Alice Bowman: ‘I never had any thought that being a woman would hold me back’
Alice Bowman is New Horizons mission operations manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. In 2015, Bowman’s critical role in the New Horizons interplanetary probe’s successful Pluto flyby won her accolades among her fellow scientists and amateur stargazers alike as the probe beamed back stunning images of the dwarf planet and its moons. Women made up roughly 25 percent of the New Horizons Pluto flyby team — still a minority, but an impressive enough showing to have merited special attention in coverage of the mission. New Horizons is now on course for a 2019 flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, again with Bowman at the helm as MOM.
1. What is the proudest accomplishment of your career?
Having always been completely fascinated with space exploration, I would have to say my proudest moment was being part of the New Horizons team that accomplished the first visit to Pluto and its moons. Guiding a tiny spacecraft billions of miles from home, carrying the dreams and hopes of so many people through a region of space where nothing had traveled before, was simply unforgettable. Seeing the amazing pictures of Pluto just added to the experience!
2. Becoming a leading engineer or executive in your field is no accident. Please describe the “vision” that motivated your professional decisions and choices. Did you start out with this goal, have you changed direction, and do you anticipate changes?
Actually, my goal after graduating from college was to find a job that was interesting and that would allow me to use my physics or chemistry degree — and I’ve been fortunate to find several jobs that fit that bill. As for the future, I will be staying with New Horizons through its next encounter, a flight past a small Kuiper Belt object on New Year’s Day 2019. After that, I am not sure; there are so many things that interest me.
3. Women are still a minority in your field. Right or wrong, the perceived differences between men and women are part of the reason there are fewer women in technology. What specific challenges have you faced in making yourself and your accomplishments visible to others in your field? And how have you overcome such challenges?
I was taught as a child that I could have any career I wanted, and I’ve never let go of that belief. There was never any thought that being a woman would hold me back. So when things didn’t work out, I chalked them up to a need to do better or learn more, and then I’d try again. I’ve always focused on being myself and giving more than is asked of me.
4. Who were (are) your career role models or mentors? How has their example or guidance helped you?
I had — and still have — a number of mentors throughout my life. My mom was my first mentor; she decided to get a college degree as soon as my sister and I started elementary school. I saw firsthand how hard she worked and how she arranged her classes to be there for my sister and me. When she needed help, my extended family would be there. I saw from a very early age that when you wanted something badly enough it was possible to make it work, even if it took a lot of planning and sacrifice. She was able to find the balance and accomplish her goal with two young daughters.
My grandfathers were a constant source of support. My maternal grandfather attended almost all of my extracurricular activities, and when I didn’t achieve a certain goal, he gave me the guidance and the tools to achieve it the next time. My paternal grandfather was a great improviser; he would show me an object and ask me to guess what its use was, for example, and he often challenged me to figure out puzzles.
My first job out of college was as a research assistant to Biological Sciences Professor Jill Adler. Though I had never worked in this specific environment, Dr. Adler took the time to teach me and make me feel that I was a valuable contributor to her research. As a recent graduate, I found that the ability to make a contribution was a definite confidence booster.
My first supervisor at the Applied Physics Laboratory, Andy Good, was extremely supportive and treated all members of the team as equals, listening closely to our ideas before making the final call.
I still have mentors today, choosing those who have attributes that I want to learn and apply.
5. Women often face double duty with family demands and professional advancement. Please describe your experience balancing on this tightrope.
I’m fortunate to have a very supportive husband and employers. My husband and I shared the responsibilities of caring for our child, and my employer and supervisors allowed me to work flexible hours and even remotely if needed. I do the same for my staff now.
6. What should be done to encourage more women to become masters of technology and science and take on greater roles in tech in general?
My interest in science was inspired by the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs. I instantly saw what careers were possible with a science or engineering degree. Given my own experience, I would say that we should introduce women, starting as early as possible, to as many different careers in science and engineering as possible — and do it often, not just on “career day.” '
Enable young women to experience these careers firsthand by letting them “shadow” professionals in the various science and engineering fields. It’s also very important that families provide encouragement, and indeed that all of the people involved in a young person’s career development — from parents to teachers to mentors — instill the belief that anything is possible.
Alan Stern, Principal Investigator, New Horizons Mission, Southwest Research Institute:
I am the head of NASA’s 17-year long, $800 million New Horizons project, which explored Pluto and its system of moons in 2015. That exploration completed the five-decade-long era of initial reconnaissance of our solar system and set the record for the farthest worlds ever explored — 3 billion miles from Earth. From the very inception of this project, Alice Bowman has led our flight control team.
Alice recruited that mission-critical team, has been responsible for all flight operations for our team on New Horizons — from launch to the entire journey across our solar system — and is responsible for executing each scientific flyby New Horizons had made and will make. The New Horizons team broke the mold for low-cost outer-solar-system exploration and did so flawlessly, across a journey of more than nine years, to reach Pluto.
Without Alice’s expert guidance, technical expertise, ingenuity, attention to detail, and leadership skills, New Horizons could not have succeeded, and there would be no images or any other close-up data revealing Pluto — particularly its gigantic, heart-shaped nitrogen glacier — or any of its moons. Alice is now leading our flight control team on a five-year extended mission to even more distant exploration of mysterious Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto.