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The Power of Showing Up: Kristine Atienza's Path to Becoming an Analog Astronaut

From reading about astronomy from a colored encyclopedia during her childhood, to walking the rocky terrains of Mauna Loa as an analog astronaut—Kristine Atienza is a true STEM role model. Wait—what is an analog astronaut, you ask? They play the role of astronauts “in a simulated space mission on extreme environments like deserts, lava tubes or below zero temperature locations here on Earth.” She Talks Asia chats with Kristine about her unforgettable experience in Hawaii, how she created opportunities for herself, her message to girls who want to pursue STEM, and her dreams for the future. 

Can you share with us a bit of what your day was like during this mission?

I have actually recorded my Day 2 activities of our mission, to show what it was like inside the HAB of HI-SEAS, because unlike what people would usually think, we spent more time inside the HAB than going out to do extravehicular activities (EVAs). It wasn't as extreme as most people think, too, it was more like living in a boarding house with extra steps. I was always the first to wake up early at around 6AM, maybe because of jet lag and my body clock was still not used to the Hawai'ian time zone. I would go down to the kitchen to make coffee or tea while waiting for others to wake up. I would check what the weather was like on that day through our only window in the common area (the other window is in the science lab, with plants covering the view). We would eat breakfast together, most of the time rolled oats with nuts and dried fruits. After breakfast, the commander, Kato, would walk us through our schedules for the day which consist of EVAs, food preparation, individual studies or experiments, surveys, surveys and lots of surveys. At night we would gather together to eat dinner, and debrief to discuss what we've done or if we had encountered any issues during the day. We also had individual time with Paro, our AI robot pet seal, art projects and sports time. Crew time is for watching movies, or playing card games (I won all UNO games that we played). Everyday, our activities would be similar but it'd be jumbled up, to make it seem like the mission is not too routine.

You’ve spoken about there being a lack of resources or opportunities for Filipinos to be in the field of science and astronomy—how did you navigate the challenges to get you where you want to be as a nutritionist and as a researcher?

It was really my curiosity and just the sheer love for space that led me to whatever activities that I'm doing/did for astronomy and space. People around me would not believe me when I tell them that I'm an introvert through and through, but astronomy made me go out of my shell and comfort zone more than a decade ago. When I was young, I was very intimidated to go to meetings with people from the astronomy community, but I learned that just showing up is the most important thing, especially when you want to learn and pitch your ideas. When I was starting, and even until today, I would just sign-up to newsletters of different astronomical/space organizations to learn the newest topics or events in the field, then I would sign-up for every volunteer opportunity that I could find. I would also go to space/astronomy conferences with my savings locally and abroad. That led me to meeting in-person the people whose names I could only read in science magazine, and astronomy news in the past. Since my professional background seems very far from the space and astronomy field, doing personal astronomy projects and outreach, and volunteer work in different astronomical and space organizations led me to people with similar interest in space nutrition. Space Nutrition was a topic that was just a day dream for me when I was a nutrition student, so it's still bizarre for me to think  that I was able to start to do some studies on the topic right now. 

Why do you think there aren’t many women in STEM and what would you say to encourage more women to explore these fields?

I think one of the biggest gaps right now why we do not have women and girls in STEM is the lack of role models and lack of early exposure to STEM activities for girls. My mom was a high school math teacher and she has a degree in math, too. I would usually go to my mom's school, and I was taken care of by my mom's co-teachers who were teaching math and science, so women in math and sciences were not odd to me when I was a kid. I also grew up with math, physics, science and electrical engineering books, in fact, the reason why I got interested in astronomy was because of a colored encyclopedia set for kids which was very popular in the 90's. That set has an astronomy section, which I used to read everyday. My bonding time with my dad also was doing science experiments—we used to build electromagnets when I was 8. Later I would learn that my childhood, which was very encouraging for me to do sciences, was not the norm. As I do outreach to schools, or free telescope viewings to the public, I met many girls who told me about how they like science, especially astronomy but they don't know how to start. I was also lucky enough to be a mentor for Bridge the Gap (Gender Advocacy Program): Girls in STEAM Workforce Development, where I taught girls how to build and launch water rockets. It was amazing because when I did water rocket activities before, the participants were usually boys. 

Space and astronomy, and sciences in general are for everyone. No matter what your circumstances, even if it seems like you're in a different field right now, just do science! Science is everywhere, think and act like one, even if you're just making a cup of coffee. Read a lot, or follow online science contents. And think outside the box, combine your present skills and knowledge, to your passion or interest, sooner or later you will find yourself doing STEM/STEAM  or paving the way, or your own way to STEM/STEAM fields that might be unheard of yet. 

Growing up, did you ever think you would be breaking barriers like this? Looking back at your incredible experience, what thoughts can you share about where your work and curiosities have taken you?

I never wanted to become an astronaut -- of any kind. My mom and I had a serious talk when I was in college about it. All that time, she thought I wanted to go to space, I told her I actually wanted to become an astronomer, just studying stars on top of a mountain in Hawai'i using the Keck observatory on Mauna Kea. No dangers of going to space whatsoever. She was relieved, I think.  And then it was like the universe made a joke on me or something, when I found myself sitting on the soils of Mauna Loa, looking at the Keck observatory on top of nearby Mauna Kea, wearing a space suit and a helmet, and living and walking like a real astronaut. Until now, it still sometimes feels surreal how I got there. I didn't intend to be an analog astronaut, or be a first of anything. I don't feel comfortable sometimes being called the first Filipino analog astronaut to be honest because I don't feel like it's a big deal. I just like the stars so much, and I was just trying to learn more about it and share them with people. I feel like I haven't done enough and a lot more things to do.


What’s next on your list of career goals that you can share with us?

For now, the immediate goal is to write a paper on Space Nutrition, with all the data that I gathered from different analog missions that I was part of. I might also apply as a commander of HI-SEAS, and I hope to pitch an all Filipino analog mission to PhilSA. 

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