From starfish to starships

Dal experience prepared Kathryn Sullivan for space

- July 9, 2007

Kathryn Sullivan
Scientist Kathryn Sullivan on starting a new math and science education policy centre: "They've basically told me... 'Go on, be clever.'" (Debbie Rowe photo)

More than anything, Kathryn Sullivan would love to walk on the dusty surface of Mars.

ÒI was born too soon. I wonÕt get to be the one to go to Mars,” laments Dr. Kathryn Sullivan (PhDÕ78, LLDÕ85) good-naturedly on the phone from Columbus, Ohio.

ÒIÕm fascinated with the place because of the volcanoes, the out-there geology. The scale and drama of the place are all pretty irresistible.

ÒI want to stand on the rim of Victoria Crater. Better yet, IÕd love to be in a small airplane and fly over the northern plains of West Utopia.”

With the possibility of humans on Mars still many years away, the Dalhousie graduate, oceanographer and former astronaut will have to be content with being the first American woman to walk in space. She spent three and a half hours outside the shuttle Challenger in 1984. One of the first six women named to the U.S. space program, Dr. Sullivan also flew on the Discovery in 1990 for the Hubble Space Telescope deployment mission and on the Atlantis in 1992 for the ATLAS-1 Spacelab mission.

After 15 years with NASA, she served as chief scientist at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she oversaw a wide array of research and technology programs ranging from climate and global change to satellites and marine biodiversity. From NOAA, she went on to build and run the hands-on science learning centre COSI (Center of Science & Industry) in Columbus. She recently moved to lead a new math and science education policy centre, the Battelle Center, at Ohio State University.

ÒIÕm getting to start up something else,” she says. ÒItÕs a fabulous opportunity, a blank sheet of paper. TheyÕve basically told me, ÔHow do we educate our students for the century ahead? Go on, be clever.Õ ”

SheÕs always up for a challenge. ThatÕs what brought her to Halifax in the early 1970s, a big-city gal from the Los Angeles sprawl eager for ocean-going adventures and learning opportunities. She remembers landing Òin the trees” at Halifax airport with her bicycle and suitcase wondering what she got herself into.

ÒEverything Ñ from the scale of the landscape, the wild colours of the wooden houses, and all that space Ñ was so brand new. I was swamped with all these emotions Ñ curiosity, bewilderment, mild terror. ItÕs a long way back to California, so I guess IÕm staying.”

But Dalhousie, which had caught her attention for its research on plate tectonics, didnÕt disappoint: ÒI showed up and awfully quickly was given some interesting responsibilities.”

As a grad student in Earth Sciences, she was leading expeditions at sea, conducting research projects on the Mid-Atlantic ridge and making detailed maps of deep-sea regions. She credits her Dalhousie experience for making her consider NASAÕs space program when it went looking for recruits in the 1980s.

ÒWhen I was applying to NASA, I made a couple of simple parallels. NASA was about running expeditions. Hey, IÕd already done that. I totally get that.”


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