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Stephanie Wong

Imagiverse Co-Founder/University Student
Alberta, Canada

When did you first become interested in science?

I have always been curious of the world around me.  It wasn't enough to know how it worked; I wanted to know WHY it worked.  Anything I could get a hold of, I'd tinker with it.  At the age of 7, I knew I wanted to be a scientist.  I had nothing specific in mind, except that I thought the equipment in a chemistry lab was pretty cool.  I read many books during my childhood, both fiction and non-fiction.

At what age did you know you wanted to become an engineer?  What inspired you to think about that as a possible career?

I wanted to become an engineer at age 13.  What sparked my passion in technology was when I watched the movie, Apollo 13.  This was about the Apollo mission to the moon, where a life-threatening accident happened onboard. The engineers on the ground had to be extremely ingenious to bring the crippled spacecraft and crew home.  It was at this point when I became interested in space exploration.  To build spacecraft going to other worlds would be an awesome job to do.  You would essentially be working in the high-tech field, creating never-before-made machines.  And these machines that I helped build would gather planetary facts that no one had known before!  What could be more exciting than that?  It has always been my credo to do science just for the pure joy of learning.

How did you get selected to become a Student Ambassador for NASA?  How old were you at the time?

I went online and found a NASA educational website offering opportunities to learn about the different people that work at NASA.  I spent many years working with the website, volunteering my time to numerous web tasks.  For my efforts, I was asked to be a student ambassador for the STS-93 shuttle launch in Florida.  I was 15 at the time.

What was it like to travel to Florida to see a shuttle launch?

For someone who had never done much out of the ordinary, the opportunity to see a shuttle launch in Florida came as a sudden shock and excitement.  I will never forget it.

There were two big news items for this particular launch.  First of all, NASA was sending up one of its "Great Observatories", the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  Chandra is a state-of-the art X-ray telescope that can peer into the farthest reaches of space, viewing the universe in a way not possible with ground-based observatories.  The second news item was the fact that Eileen Collins was to be the first female shuttle commander.  She is only one of a few female shuttle pilots in the Astronaut Corps, and her new "commanding" role had a lot of media interest.

To boot, it was the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings!  The entire Cape was abuzz! (no pun intended)

You can read a thorough account of my trip in my field journals.

Were you able to see the launch?  What caused the delays?

My day was already more than I could imagine, but it was all supposed to lead to the launching of that shuttle.  There were troves of people all waiting at around midnight for the launch to occur, just across the river from us.  I was getting very antsy as the countdown clock nudged along.  However at T-6 seconds, the count was halted.  Apparently, there was a signal that indicated a hydrogen leak. That later turned out to be faulty sensor.

The faulty sensor led to a 2-day delay until the next launch attempt.  This time, I was at the Press Site (this is where reporters are stationed and where the pictures of the countdown clock on TV originate), doing another "webcast", ready to bring in the good news.  Nope, bad weather (and bad mosquitoes).

Finally, on the third launch attempt, the shuttle Columbia was off to space!  It was a spectacular night launch, and I could feel shockwaves caused by the tremendous rockets.  It was awe-inspiring seeing this ball of light soar off into the sky.  But not much time was left for contemplation, as I was about to make my own launch attempt, in my plane back to Canada, only a few hours after the shuttle launch.  So, it was quite a close-call, but certainly worth the wait.  I am grateful to have been able to see beautiful Columbia lift off.

What did the Student Ambassadors do while in Florida?

As student ambassadors, we were supposed to be reporters, recounting to the online audience our experiences.  We did a number of webcasts, broadcasting live on video.  I wrote a number of journals, detailed accounts of my trip.  I also interviewed and met many people.  There were celebrities, astronauts, and other space folk on the VIP tour.  Three particular people I had the chance to talk to were astronauts Ken Cockrell and Ellen Ochoa, and former Mars Exploration Program Manager, Donna Shirley!  Indescribable!

What kind of student were you in elementary and high school?

I did pretty well in school throughout my primary and secondary education.  As a matter of fact, I was fairly bored prior to high school, as there was nothing particularly challenging to me.  I found every subject easy and didn't have problems in anything.  I cannot say that I had a favorite subject.  My interest in science did not spawn from my schooling, which I now find a little disconcerting, since my teachers couldn't get me interested in a subject that I already liked.

What did you like best about high school?

I did not enjoy high school at all.  It wasn't about the academics, but the other social issues of being a teenager.  I have always been an extremely shy person.  I like to do things myself, and wasn't interested in all the "chit-chat".  Also, being fairly conservative in nature, I didn't think or feel like most of the people my age.  So, in general, I did not like the school environment.  However, I was so occupied with academics that it, above all else, was my main concern.  In high school, I had very high academic standards for myself.  I always wanted to get top marks.  No one else was prodding me that hard, but it was something that I wanted to do for myself and something in my teenage life that I COULD be successful at.

What were your techniques for getting good grades?

I am still trying to acquire a good studying technique.  Since K-12 was not very difficult for me, I must say that I don't have very good study methods.  I didn't need it... then.  Despite that, however, I always did my homework, even if I knew the homework would not be taken in.  If it was "due" tomorrow, I would get it done, regardless of time.  My practice of doing homework allowed me to work less when exam time came.  That's not to say I did not cram.  As one who never had a rigid schedule or a desire to get things done early, most of my homework or studying ended up as last-ditch efforts, but I always completed all the homework in presentable (if not perfect) form.  My techniques underwent some modifications in post-secondary, suffice to say.

Did you experience any unexpected challenges when you got into the University of Alberta?

It was a struggle in my first year of university.  It was a big change of environment for me.  I came from a fairly small high school, so the gigantic campus was a bit intimidating.  And the "big" people were intimidating, too!  I am very petite, so if I was in a crowded hallway, it seemed like I was cocooned in a world of giants!  Academically, university is much different than high school.  You are expected to keep up with the content and homework, and it is solely your responsibility to do so.  In most classes, you just listen to the instructor and then go home to do what you need to do.  You have to make your own study periods.

The material was challenging and certainly stimulated the brain.  I found some content exceptionally hard, but my main problem was not keeping up.  I let time slide by, and, as I quickly learned in university, you have to keep up or things will irrevocably pile up!  Students who had to acquire good study habits in order to be successful in elementary and high school have an advantage over those who found school "easy" and could study at the last minute.  It's not so easy when they get to the university!  Indeed, it was a whole new learning experience that took time getting used to.  I successfully completed my first year.

What have you done to adjust your schedule and refine your goals?

I knew I couldn't waste any time.  This year, I have been prodding myself to keep up with my courses.  I am trying to read the material and start on the homework soon after it is assigned.  Above all else, I have tried not to worry!  If something is to pull you down, it is certainly lack of self-confidence.  I have tried to put on a happy face when possible and to be more laid-back, accepting my limits.  The changes have proved to be successful, more or less.  I must say that I am still far away from my "optimal" productivity, and it may take me a long time to get to that point.

Have the adjustments impacted your career goals in any way?

My goals have changed.  What I wanted to do with my life became a little bit clearer.  I want to learn as much as I can, so I want to have a broad education, not merely limited to a specific subject.  I want to be multi-trained and perhaps have the ability to work in a number of scientific fields.  I have taken a particular liking to math, which is a fascinating subject, in fact.  I enjoy taking all sorts of classes.

However, I am reaching a turning point where I need seriously consider what I'm going to do for the rest of my life... or at least follow a general coherent path!  I can mention a dozen careers that I eagerly want to pursue, but one cannot do them all!!  I will have to realistically examine what I'd be best at doing, what really will keep me interested in the long run, and what I CAN do.  The first thing is simple.  I know what sort of person I am and how well-suited a job is to me.  The second is an evolving issue that will eventually fall into place.  The third one is tricky, though.  I have to come to terms with what I am CAPABLE of doing.  But this distinction can be blurry.  As I've said, I am certainly not working to my full potential.  What if I did?  Would that work?  Or is it a losing battle?  This is a mixture of brains, self-denial and determination all mixed into an ugly goo.

How much time do you find you spend on volunteer education outreach activities?

Hours and hours and hours!  I spend a lot of time on the computer working on my outreach activities.  It might not the best route to get a hefty paycheck or local recognition, but helping out in education is gratifying.  I have always held that money and power are two "evils" that we have to deal with as a society.  Sure, I would like to be successful monetarily and achieve some status.  But take some time away from personal gratification and do it for worldly good use, and the hours don't seem to be much anymore.

What drives you to volunteer so much of your time to things like Imagiverse?  What benefits do you gain from these efforts?

I used to have little interest in education.  Education meant school, and school wasn't very attractive to me back then.  But, since working on my outreach activities, I began to understand that education is very important.  Education is what will sustain society and lead us to a better path.  Kids have to be educated and shown that learning is not a chore, but something absolutely wonderful.  I want to get kids interested in all subjects and make them become knowledgeable citizens of Earth.  There is so much to be done to make the education system better. While I'm not going to be the great champion that does it, I hope my efforts contribute to the cause.  Besides, working on these educational projects is fun!

Which subjects prepared you the best for you future career goals and paved the way for your current studies at university?

Certainly, the math and sciences have been of utmost important for my career goals.  It's not as scary as you think, but I live and breathe science.  My day is largely full of theorems, calculations, and obscure concepts that the ordinary layman would not want to touch!  Even though in elementary and secondary school most of the math and science I learned was "peanuts" compared to what I am doing now, I recognize that those simple concepts of yesteryear are the backbone of what I am doing now.

Math and science are not a complete set just as all work and no play is not a good lifestyle.  History, the arts, current events, languages, and all those grouped as "humanities" are essential to be a complete individual.  I am fortunate to take a considerable interest in all of these.  I enjoy writing, playing the piano and learning about other cultures.  While my career goals require me to view the world from a physical standpoint, my work cannot be done without knowing about the people who populate this physical world.  In a closer view, my language and writing skills allow me to work more effectively as a scientist.  I can express my ideas in a logical format to the public.  Having a number bottled up in my head would not serve society at all.

What difficulties, if any, did you encounter being a girl entering a field historically dominated by men?

I, frankly, don't have many concerns about being in a male-dominated field.  I've not experienced anything gender-biased so far.  There have been classroom presentations mentioning the smaller population of girls in engineering and how the distribution of them within the engineering departments is different.  From what I have observed, what separates girls from the boys is that the general population, while thinking they are supporting the female cause, splits the gender gap even more.  Instead of explicitly restricting girls from going into a specific field, as in the past, people now warn girls about the possible troubles that they may meet.  There is so much talk about the problems that they may face rather than the good they CAN do.  All this does is discourage the girls.  Even if the "success stories" are reported, there is always that tinge of "she had to work hard to make it" attitude that is not found to the same extent when the identical comparison is made about a man.  If the well-meaning society can accept gender-equality rather than "fix" the problem to its death, then we will be better off.

If you could give one piece of advice to students, what would you tell them?

Be understanding and compassionate to those around you.  They are human beings on this planet too.  While you might be more privileged in mind, health or wealth, you are fundamentally the same as the rest of the collected atoms in the universe.  Why be selfish, vain and pretentious?  This is false superiority.  If you are of worth, others will know it. There is no need for self-embellishing if you are a person of good values.  Be who you are, not the logo, not the media, not the fad.  Be at the eve of your life knowing that you were yourself, and not a mask of what others wanted.

What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

I will probably still be in school!  Right now, I'm in a mathematics program and am enjoying what I'm learning.  I will likely finish that off and then get an engineering degree.  Then, I want to specialize in another field of science and go into graduate studies.  I see myself in research, working in chemistry or high-tech.  At the very least, I hope to be able to dabble in my passions: space exploration and space science.  If I can contribute to the exploration of Mars and participate in a science mission, I will be content.

Send your questions about topics of which I might possibly know the answers to: Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

17 May 2002
Personal Interview (3 August 2007)
Stephanie's interview about Music (25 August 2003)

- 15 March 2003


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Last Updated:
21 March 2003

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