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Rachel Zimmerman Brachman

Public Engagement Specialist
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California

Where did you grow up?  What were your favorite activities?

I grew up in London, Ontario, Canada.  My father was a reference librarian at the University of Western Ontario, and my mother was a computer programmer and president of Software Design, Ltd., which she founded when I was young.

I was in Girl Guides (the Canadian equivalent of Girl Scouts) from age 6 to 16, and I rode horses starting when I was 10 until I went to college.  I volunteered at a therapeutic riding center during two summers in Canada when I was in high school, and for two years in California when I was an adult.  I did science fair projects every year starting in first grade all the way through high school, whether or not my school held its own science fair.  I also enjoy reading, knitting, and hiking.

When you were a little girl, what did you dream you would grow up to be?

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut.  At that time, growing up in Canada, there weren't any Canadian astronauts yet, but I don't recall that limiting my dreams.  In 1983, when I was in middle school, the first Canadian astronauts had been selected, and the Canadian Space Agency was formed in 1990, when I was in high school.  I have been working in space exploration for most of my career, and I have applied to be an astronaut three times.  I'm doing what I love, exploring the planets in our solar system, and working with people who discover planets in other systems beyond our sun, too.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I was in a gifted program in grades 5-8.  Whenever I had free time, I did extra math problems, and I was in the math club in elementary school and in high school.  I chose my favorite subjects more based on the teachers who taught them than on the subject matter itself.  I liked all of my classes, and I was very fortunate to have had some wonderful teachers when I was in school.  I especially liked any class that let me be creative.

In high school, I had fantastic art teachers, and I took five years of art in high school.  I really enjoyed printmaking, because it combined drawing, painting, and sculpting techniques.  My English teacher inspired me to take a creative writing course.  I had classes in science, math, computer programming, history, geography, art, music, gym, and French.  I played the flute in my high school's senior band.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects in school?

I had a high school chemistry teacher who wasn't as supportive as I would have liked.  That was the last chemistry class I ever took, but I studied physics for four years in high school, and I majored in physics in college.

How do classes like art and music benefit someone whose primary interest are the sciences and engineering?

The art and music classes I took gave me a chance to be creative, and use both sides of my brain.  They also helped make me a more well-rounded person.  I wanted to be a scientist, but I didn't only want to be a scientist.  I had -- and still have -- many interests.

What was it like to grow up with a last name that began with “Z”?

Growing up with a last name that started with “Z”, I was often last in line for things at school.  Sometimes, if the class was seated alphabetically, I was in the back of the classroom, but when I have achance to choose my seat, I like to be closer to the front.

When did you first find that you were drawn to science?

Since my mother was a computer programmer, she always encouraged me to learn more about science.  I was always fascinated by the world around me.  I remember doing science experiments in the bathtub when I was still in preschool.  My parents took me to watch the Perseid meteor shower in August, driving out to a farmer's field by the side of the road, setting up cots and blankets, and looking up at the dark sky.  My little brother and I competed to see who could see the most meteors.

I loved to read, and when I was 11, I was interested in Louis Braille and Helen Keller.  I was fascinated by how they could communicate in non-traditional ways.  I was in that section of the public library downtown when I found a book called “Blissymbolics: Speaking Without Speech” by Elizabeth Helfman.  I learned how people with cerebral palsy could communicate by pointing to symbols on a board.  I did my sixth grade science fair project about Blissymbols, and I learned how to program my computer to draw some Blissymbols on the computer screen.  The program acted like flash cards, looping through a dozen symbols to introduce people to the idea of using symbols to communicate.

Please explain the story behind your 7th grade invention of the Blissymbol printer for people with disabilities.

In seventh grade, I took my project further.  I realized that people who communicate with people who Bliss have to be very patient, since it can take a long time for someone with poor muscle control to touch the series of symbols that represent what they want to say.  Computers are infinitely patient, so I thought that if I could put the Blissymbols on a computer's touch tablet, the Bliss user could point to symbols without needing someone to sit with them for a long time to see what they wanted to say.  I programmed my computer to recognize which section of the touch tablet was being touched, and the English meanings of the symbols were displayed on the screen.  I used a small printer-plotter to either write the meanings of the symbols or to draw the symbols on paper so that Bliss users could keep a copy of what they wanted to say, or they could mail it to a friend. (This was a long time before people had email or internet access, and twenty years before iPads were invented.)

My grade seven science fair project won first place at my regional science fair, won a silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, and went on to be exhibited at the World Exhibition of Achievements of Young Inventors in Plovdiv, Bulgaria when I was in eighth grade.

When you invented the Blissymbol Printer at age 12, did you ever imagine you would be honored for it again 25 years later by the Women's International Film and Television Showcase (WIFTS).  What was that like?

The Blissymbol Printer took on a life of its own after I invented it.  I traveled internationally to participate in the World Exhibition of Achievements of Young Inventors when I was 13.  I was invited to speak about science and entrepreneurship, and people started writing book chapters about me and my invention.  I joined the Women Inventors Project and the Women Inventors Networking Society, and I was a guest speaker a Canadian Association of Girls in Science event.  I was an invited speaker at Harvard University at the National Symposium on the Advancement of Women in Science.  Students in elementary and middle school have chosen me as the subject of their biography projects, and I have been interviewed by several students.  They like that I was their age when I became an inventor.

What was your educational path after high school?

After high school, I went to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.  I was a physics major because I wanted to learn more about how the universe works.  I also thought that physics would help me keep my options open later on, so I could pursue studies in space, robotics, or engineering if I wanted to keep inventing things that could help people.

My favorite courses in college were a history of science course called “Images of the Cosmos”, a neuroscience course called “Man in Space”, and my astronomy and astrophysics courses.  I went on to earn a Master of Space Studies from the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France.  I loved ISU because it provided an education in space that was international, intercultural, interdisciplinary, and emphasized the peaceful uses of outer space.

What languages do you speak and/or read and write?  What importance do you see in learning one or more foreign languages?

I studied French in school starting in grade six, and kept taking French classes through high school and college.  This made it easier for me to go to graduate school in France (even though my classes were taught in English, knowing some French made it easier to get around in Strasbourg during evenings and weekends), and during my job at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Quebec.  I also studied Hebrew for several years, and took a semester of Spanish.  I taught myself braille because it fit with my interests in alternative forms of communication, and I learned to read Blissymbols as part of my science fair project.  The more languages you know, the more places you can travel.  When I went to Japan, and I didn't know how to speak or read Japanese, I gained an understanding for the importance of literacy.

How did you become interested in robotics?

My first introduction to robotics was when I saw Star Wars in the theatres when I was five years old.  I loved R2D2 and C3PO.  Now I see robots as an extension of what's possible for humans to achieve.  Robots are programmed the same way computers are programmed, so computer programming skills can be applied to robotics as well.  Right now, working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we use robots to be remote eyes and ears of scientists who can't visit the planets in person.  The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are robotic Martian geologists, and the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn is teaching us a lot about Saturn and its rings and moons.

What kind of robots have you worked with or developed?

When I worked at Caltech, the graduate students I worked with were using LEGO Mindstorms kits to teach younger students how to build and program robots.  LEGO Mindstorms was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) so that young students could learn how to program robots even when they were too young to weld metal pieces together to build their own robots.  By making robots out of LEGO, which students were already comfortable with as a building material, they could focus more of their attention on how the sensors worked, and how to program the robots to do what they wanted.

Have you participated in any robotics competitions?

I have volunteered at the Los Angeles Regional FIRST Robotics Competition for the past seven years.  Seeing high school students and the robots they have built gives me hope for the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians.

What do you think students can learn from robotics and building their own competitive robots?

Being on a robotics team teaches much more than engineering.  It teaches teamwork, leadership, time management, financial management, computer programming skills, and more.  As with any activity, you get out of it what you put in, so the more actively you're involved with your team, the more you can learn.

Do you think boys are wired to be better than girls at math, science, engineering and robotics?

Both boys and girls can be engineers.  There is nothing inherent in how people are “wired” that makes one gender better at science or engineering.  We need to work on changing society's treatment of boys vs. girls so that we show girls that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.  Girls need the same nurturing to maintain their interest in science that boys get automatically, just for being boys.  I have met some very talented women who are scientists and engineers, some of whom have stories about how they are successful in spite of, not because of, how they were treated when they were students.  Some of my engineering friends had a parent or an uncle who was an engineer, so they knew what engineering was while they were still young enough to choose engineering as their major in college.

What was your career path on your way to your current job?

My first jobs were summer internships I had as a result of participating in my regional science fairs.  I worked in a biomedical engineering laboratory, a cancer research laboratory, and a mechanical engineering laboratory, all while I was still in high school.  I worked in a planetary science laboratory while I was an undergraduate student.  I worked at a rural internet access provider between college and graduate school.  In graduate school, I worked part time in my university library.  I had an internship at NASA's Ames Research Center as part of my graduate degree from the International Space University.  I worked at the Canadian Space Agency in 1999-2000.  I moved to Pasadena, California in 2000, and worked at The Planetary Society and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) before I started my current job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

What do you do at your main job today?

As a solar system and technology public engagement specialist at NASA s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I've been running an international essay contest about Saturn for students in grades 5-12.  The “Cassini Scientist for a Day” essay contest has encouraged students in over 40 countries to learn more about Saturn and its rings and moons, improve their research and writing skills, and meet role models who are scientists and engineers.  U.S. winning students and their classes participate in a videoconference with NASA scientists to get their space questions answered by experts in their field.

Do you mentor as part of your job or outside your job?

I am a mentor, both as part of my job and outside of work.

What are your favorite activities outside of work and career?

I write children's books during evenings and weekends.  I spend a lot of time with my son, helping him with his homework or participating in his Cub Scout activities with him.  I want to do my best at both my work and my home life, which can be challenging, since there are only 24 hours in a day, and I can't be in two places at once.  If I had more time, I would do more volunteer work.  I used to be an adult literacy tutor through the public library, and I enjoyed volunteering at therapeutic riding centers before my son was born.  Now that my son is old enough to ride, maybe we'll make volunteering a family activity.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

“Keep your face to the sunshine, and you cannot see the shadow.”
- Helen Keller

I always liked this quote, not just because it's about having a positive attitude, but because it was spoken by someone who hadn't seen sunlight or shadows since she was two years old.  Helen Keller was one of my heroes when I was growing up, because she found a way to overcome obstacles that other people might have used as excuses.

What advice you would like to share with young students around the world?

Everyone has something they're naturally good at.  The key is to try lots of things until you find out what your special talents are, then work at getting better and better at them.  No matter how old or young you are, you have something positive that you can contribute to the world.  You're never too young to make a difference.

- 5 June 2015


Last Updated:
27 June 2015

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