Christyl Johnson has had big aspirations since she was very little. As well as aiming high to be an astronaut, she was competitive gymnast in high school and placed third in the Eastern Region of her state on bars and the floor routines.
“I have always been interested in STEM. I can recall as a very young girl watching footage from the first man landing on the Moon, and commenting that I want to be an astronaut when I grow up,” she says.
She’s certainly nailed her big goals: after a background studying systems and electrical engineering, Christyl Johnson now heads up the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s missions of the future in astrophysics, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science. Her exciting role is to oversee the center’s research and development, and establish a portfolio of technology investments to enable those future missions.
She’s also a been keynote speaker at many conferences globally, including COSPAR-K, coming up in August 2021.
Making a COVID breathalyser
She’s an advocate for diversity in the space industry and has seen her own research diversify into unexpected areas – for example, she’s currently working on building a breathalyser that will provide more accurate rapid testing for COVID-19.
“My current efforts to develop a breathalyzer will allow a person to blow into this rapid test device. We will know whether or not they have COVID within 15 seconds. If all goes as we anticipate, it could also reduce false positives and false negatives,” says Christyl.
Advocacy for diversity
Earlier in her career, Christyl experienced the impostor syndrome, the sense of ‘not being enough’ for a given situation or role.
“The challenge was building enough self confidence and inner strength to boldly bring all of my capabilities to the table in a male-dominated, highly technical environment.”
She strongly believes that when an organisation has less diverse people, the number of solutions are also limited.
“In order to get innovative solutions you must have diversity in thought. You get this kind of diversity by bringing people together from diverse backgrounds,” says Christyl. By building diversity into STEM, we create the opportunities for revolutionary innovations in any field.
“We are in the age of digital transformation, so there are so many opportunities for STEM professionals to make revolutionary changes to the way we do everything today,” says Christyl.
Getting started in STEM
Her advice for young STEM professionals is to look for opportunities to get some hands-on experience.
“They can be internships or visits to places you think you might want to work. That is the best way to find out what you like AND what you don’t like. Not even the experts know everything about any one topic.
“New approaches are surfacing every day, so never be hesitant to bring your ideas to the table. This will not only empower you but also bring diversity to that table.”
Christyl’s future dream role would be consulting with organisations around the world on their STEM objectives.
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Christyl Johnson: Study and career pathway
- BS in Physics: Lincoln University
- MS in Electrical Engineering: Penn State University
- PhD in Systems Engineering: The George Washington University
- Deputy Chief Engineer: NASA Headquarters
- Executive Director: National Science and Technology Council, Whitehouse, USA
- Deputy Director of Technology: NASA Goddard Center
Author: Dr Astha Singh
Astha is the Managing Editor at Refraction Media. She is a STEM Marketer and holds a Honors, Masters & PhD degree in Science. She has been producing STEM marketing content for over 10 years and is an avid advocate of Diversity in the STEM industry.