Women in STEM Wednesday: Heidi Becker, Dancer and NASA Physicist

My next Women in STEM Wednesday is Heidi Becker, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist who is working on NASA’s Juno mission. Heidi is living proof that people can be equally passionate about both art and science. Check her out during her dancing days (left image below) and in front of Juno before it launched (right image below).

Dancer and Physicist, Heidi Becker works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Dancer and Physicist, Heidi Becker works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Her career started in the theatre, as a dancer in New York City. Upon graduating with her Bachelors of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts, she worked with the experimental theatre community doing original pieces.

After pursuing her theatre career for nearly a decade, Heidi went back to college to pursue her other passion in the science. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Physics from California State Polytechnic University. Shortly after that she was brought on at JPL.

Artist rendering of NASA's Juno mission with Jupiter in the background.

Artist rendering of NASA's Juno mission with Jupiter in the background.

Today, Heidi is the lead of Juno’s Radiation Monitoring Investigation. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and has the largest magnetosphere in our solar system. The Juno investigation will measure Jupiter’s very powerful electron environment. Heidi developed the concept and implementation approaches for measuring the radiation environment with Juno’s telemetry and science data products.

If you're interested in learning more about Juno, check out its Tumblr account!

Heidi’s work with Juno (from the sensor radiation expert for Juno’s star tracker, to the mission assurance sensor lead) lead her to receiving NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal.

Heidi in front of Juno on the launch pad with a few other Juno team members before launch

Heidi in front of Juno on the launch pad with a few other Juno team members before launch

Whether she’s dancing up a storm or designing sensors to analyze a storm of a magnetosphere (see what I did there?), Heidi Becker is a pretty amazing role model for anyone interested in both art and science.

You can check out Heidi in Season 2 of Xploration Outer Space, which premieres September 12th. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Heidi. You can check out her answers below.


What's most exciting about what you are currently working on at JPL?

Watching Juno launch was an incredibly exciting moment.  To see what had been just a picture in presentation slide become a spacecraft, and then watch it fly over your head on its way to Jupiter, is about as amazing an experience as it probably sounds.  Juno is less than 11 months away from arriving at Jupiter now.  We’re not exactly sure what we’ll experience once we arrive because no other spacecraft has been where Juno is going.  The radiation environment could really surprise us, in fact we’re expecting to be surprised…  When the first Juno data from Jupiter starts coming down we will finally start to see what those mysterious, treacherous, and beautiful regions are like.  Right now they are theories and models.  That will be a very exciting time, and knowing that’s in our future is what makes our current prep work exciting


What's most exciting about what you are currently working on at JPL?

Watching Juno launch was an incredibly exciting moment.  To see what had been just a picture in presentation slide become a spacecraft, and then watch it fly over your head on its way to Jupiter, is about as amazing an experience as it probably sounds.  Juno is less than 11 months away from arriving at Jupiter now.  We’re not exactly sure what we’ll experience once we arrive because no other spacecraft has been where Juno is going.  The radiation environment could really surprise us, in fact we’re expecting to be surprised…  When the first Juno data from Jupiter starts coming down we will finally start to see what those mysterious, treacherous, and beautiful regions are like.  Right now they are theories and models.  That will be a very exciting time, and knowing that’s in our future is what makes our current prep work exciting.


Did you always like STEM growing up? 

I was completely focused on the Arts while I was growing up, but I always had the same fascination with light and astronomy that I do now.  I was a dancer and went to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.  LACHSA had majors in dance, theatre, music, and visual arts.  The students commuted in from all over Los Angeles County, took academics in the morning, and had classes in their respective art all afternoon.  The academic program included a lot of math and science (I think I remember hearing that we’d ranked 2nd in the County in math), and we also could take college level science classes because the school was on the campus of Cal State LA, but what I really connected with was dance, music, and theatre.

What's your favorite hobby?

Making up new flavors of homemade ice cream.


What fun quality of STEM do you think would surprise most students?

Sometimes discoveries are made because someone was paying attention at the right time.  Or something seemed not quite right, hard to understand, or even missing, and the person kept asking questions and didn’t give up.  I don’t remember hearing a lot about that when I was a student, but it’s true.  Scientists and engineers ask a lot of questions (there are a lot of ones we don’t know the answer to!) and there is at least one behind every science mission.

Thanks to Heidi for being my Women in STEM Wednesday.  If you're looking for more women in STEM, check out these articles:

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