The One in Light of Hurricane Harvey

On the week of August 21, 2017, I saw an eclipse and survived the worst flood in United States history. Quite a story to tell the grandkids.

Until yesterday, I remained at my parents’ house in Pearland glued to the news, watching dozens of personal accounts on the Houston floods online from Facebook friends, witnessing people being rescued off of highways by boat and losing everything they own.

Today, Houston embraced the sunshine shining down again after days of catastrophic rainfall. I’ve never seen so many Texans happily rejoice in feeling the scorching rays of the August sun.

My whole city is still underwater. I’m trying to find something that will force me to recognize that yes, this is real, and it’s happening right down the street. But it still feels like a weird dream.

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The intersection of Telephone Rd. and Fuqua near Pearland, August 27, 2017. (Source)

And yet with the terror flooding social media (no pun intended), I feel a great sense of pride seeing this population be so incredibly responsive to volunteer efforts as they remain available for other Houstonians who are in more dire conditions.

Shelters are turning away volunteers and donations because they are already overwhelmed with the response, and that is the most astounding, inspiring work of positivity I’ve ever seen. It makes me feel insanely proud to be from the city of Houston.

Rescue workers and civilians waited for emergency crews in the Meyerland area of Houston. Credit: Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times (Source)

Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. They are from all areas of Houston of all ages, rich and poor, and they continuously share with the media that they feel grateful to be alive.

They are populating shelters situated throughout the city, which includes the massive George R. Brown Convention Center. I note this because, for my female friends in computer science, this venue hosted the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing the past two years.

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Harvey Shelter at George R. Brown Convention Center, August 28, 2017. (Source)

In addition to George R. Brown, schools, churches, and stadiums everywhere are dedicating space for the evacuees. Many of these shelters include people from my hometown of Pearland, Friendswood, Alvin, League City, Pasadena, Dickinson, Santa Fe, Katy, Cyprus, Conroe, Seabrook, Kemah, the Westheimer area, Downtown Houston – my family household names that are taking over the news across America. The entire country is sending financial help and support for our city – my city. It’s surreal.

It reminds me of when Houstonians helped Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005, and if the city of New Orleans is alive and thriving today, Houston can also recover from this flood. We have the manpower and the faith to make it happen.

So if we knew this was a Category 4 storm, and Houston is already prone to flooding, why did we not evacuate?

I was ten years old when Katrina struck New Orleans. My mom’s side of the family is from there, so we knew relatives and visited that city at least once a year. We grieved for the people and landmarks destroyed in that disaster. I remember Houston being a popular place for refuge for thousands of people left homeless from the storm.

So when Hurricane Rita was scheduled to directly strike Houston as a Category 5 one month after Katrina, everyone panicked. My family decided to evacuate along with the entire city.

My 7-year-old brother, myself, my parents, and grandparents packed everything and headed north, but we only made it to the opposite side of the city. The 30-minute drive turned into 18 hours gridlocked on the highway.

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When I recollect on hurricanes, I flashback to Rita and the terrifying experience of fleeing from the unknown. We were stuck on the highway with a storm as strong as Katrina heading our way, and I was unsure if our house would still be standing when we returned.

Luckily, Rita shifted and did not directly strike Houston, but it would have been a different case for Harvey.

The Houston area alone contains at least 7 million people – that’s greater than the population of most U.S. states. If everyone had tried to evacuate for Hurricane Harvey, there would not have been enough time for everyone to leave the city before the storm. It intensified too quickly for people to prepare.

If a city-wide Harvey evacuation was anything like the evacuation crisis during Rita, with everyone trapped on the roads in their vehicles, there would have been a much greater number of casualties. Without a doubt.

For natives raised on the Gulf Coast such as myself, hurricanes are not new, and we didn’t expect this one to be worse than Katrina, Rita, or the disastrous Hurricane Ike that directly hit Houston in 2008. But Hurricane Harvey was unprecedented.

Here’s an interesting list of statistics that capitulates the extraordinary amount of rainfall from this storm:

  • On Sunday night, 9 trillion gallons of water had already fallen on greater Houston and Southeast Texas.
  • 9 trillion gallons is enough to fill 33,906 Empire State Buildings, from basement to penthouse.
  • It would take 9 days straight for the Mississippi River to drain into Houston and equal the amount of water already there.
  • It is enough to fill the entire Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City – twice!
  • If this amount of water was spread across the U.S., it would cover the ENTIRE country by the height of 3 pennies stacked on top of each other.
  • It could fill 2.3% of the volume of the Himalaya mountain range, which includes Mount Everest.

In the wake of this storm, rescued citizens on the news continue to have positive spirits. Many of them smile at reporters, grateful that they are alive and that they still have their loved ones, even though they’ve lost everything. There’s an overwhelming amount of faith radiating from these people that is truly special, even in the worst catastrophe that the Texas Gulf Coast has ever faced.

Pearland received over 40 inches of rainfall and is mostly dry, which is a miracle, and I’m grateful that my parents, my grandparents, and I are amongst the lucky ones who survived this storm with electricity and more than enough food and water.

The southeast portion of Texas is going to be paralyzed for a while, and thousands of people will still be in need of help for a long time.

If you would like to volunteer or donate to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, the amazing fellow NCWIT member and NASA Pathways Intern Kirsi Kuutti shared a list of ways of how to help Houston on her website. Be sure to check it out and find ways you can volunteer your time and donate to the people of Texas.

The amount of love and support from the American people through this event has positively influenced me and friends who have lost much more than I have, and although it may take years to recover, we will recover. Thank you.

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The One with the Eclipse

Since I stayed in Houston to start my first day in the NASA Pathways Program, I couldn’t travel for the total eclipse. But I guess Johnson Space Center was the next best place to be for this astronomical phenomenon.

To take a break from a full day of paperwork, orientation information, reviewing the NASA values and mission for the millionth time, ice-breaker activities, and meeting new people, our group of 30 new Pathways interns gathered outside of Building 3 to join in with the eclipse viewing with everyone at Johnson Space Center.

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NASA’s Johnson Space Center at Building 3. August 21, 2017.

What would you expect from JSC employees during this totally awesome event that NASA’s been promoting for months? If you were to guess hundreds of space nerds with solar glasses on and mouths gaping open, almost noticeably jumping up and down like a pack of ten-year-olds at Chuck E. Cheese, you’d be correct. Except for the fact that we were melting in the 105 degree Texas heat and possibly burning our retinas.

To attempt to relate the eclipse event with the momentous experience of my first day as a NASA civil servant, it was exciting to see my entire social media overrun by posts about something related to space, and not just from people working in the space industry. For a brief period, the entire country stopped and watched this one event for the pure astonishment of nature. Everyone paused their lives to gaze in wonder at something extraordinarily greater than us, almost as if out of respect for the universe and its miracles outside of our control. While it took an eclipse for people to stop and marvel at what occurs in outer space, this passionate curiosity resonates in the core of people at NASA, and it’s the reason why I’m proud to be a part of it.

It was almost a sign that there was an eclipse on the same day that I was sworn in as an official NASA civil servant. (Eh, it was probably just coincidence, but fabricating embellished stories makes life more interesting.)

So now, my days as a NASA civil servant have officially begun, resulting in much more interesting writing topics. I start working in the Software, Simulations, and Robotics division this week.

Unfortunately, I missed the total eclipse, but luckily another one will be coming on April 8, 2024. Since the new astronaut candidate class started training today, maybe it’s a sign that the next eclipse will be the day I start my own astronaut training – although I will need to get over my fear of heights first.

The One with the Flashback to Four Years Ago: My First NASA Internship

In early August 2013, I almost missed my first phone call from NASA.

Stuck on the couch with my eyes glued shut from strabismus surgery, I unknowingly missed the call and didn’t check the message from the NASA Education Office until a few days later. By then, the position was filled.

With the Space Shuttle program canceled five years prior, I pictured Johnson Space Center as a large office building with a couple of monitors keeping tabs on the Hubble Space Telescope and gathering the latest galaxy imagery. I barely knew anything about the International Space Station, let alone its existence. I didn’t know there were other space centers besides Johnson and Kennedy. I didn’t realize there were still astronauts in space.

As an 18-year-old high school senior with dozens of applications awaiting replies, I was bummed for a few days about the missed opportunity, but NASA never topped my list. I simply didn’t know anything about it.

I thank my lucky stars today that the Education Office called back with another internship opportunity a week later. They explained the technical details of the job, and it made no sense to me, but it was an opportunity to get paid and be independent. And it sounded cool. So I accepted.

For this reason, I often felt like a hypocrite when people told me that NASA was their dream career. There were thousands of other people who were smarter, more engineering-oriented, more deserving of the internship than me. I held leadership positions in my high school honor society and in Girl Scouts, and I took dual credit courses, but I had barely any STEM experience. I applied with a computer engineering degree in mind, but I didn’t know that Java was anything but coffee.

Just like that, I was thrown from my sheltered homeschooled high school life into the world known as NASA.

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Me looking young and proud with my new NASA polo. August 23, 2013.

On August 26, 2013, as if it was my first day of Kindergarten, my mother began her routine of dropping me off at Johnson Space Center with our soccer-mom minivan. “Be safe!” as she always tells me. Ironic, considering she was leaving me with the Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate. Literally one of the safest and securest places on Earth.

Out of 25 interns with the NASA Education Office in fall 2013, I was one of five females, one of three high school students, and definitely the only homeschooler. I also found out that we were 25 out of about 600 applicants. I felt a deep sense of the imposter syndrome. But I was a stubborn young’un, and I was determined to prove that I belonged there.

Failure… was not an option.

I was a bit startled when I first met my mentor. We visited Rudy’s Barbecue for lunch, and as mentors trickled in to sit and visit with their new interns, mine was the last to arrive. Bill McAllister, branch chief of the ISS Avionics and Software branch in Safety and Mission Assurance at Johnson Space Center, rushed in from behind me, firmly shook my hand, and shouted, “NATALIE! HOW THE HELL ARE YA?” Then we proceeded to discover that his daughter was close friends with my ex-boyfriend. You can’t just make this stuff up.

He always tried to convince me that IBM stood for “I’m Bill McAllister.” For the longest time, I was afraid to ask what IBM really stood for.

And then, one memorable moment occurred that day in Rocket Park, the first experience that really hit me that I was doing something special. As we were touring the giant Saturn V rocket within the enclosing and mixing in with Space Center Houston visitors, one woman from my hometown came up and asked us who we were. I ended up talking to her and told her more about myself. It blew her away that I was a local high school girl interning at NASA, and then proceeded to take a photo with us. She praised us as if we were really changing the world. That was the first time that I ever inspired somebody.

From a background of self-esteem issues and battling anxiety my whole life, NASA is personal to me because it completely changed me, as if I grew up there. I was in a place where I could share my intelligence without feeling ashamed, where I could network with engineers, where I could share cool things going on with my family and friends that I never could before.  I was a part of something greater than myself, which is something I still love about it.

I made it my mission to learn about all the wonderful projects from NASA and share them with people who still think NASA is “canceled,” because it frustrates me how little I used to know about it. I’ve met people working for the International Space Station, engineers working in Mission Operations, astronauts, flight directors, center directors, people who have worked on Shuttle, and even people who worked on the Apollo program.

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So, those were some takeaways from my first internship at NASA. My project consisted of coding a data retrieval tool with Visual Basic for the Computer Safety Working Group, and I loved the people I worked with in Safety. I appreciated every second of every day interning there as a high school student.

Next week, I’ll be returning to Johnson Space Center for my fifth internship and first Pathways tour as a senior at Texas A&M University. The Pathways program is the Co-op program at NASA – the next level – and is something I’ve worked towards since that first internship, which is what inspired this post. I can’t believe how blessed I am that I’m still there, I’m working at a place that I love, and that I’m taking on this next step of my unexpected dream career.

The One about J.K. Rowling and the Necessity of Failure

When I feel at my lowest points and look for guidance from outside sources, I often research successful people who have undergone similar experiences to read their advice on how they overcame them. For me, one of these people happens to be J.K. Rowling. It doesn’t entirely have to do with my love for Harry Potter (although it certainly plays a part).

J.K. Rowling openly shares her success story of how she beat depression through writing. Specifically, she believes that failure is not only inevitable, but necessary. I’ve included this inspiring speech if you’re interested:

In the case you have a limited attention span as I do, I’ll summarize some personal takeaways from J.K. Rowling about this topic.

1. Talking about the “Benefits of Failure”

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

I relate to this on a personal level. In elementary through high school, academics came naturally for me. I earned straight A’s every year and knew how to work the system and not retain a single bit of information. It came back to bite me in college.

My first semester of freshman year, I survived with a 2.6 GPA. It was a huge wakeup call after adjusting to the 4.0 without having to work hard for grades. I failed to meet the GPA requirement for the Honors program, and to this day, I still haven’t pulled my GPA high enough to be readmitted. As an academically successful high school student who used to pin her entire identity on grades, awards, and honors, I had never felt more like a failure.

From that experience, I discovered more good parts about myself I would have never found if I continued to depend on my success in school. My workaholic self also discovered that there’s a life outside of academics. It was almost the best thing that ever happened to me. But the arena in which I belong? That’s something I’m still working on.

2. There’s only one way up from rock bottom.

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

(Such a great quote, right? Damn.)

In my opinion, this is what makes successful people stand out from the rest. How many biographies have you read or watched that contained a sad story? The greatest successes often blossom from the worst occurrences, almost as if they’re used as fuel.

Sometimes I pretend I’m in a movie when bad events happen. I’ll play sad music and even cry for dramatic effect.

Life happens to everyone, but when people confuse difficult times as a permanent failure, especially if they become used to success, they’ll stay there and accept it as their fate. “Life sucks, people suck, everything sucks.” I’ve been there.

With the right mindset, you can use “rock bottom” to your best advantage. In J.K. Rowling’s peace of mind, she had nothing to lose, so what was the worst that could happen? Maybe someone will direct a movie about it.

3. “Failure in life is inevitable.”

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

A popular interview question I have received in the past goes something like this –

“Talk about a time in which you failed and how you responded.”

As a note, if someone intimates that they can’t possibly think of a time in which they failed, a recruiter knows immediately that it’s B.S. He or she wants to know that you realize this important step in success. It’s not the fact that you failed, it’s how you learned from it. It seems cliche, but it’s harder to implement than it is to hear.

The more you step out and plant yourself in challenging projects or uncomfortable situations, the more chances you’re going to fail – or experience “life lessons,” I should say. It’s basic statistics. But that’s also the only way you’re going to succeed.

4. Our ideas of failure are relative.

“However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.”

I can’t count how many times I’ve dismissed my failures because I deemed them “not important enough.”

I was blessed with a homeschooled education. I’ve been interning at NASA since I was 18. I attend a university with a great reputation and an esteemed engineering program. What right do I have to talk about failure? How could I possibly know the struggles and hardships of life problems when I have most of my life left to face worse experiences? What right do I have to go into detail about hard times, when there are war, famine, and more imminent issues going on in the world?

I’ll say this now to other people my age going through the same thing and asking yourselves the same questions, the questions that lead me to stay quiet and often suffer alone.

Your opinions matter. Your emotions matter. Your thoughts matter. And your story matters.

Don’t allow anyone to tell you differently. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t apologize for yourself. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior for expressing your emotions.

Got it? Believe it? Read it again? Good. I’ll continue to the next and final point.

5. When it comes to failure, there’s no place for comparison.

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.”

Everyone has a different story. Everyone is on a different path, and everyone experiences their own failures. What you consider failure might be beyond someone else’s idea of success, and that is okay.

Whatever the world dictates in its definition of failure, sometimes you have to tune it out in order to chase your own happiness. If you’re in a place where you feel like a failure or are stuck with negative thoughts, find people who will listen. Seek counseling. Don’t seek guidance from those who don’t support you, or try to “one-up” your story with theirs. Leave room in your life for those who do care, even if it means being alone for a while. Everything’s temporary.