed to her my motivation for bringing more space opportunities and resources to Atlantic Canada and to my home province of Newfoundland. I’m confident this was our first conversation of many to come. She is an inspirational, well spoken and motivating individual – something I aspire to be.
twt: Speaking of inspiration, who or what inspires you the most? What drives you?
BD: Due to the nature of my work and (unexpected!) recent public platform, I’ve learned to find motivation in a variety of ways. Growing up, this always came from prominent female figures, including my mom and grandmothers. I then learned about the careers of Sally Ride, Roberta Bondar, and Christa McAuliffe. Today, I am motivated by the little things I come across every day. This could be making a new connection while on a work trip or reading a new article about a dedicated team of scientists that solved a long-lasting physics mystery. I love learning the stories of young girls across Canada who write to me on social media or my website to tell me about their passion for space and STEM – I am also invigorated by youth passion for space. The recent support and encouragement I’ve gotten from Newfoundland in particular is extremely motivating, so I assure myself that it is important to remain focused while many are rooting for me. To do this, inspiration is a big factor.
twt: What do you want to tell the young women who look up to you?
BD: Don’t regret anything that’s gotten you to where you are. I’ve learned to embrace failures and setbacks (from lost awards or scholarships, failed relationships, academic or job rejections – anything). All of these gave me the opportunity to grow, and instead lead me to alternative opportunities that put me on the path to where I am now. I consider where I am now a blessing and exciting, so I can’t regret whatever got me here.
Work hard, but even more importantly, always keep learning. You’ll know you’re in the wrong job if you find that you are not learning something new or developing yourself each day.
If I could tell one thing to my younger self, especially as a student, I would stress that there is no wasted knowledge or experience. Take the most of every opportunity and of everyone you meet. You can learn something from anyone and everyone. I would reassure myself that although things will be hard, things will work out and that there is reward to hard work.
twt: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting to where you are now?
BD: Unfortunately, there is a degree of sexism and ageism that I’ve had to face. Growing up in Newfoundland, Canada I was not exposed (or perhaps naive) to the realities of sexism that exist, not only in the space sector (which is a largely male-dominated field) but in general. This was something that surprised me, but the initial discouragement was quickly flipped when I spoke with and was exposed to the vast work and accomplishments being undertaken by the countless women worldwide who are conducting inspiring work in various disciplines within the space sector. I’ve also been surprised to learn just how small the space sector truly is – the networks and connections made are all related and it is always exciting to catch up with new and old faces. In terms of ageism, I’ve been denied opportunities that I am fully qualified for solely due to my age (I’m 24). But, I’ve learned that the right clients and employers I wish to engage in are not prioritized on this numbers, and instead my skills set and competence.
Due to the nature of my work, I’m also not close to home as much as I would like. Since leaving for my masters degree, I’ve lived in France, England and the Netherlands. However, I’m sure to make each minute count whenever I am home.
twt: Do you have a favourite quote or words to live by?
BD: Someone close to me always reminded me from a young age to never burn any bridges – never damage any relationships or leave a negative lasting impression. I’ve remembered this advice which holds particularly true for me now, as the space sector is small (everyone knows everyone somehow). I do my best to make positive first impressions and to support my professional network in any way I can.
I also strive to “stop to smell the roses” – I’m extremely busy and sometimes it’s important for me to appreciate just how special this roller coaster ride of a career has been thus far. I’m only getting started, so I want to ensure I soak up every minute of it.
Okay, rapid fire:
twt: If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
BD: Motivated. Caring. Pizza-Lover.
twt: What is your greatest strength?
BD: This question took me the longest to answer! I like to think I can take something complicated, in technology or science, and soak it down to the appropriate level for any audience. My personal motto is to make “rocket science” for everyone and anyone. I love that I’ve created a career in this specific domain of the space industry – it’s very hard work – but it is absolutely worth it when I remember how important space applications are and just how close we are to space tourism. I truly strive to get everyone excited about space to some capacity.
twt: What is your biggest fear?
BD: Aliens (finding life in any capacity will change everything – but I’m also really excited at the same time). And yes, I think there’s other life out there.
twt: What is your go-to gadget right now?
BD: Phone – as a communications professional, my entire existence almost depends on it (unfortunately)
twt: We feel that. What is your favourite app?
BD: Instagram – I do much of my space communications work on this platform. Every day I feature a new space fact or space explanation on the stories feature.
twt: What place is at the top of your bucket list?
BD: Right now, New Zealand. I got to present my masters work in Australia last year, but didn’t make it to NZ.
twt: What are you bingeing on Netflix?
BD: This is Us (to unwind) and Explained (to educate).
twt: What’s your all-time favourite book?
BD: The Martian.
twt: What are you currently reading?
BD: Space news! Every day there are three space news pages that I catch up on.
twt: What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
BD: Moving to France and moving to the Netherlands. Each came with their own variety of unknowns.
twt: What is the best way to spend a weekend?
BD: With friends! (and my cats).
twt: Do you have any secret talents?
BD: I play many instruments! My favourite thing about high school was band.