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#OdySci Profile Day 6: Kat Kelly

As part of Science Odyssey, we are interviewing a variety of STEM innovators to investigate pathways into STEM and to discuss the future of STEM learning and careers. 

Today's innovator is Kat Kelly, a self-described space science geek and one of Science World's esteemed science facilitators. 

What sparked your interest and eventual career in space science and science outreach?

I remember watching a documentary by BBC horizon called ‘What is one degree?’. It was all about what a difference one degree Celsius can make, it looked at super cooled electronics, particle accelerators, temperatures in the universe of stars and black holes, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.

I had always enjoyed science in school and I was going through a tough time as my mum had just passed away. Being an orphan at 18 made me see the world a whole new way. I was questioning everything I knew because I now had to be an adult. Physics is a way to describe and understand the world around you, and it turns out its not just what we see, there’s huge things like galaxies and star clusters and tiny things like atoms and particles. I was just hooked on all the cool things that happen around us that we just don’t think about and take for granted.

My decision to study physics came from me asking myself an important question. I realised that as it was just me now, I had to decide what I wanted. It meant I only had myself to answer to but it also meant it was only me I could let down or be proud of. So I thought a lot about ‘what would I do if I could do anything in the world’ with no boundaries of money or difficulties that life may throw and it turns out that was to be a physicist!

I applied for The Open University because of my financial situation, I couldn’t get a full time job to pay my bills and rent because I was 18 and had no work experience and I couldn’t go to university and get a student loan without losing my home because in the UK you cant have more than one government funding at a time. It was welfare and keep my home or student finance and have nowhere to live in the summer. At that time a stable home life was the most important thing.

So I chose distance learning and got part time funding and a part time job. After my first year of courses I discovered astronomy and cosmology. Studying those topics makes me feel so small and so big at the same time. It is incredible that after 13.7 billions years of chaos we are here and able to study our own origins. When I look up at the stars, I get an overwhelming urge to go there, not just to look at them but to be amongst them. My biggest dream is to be on the ISS, flying through space doing science and representing humanity among the stars. Who knows? Maybe I'll even visit Mars!

What role does mentorship play in engaging youth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)?

In STEM careers there are technical skills that you can learn such as coding and designing and working with electronics. With hard work and perseverance these things can be learned. But there is a whole other side to it. The scientific method and scientific thinking is a way of doing and being. You have to ask questions, you have to push through when things seem hopeless, you have to be humble and you have to be curious. These things seem to get lost as you get older. It seems as adults we aren’t encouraged to follow our dreams as much as when we are kids. I think this is the most important part of being a mentor, helping someone get through the hard times, giving them a safe place to fail and try again, providing them with perspective and opening doors for them so they can the best version of themselves.

Have you have a mentor who supported you in your education and interests?

My earliest mentor was my mum. There are two distinct things that I believe contributed to me becoming a scientist at heart and in the field. Firstly, she told me I can try anything I like and go through as many phases as I like and I can quit as many times as I like, so long as I tried my absolute best and I only quit because I wanted to. Secondly, was a phrase she said to a teacher of mine in grade 8 that always stuck with me a one sentence that defines my personality. “Kat thrives on criticism as well as praise”. That is an important attribute to have as a scientist.

I’ve had many mentors. My Grade 11 science teacher always encouraged me to ask questions and would build my confidence to speak up in class. He recommended me for a head teacher’s award for curiosity and I won. I was very proud! Since then my mentors have been working in public outreach and STEM fields. Derek Kief at the HR Macmillan Space Centre showed me how to channel my uncontainable excitement about space in to meaningful conversations and how to handle big crowds at the telescope! Dr.Catherine Anderson and Dr. Jenny McQueen have taught me how to work with teens as part of Future Science Leaders here at Science World. They have been an amazing support for me through personal times and in finding my own path to science. They both have incredibly interesting careers and being able to ask them how the world of science academia works and get interview advice and paper writing advice has been invaluable. They truly are women of science.

More recently Howard Trottier of the Trottier Observatory has really helped me find a place that I love and can share my passion. He sees someone with drive and does everything he can to support it. I now get to operate a beautiful telescope with like-minded individuals on top of a mountain and take images, do spectroscopy, and engage the public by looking at stars and planets and giving them tours of the observatory site.

What did you want to be when you were small?  Did you plan your current career path?

A vet, a footballer, a lawyer, a singer and actress and much more. I did not plan my path at all. I have one rule and it seems to be working so far: if it’s something you really want, do everything you can to get it. I’ve taken it step by step, signing up for courses, volunteering my time for experience, applying for jobs, asking people for help and guidance and giving up a lot of my time. When your time is filled with what you want, it doesn’t seem like a burden at all. You just have to accept that the best things in life are hard to get.

Tell us about what you’re currently studying and your work with Science World. How does your job promote greater STEM learning or understanding?

I’m currently studying towards an honours degree in physics and astronomy. My work at Science World is as a science facilitator in galleries, and on the stage explaining science to our guests. I also work for many of Science World's outreach programs such as Super Science Club, Future Science Leaders and On The Road. My role varies from teaching STEM skills in a hands-on way, to discussing what it means to be and think like a scientist .

What do you think the future of STEM looks like in BC?

I think BC's new curriculum changes are step in the right direction. I can see BC taking the lead in technology in schools and in all kind of industries in the future. Kids of today will grow up and live in a tech based society and we need to not only teach them the skills to thrive in that world, but teach them to think like engineers: ask questions and dream big.

What is Science World’s role in promoting and supporting STEM learning and careers in BC?

Science World is a place that connects people with science. It shows them that science is fun, interesting, cool, and part of our everyday lives. By running programs and providing resources for kids, adults, teachers, scientists and the public, Science World makes learning accessible and encourages the rest of BC to do the same.

What's happening today for Science Odyssey

Science World's On The Road team is visiting patients at BC Children's Hospital 

Classes across Canada are taking part in hands-on science activities and sharing them on social media for #OdySciPOP: a one day blitz of discovery and innovation. Want to participate? Dig into our Science World Resources for a hands-on demonstration or investigation.