Interview With Mandy Sweeney: NASA Alum and Certified Sci-Fi Geek

“The people that can work at the intersection between the sciences and the humanities will own the future.”

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By Julia Arciga

Photo courtesy of Mandy Sweeney

Mandy Sweeney is the Vice President of Museum Operations at the up-and-coming Museum of Science Fiction, a NASA alum, and is currently finishing up her Harvard Master’s degree in Finance. To add to her already impressive resume, Mandy also boasts an impressive warchest of sci-fi fan info, and has an enormous passion for STEM education. Though a Skype interview, I got the pleasure of geeking out with her— Star-Trek-and-Doctor-Who style.

What was the inspiration to start the Museum of Science Fiction?

The founder of the Museum, Greg Viggiano, was inspired by the Tate Modern. It occured to him that there really was no home like that for science fiction. The genre is so broad – there’s radio, music, art, literature, film, TV, comics, cosplay, fandom – and he wondered why this hasn’t been all brought together yet. At the time I was working at NASA, he and I were talking about that and I, too, was really intrigued with this idea. Between the two of us, we realized that sci-fi is a really powerful way to engage everyone about science and makes it more accessible. So what we came to believe is that we can use sci-fi as a way to inspire and motivate others to develop positive thoughts about our future by innovating and by creating more technology.

Why are you personally involved in this project?

I was never good at math and science. I mean, I loved science and I liked math, but I wasn’t very good at them. I was actually discouraged from pursuing them because other things, like the humanities, came so easily to me. From a young age, I was told that girls are naturally not as good at science and math. Why don’t you just focus on your strengths? And I did that – I didn’t focus on math and science even though I found my outlet in science fiction. Fast forward from childhood to early career, and I was lucky enough to get a job at NASA finding ways to communicate complex science topics to the general public so that they could appreciate it. That’s when I learned how important it is for those in STEM careers to make their work understood by others. So I found a home in the science community and was able to raise awareness and appreciation of the important work that they were doing. I’ve written thousands of pages of NASA budget justifications, trying to explain to politicians why the James Webb Space Telescope is worth betting on. If you are not in a STEM field, you can still contribute to STEM – there are lots of different ways to contribute, because we need people who are creative, we need people who can write, and who can communicate. Science and the humanities are not mutually exclusive – you can do both. The people that can work at the intersection between the sciences and the humanities will own the future. That’s something that we do at the museum of science fiction – it’s where arts and sciences collide and a lot of really cool things happen.

What were your biggest takeaways of working with NASA?

I think one of my biggest takeaways was reading something and having the courage to say that I don’t understand it. I wanted to appreciate it, and you can’t appreciate something without understanding it. Many times before I or the team that I lead could explain it in a way that the public could understand, we would have the courage to tell someone who was a PhD in astrobiology that we didn’t get it. Explain it to us. Pretend I’m your grandmother. Tell me again. I still don’t get it and I can’t help you until I get it. We were also trying to write in ways that could communicate across disciplines, and between different kinds of experts as well as for the general public. I also learned to just be curious, be humble, and ask a lot of questions and seek to understand – and that’s something that you can take anywhere with you.

When did your love of sci-fi start?

Back to the Future and Quantum Leap were some of the first sci-fi stories I fell in love with. I was always fascinated by robots and time travel, but I didn’t realize it was sci-fi because sci-fi in my house was exclusively Star Wars and Star Trek. So I didn’t even realize that I was a budding sci-fi enthusiast. I don’t even think I became a “fan” until I started working at NASA. I didn’t understand any of the jokes at work. What’s a tribble? I didn’t even know. The geeks in the building definitely communicated on a whole different level when they were referencing sci-fi movies or books, and using art to describe what it was that they were doing. So I had some colleagues who recommended I watch certain things, and I didn’t wanna feel left out. So, I started a regiment of sci-fi and that’s when I really realized how much I already was a sci-fi fan, I just maybe missed a couple of the obvious ones. But that’s how I got into Doctor Who and others.

What drives you to be involved in science?

I’m involved in science because I’m passionate about STEM education. I want to reach kids early and help them develop a vision of themselves in the future contributing in STEM. I want them to get excited, enthusiastic, and pumped about the future that they are going to create. I want them to have some hands-on, really cool, informal learning experiences where they fail, then learn. I want kids to develop perseverance, because math/science/engineering/tech, you fail a lot. You don’t nail it everytime, and everytime you fail, you learn. Failure is not a bad thing. With today’s high stakes testing, I personally think that kids are starting to be programmed for perfection at a very early age, making them want to gravitate towards the things that are easy because they don’t want to fail. But scientists have failures and take risks! I think we need to culturally get our children ready to appreciate people who don’t take it personally when they don’t get it right the first time. With this, maybe kids won’t give up at algebra two; maybe they keep going even though it was hard. So that’s why I like to create project based learning where kids really get to experiment and develop resilience, and then I like to connect them with the most inspiring people that they can meet— so they’ll be equipped with grit and be inspired.

What is it like to study in/work in the typically male dominated fields of finance/math/science?

I got my bachelors in economics, and I’m currently getting my masters in finance from Harvard. But it was not often that I thought Oh, here I am in a male dominated field. This is tough. I didn’t really notice. There were a couple times in my classes, once or twice a semester, I might look around and go, Oh my gosh, I really am the only woman in this room. But it didn’t bother me, and I never thought that I was treated differently. I’ve always needed more time with math, and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I overcame tremendous math and test anxiety— I really had to work hard to get through that Economics degree. When I first went to college, I really wanted to be a Spanish teacher. I’m really good at teaching, and I probably would have been an amazing Spanish teacher. But I took that first economics course and it was so hard, but I loved it so much. I just stuck with it. I don’t think I’ll win a Nobel Prize in economics, but I certainly am more fulfilled knowing that I’m reaching my full potential, and I enjoy the challenge.

What’s your fave piece of science fiction?

The John Carter of Mars stories. The writing is absolutely beautiful, and he influenced so many other storytellers. The adventures that he wrote about are so energizing. Even though the stories are just swashbuckling pulp for twelve-year-old boys from the 1920s, there are some really amazing themes about equality, especially in the first three. Also, the guy was a writer, but he also did some really amazingly unexpected things for a story that he wrote, “Beyond the Farthest Star.” He never finished the series because he passed on before he wrote more, but there were pages and pages of notes that he left behind at his home, and he had worked out a very complex economy of the world he was creating. The economy was just the subplot, but he went to that tremendous amount of detail and reached into economics/other things that are unexpected for a writer or pulp fiction guy to get into.

What is your favorite weekend activity?

I love to sew! I never really sew the same thing twice, but I have some clothes and princess dressed for friends’ little girls. I like to sew gifts when I have the time.

What advice do you have for girls who are passionate about science or science fiction?

I’d say to any girl who is passionate about science or sci-fi: Just don’t give up. Ask for help, ask questions, be curious, and just keep trying to find the boundaries of your intellect, of your own abilities— and don’t let anyone stop you.

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The Museum of Science Fiction is set to open in the DC/North Virginia within the next year or two. Can’t wait that long? They’re also running an event called Escape Velocity in July, which is basically like a “Science-Festival-meets-Comic-Con.” (How cool is that?!) 

You can find out more about the event on their website, and you can purchase tickets for the event here and here.

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