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Aspiring astronaut

Q&A with 2018 Horizon Award recipient Bethany Downer

Campus and Community |

By Lisa Pendergast

This month, Bethany Downer, B.Sc.’16, will take another step toward realizing her dream of becoming an astronaut.

After completing her degree at Memorial, Ms. Downer was one of only 40 people selected worldwide to complete her master of science in space studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.

She currently works in the European space sector and has recently been selected as the first scientist-astronaut from Newfoundland and Labrador to attend astronaut training with Project PoSSUM in Florida.

Ms. Downer has also made an incredible impact in the area of sustainability. The founder of One Step Shoe Recycling, she created an organization that redistributed more than 15,000 shoes worldwide and diverted 16,000 pounds of waste from Canadian landfills.

Contributor Lisa Pendergast spoke with Ms. Downer, this year’s recipient of the Horizon Award, for exceptional achievement by a Memorial graduate 35 years of age and younger.

LP: Have you always wanted to be an astronaut?

BD: No, not specifically, but I’ve always had an interest in space. There are events, for example, witnessing a shuttle launch with my family in Florida and getting to speak with Col. Chris Hadfield, that reassured me it’s what I want to do.

I don’t think a career astronaut under a government agency is for me – going up for six months at a time on the space station for example, but I’m lucky that the space sector is changing. Space tourism is right around the corner, so the term “astronaut” is becoming more varied than it used to be.

LP: Can you tell me about your experience completing your master of science in space studies at the International Space University?

BD: It is definitely one of the highlights of my life. Being with those 40 people over the course of a year, you develop friendships that are going to last a long time. The academics were very challenging. At 9 a.m. I would have astrophysics, at 10 a.m. biology, and then in the afternoon I would have a workshop in robotics. It was varied, but all under the space umbrella.

I took away a lot of personal growth too. The people I got to study with were from all around the world. Brexit was happening and Donald Trump took office while we were there, so seeing an international reaction and response to events like that was very eye opening. It expanded my breadth of knowledge, even beyond the space realm.

LP: You are currently working in the European space sector in the area of space science and technology. What do you do in this role?

BD: I founded a company, Reaching Space Science, and what I do is communications. I’ve found that my niche or passion is taking technical or scientific subjects and explaining them to a particular audience, especially younger people.

Bethany Downer
Bethany Downer at a public education event.
Photo: Submitted

I really want people to understand just how important and exciting space is and what’s happening in the field. There are big things going on and it’s an exciting time for everyone to get involved.

I work with astrophysicists and engineers, I take their findings and developments and bring that down to earth so everyone can understand and enjoy it. This can help space companies get more funding, or it can be for outreach and education projects. I like to pick different projects from around the world to work on and it’s quite exciting.

LP: How has your time at Memorial influenced your career?

BD: I actually applied to several universities in Grade 12 and I will never, for one day, regret that I stayed in Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m fortunate that I stayed, not only because I was close to home, but also so I could figure out what I wanted to do.

I started engineering and found that it wasn’t for me, then I did some math and some more intensive science courses and it took some time. I realized it was okay not knowing exactly what I wanted and the fact that it changed.

I ended up choosing geography and I’m grateful that I found a wonderful program, a great advisor and wonderful professors. I got to learn as much about the earth as possible through geography and Earth science courses. I could master the Earth studies first and then take it to space.

LP: In 2014 you founded One Step Shoe Recycling. Can you tell us a little about this organization and your current involvement?

BD: This was a project I had not anticipated. I found out, through Memorial University, about a sustainability conference taking place in Guelph and Col. Chris Hadfield was the keynote.

That was my main reason for going, of course, but by the time I got there, my mind had just exploded in terms of the importance of sustainability. I spoke with Col. Hadfield at the conference and it was after that conversation I really felt compelled to pursue something in the area of sustainability.

One Step Shoe started with simply thinking about things that we over-purchase. In North America, particularly, we over-purchase shoes. The original goal was to collect 100 shoes in St. John’s. Then it became 1,000 but we did that in a couple of weeks, so it exploded.

The generosity of the people from this province and eventually in Canada, when I expanded, was heartwarming. We organized shoe drives across the country to collect for those in need and we did everything from raising money to distribute new slippers in hospitals, to distributing shoes to villages in Africa, and providing shoes for people in women’s shelters to wear when they went for job interviews.

We set up a volunteer program through Memorial University and lots of students got involved with the program. The program itself lasted for about two years and when I went to France in 2016 it was put on a bit of a hiatus. So, we are now thinking about how this can be implemented in everyday life and thinking long term.

LP: What advice would you give to a current or future Memorial student?

BD: The biggest thing I would try to stress is that you shouldn’t put any pressure on yourself if you do not know what it is that you want to do. You should embrace this opportunity to find out what you want.

There is no such thing as a wasted course, wasted credit or wasted knowledge. It all contributes in one way or another. You find one little thing that interests you and it might be something you didn’t expect at all.

If you want to work in space, you don’t have to pick a particular career path to get in there. Scientists, engineers, lawyers, economists, doctors – we need them all! It’s a growing sector; it’s an exciting time to get into it and you don’t necessarily have to have ‘space’ in your job title. People shouldn’t feel like, “Oh, I can’t do that.”

LP: You are now Newfoundland’s first scientist-astronaut candidate. What does this mean for you and your dream of becoming an astronaut?

BD: Such a strange title, I’m not used to it! I’ve been selected for training, and just like anyone who has been selected by NASA, you are considered a candidate. You go through the training and eventually you are selected for a flight. That will be many years down the road, so I have lots of training ahead of me. I’m looking forward to it. This is a great first step.

LP: How does it feel to be named Memorial’s Horizon Award recipient for 2018?

BD: I’m very grateful. It’s very humbling because I try to advocate for the education I received at Memorial. To have the university recognize me – I feel blessed. I will always take with me everything that I learned here, not just the courses, but everything outside of that as well.

I hope young girls out there will see this and know that doing something in STEM or space isn’t out of their reach – that’s the one thing I want to drive home.

Ms. Downer will be honoured during the 37th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 11, at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus, St. John’s, N.L. Tickets (individuals and tables) can be purchased online. For additional inquiries, please contact the Office of Alumni Engagement at 709-864-4354, toll free at 1-877-700-4081 or email rsvpalumni@mun.ca.

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