Melodie Yashar on Design Thinking, NASA, and Women in STEM
"I struggle with the pull between women being under the radar and letting their work speak for themselves or really drawing attention to the work that amazing, empowered badass female scientists and engineers are doing because they deserve that recognition that they haven't gotten for decades and decades."
Los Angeles-based architect, designer, technologist, and researcher Melodie Yashar isn’t one to be limited. Her impressive work spans many disciplines. She’s the co-founder of SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture), a group dedicated to developing human-supporting concepts for space exploration which won NASA’s Phase I 3D-Printed Habitat Competition. Since, she’s collaborated with a group of researchers at NASA Langley to realize a sub-scale demo for a future Martian ice habitat and worked as a researcher for grant projects specializing in human factors with the Human Systems Integration Division at NASA Ames.
PERFECT NUMBER talked with Melodie about the insights gained in her work and her advice for women interested in STEM fields.
PERFECT NUMBER: Could you tell us about where you’re from and how you came to your current work?
MELODIE YASHAR: I’m from Los Angeles, born and raised. I didn’t start out in the space sector. I studied English, rhetoric, and art history at UC Berkeley, where I got my undergraduate degree. I then went to school in Pasadena for industrial design and ended up working for an architecture studio in Milan called CLS Architects. They have a super minimal, clean, black and white aesthetic, and it was formative in how I now think about creating space.
After that, I went to Columbia University for a graduate degree in architecture. Columbia felt like a good fit because it had progressive and innovative courses, like a space studio. There was a lot of generative and computational design coming out of Columbia that I didn’t see in other programs. I knew that work in commercial and residential interiors was abundant, but it ultimately didn’t fit my interests. I really wanted to work at the intersection of art, media, technology, and the environment.
From that program, a number of us who worked at Columbia’s space studio founded SEArch+ (short for space exploration architecture). I think all of us were looking for ways of doing more speculative work, and we ended up winning phase one of NASA Centennial Challenge for a 3D-Printed Habitat on Mars. Now, I’ve also started my own grant projects with NASA. I don’t think we’re just yet at the point where space architecture as a practice is robust and developed enough to be fully commercialized. While there certainly are private aerospace companies who are developing habitat concepts, it’s hardly substantial enough. I’ve since diversified my research/grant emphasis with NASA to explore technologies for long-term, sustainable human life in outer space.
PN: How was the space studio at Columbia University different from other architecture programs?
MY: The space studio at Columbia (and there are a few others throughout the country) was human-centered in the sense that it was all about designing for people, even if we were focused on environmental conditions different from Earth. You take what the traditional design repertoire teaches you and apply it to a design area that also requires some scientific knowledge of the domain.
PN: After all these experiences, how do you now approach the applicability of design in different industries and geographical spheres – essentially, “design thinking” – in aerospace engineering, in particular?
MY: I don’t think design thinking is entirely appreciated or celebrated just yet in the aerospace industry. There are good reasons why OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and engineering workflows tend to be very risk-averse and reluctant to innovate. However, some companies (particularly in tech) are beginning to understand that if you bring designers early on in the process, you can introduce innovation and efficiency that they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish otherwise.
PN: Tell us more about how human-centered design differs when considering outer space.
MY: First, safety is number one. Because there are so many unknowns about how environmental factors like microgravity and radiation will affect human beings in the long-term once they are in space for extended periods, our priority is to ensure we are doing what is best for the basic health of people out there. The Human research program is driving research to begin to answer some of these questions.
PN: What ideas or thoughts have you had about a non-Earth habitat, perhaps Mars or other areas?
MY: The majority of the habitat work I’ve been doing has focused on construction—the robotic construction of structures that will basically be a part of precursor missions to humans arriving on the Moon, Mars, etc. Right now, NASA has the immediate challenge of having a Lander get to the surface. However, we’re looking at what types of structures or infrastructure autonomous robotics might be able to construct in order to house astronauts for a year or more in the long term. The requirements and constraints for a robotic mission are very different than those for a human mission.
PN: If you were asked to join a mission, would you go?
MY: To the Moon, maybe. But I wouldn’t go to Mars at this point. The International Space Station is established enough to be described like camping (although staying aboard the ISS for an extended period doesn’t appeal to me much). I’m not ready to let go of my life on Earth and everything I have here to go live on a place like Mars just yet. But maybe in 10 or 20 years’ time.
PN: There’s a lot of discussion about 3-D printing’s role in future space endeavors. Why is that the case?
MY: That’s a great question. First, 3-D printing – as opposed to modular construction with bricks, or other smaller units for example – allows for more versatile structures to be constructed. This versatility is appealing for autonomous construction in space because you want the robotics to function fairly independently and without human control or intervention. Also, 3-D printing has both long- and short-term impacts for the construction industry here on Earth. 3-D printing is being heralded as a big disruptor in the construction industry: materials research, materials engineering for 3-D printing, and concrete materials engineering for how we can create new cementitious materials are some of the areas of research and development happening today that our team is also engaging.
PN: How does 3-D printing figure into the work you’re doing?
MY: It’s a huge part of it. Right now, we’re thinking about how we can create very basic city infrastructure: roads, berms, landing pads, etc. because as soon as a rocket lands, the dust plume goes absolutely everywhere. Basic infrastructure for an early Lunar settlement will benefit greatly from 3-D printing. We are also going to need enclosures and structures to be fully dustproof since everything is going to get completely dirty.
Only once we have in-situ resources like water and power readily available, building foundations excavated and construction materials prepared would we be able to turn to 3-D printing for the construction of houses or habitats on a pioneering mission on Mars. Ideally, all of this would be in place – a properly pressurized environment and sufficiently enclosed shelters – before sending a crew to that location.
PN: From your experience working with NASA and the industry in general, what do you think about diversity and specifically representation of women?
MY: There’s a lot of imbalance, not just in the number of women working internally within NASA, but also in the inclusion of female colleagues in projects. There are subtle hints of unconscious bias I’ve encountered; for example, you hear about times when a female team member gets left off an email, even though they have the same position as men on the team. There are still a lot of biases in the industry, and you often have to be outspoken enough to remind others about who has an equal part in the management of a project, for example.
Intuitively I think the culture is somewhat different between NASA and younger, newer aerospace companies such as SpaceX, though I cannot comment first-hand. A larger issue is that because STEM education has traditionally been very male-focused for a long time, there’s an inherent challenge in promoting and celebrating equal representation within the aerospace sector. I think things are slowly but surely beginning to change.
PN: What would you advise young women to do if they want a career in this field (or similar fields)?
MY: It’s easier said than done but it’s so important to remember that there is absolutely no reason to be intellectually or professionally intimidated by anyone else — and I really really mean anyone — because literally everyone starts somewhere. I think a number of women, particularly minorities, feel like they’re not going to have a support system in place if they need support academically or professionally — and personally, I feel this is due to a lack of female leaders available for mentorship and guidance. But progressively things are changing, and online communities (BLAZE, for example) that celebrate female leadership in aerospace are really instrumental in improving representation and support of women in STEM. It is so important to remember that everyone starts at zero; that’s been the most helpful thing for me. The more I speak with experts within leading scientific establishments like NASA, the more I realize that even highly specialized researchers and scientists bring just one perspective to solving wicked problems; no one will have all the answers.
PN: Have you had personal experiences in which you’ve had to push back or had to clearly speak for yourself?
MY: In the last three or four years I’ve made a conscious effort to notice and overcome the times in which I felt a sense of impostor syndrome. I’ve had to own that I made the career I have and that the projects I’ve worked on speak for themselves in terms of their value and significance.
Often at NASA, in particular, many women engineers don’t want to be called out for being women. They want to be celebrated for the scientific value of their work alone rather than praise or attention being given to the fact of their gender. And internally at NASA, as a researcher myself, I agree with that, 100%. But when you look at it from an outside perspective, when you consider how our media and marketing-driven world today is saturated by images of idealized women, I find it really positive for women innovators, scientists, engineers, and creators to be identified as such. I struggle with that. I struggle with the pull between women being under the radar and letting their work speak for themselves or really drawing attention to the work that amazing, empowered badass female scientists and engineers are doing because they deserve that recognition that they haven’t gotten for decades and decades.
PN: What are your plans for the future? What are you working on right now?
MY: The emphasis of many projects at NASA has shifted from Mars to the Moon. So, we’ve been developing a few projects that are about creating Earth-based prototypes that will eventually be translated to construction on the Moon. We’re also working with NASA on lunar excavation and construction concepts and are thinking about what an initial Lunar settlement might be, and what conditions and systems engineering innovations will be necessary for autonomous construction to really happen within the next decade.
In my own research, I’m looking at how we can design for anomalies while introducing a human-in-the-loop within autonomous and intelligent robotic systems. We have a false idea that robots are going to function independently and that human crews won’t be involved at all. But, the reality is that things can always (and usually do) go wrong. So we’ll continue to need a crew member’s critical reasoning skills to solve these problems, even within autonomous processes. We will still need humans.
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