VALPARAISO | Michelle Ham, a former NASA astronaut trainer and flight controller, promised a group of young scientists gathered Saturday at Valparaiso University that their dreams are well within reach.
With an unassuming and interactive speaking style, the 1996 Hobart High School graduate encouraged high school and middle school participants in the VU Science Olympiad to dream big, but be prepared to work hard.
“The term ‘space geek’ is a term of affection, and we wear that badge proudly,” said Ham. “I was a space geek since I was about 3. What really helped me was all the work I did in middle school and high school, where I really focused on science, on math, even when it really got hard."
Ham accompanied her talk with PowerPoint slides, including photos of herself in kindergarten, graduating from high school, in college and with her other students — the astronauts on the International Space Station.
“There’s something really cool at the end of all that as an opportunity for all of you,” said Ham.
Ham said she designed an experiment that would fly on the “vomit comet,” NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft designed for astronaut training. After graduating, she worked in mission control for the space station, and then for 10 years as a computer systems instructor to the station’s astronauts.
Early in her career, Ham said, there were assignments that she didn’t enjoy, and some assignments, she almost didn’t take — and both experiences taught her lessons.
“Your dream job doesn’t come to you the moment you get your diploma in hand. Sometimes it takes a different path,” said Ham. “You can’t plan your life from A to Z. Sometimes those doors that open that go a different way end up being the most amazing choices you can make in your life.”
Ham emphasized to the students that every path they take matters, as it did in her life.
“Don’t think that the things you do everyday don’t have bearing on the rest of your life,” said Ham. “All those days of physics, and calculus, and differential equations — it all paid off in that moment. I’m getting to do what I love and I’m getting to do it with some amazing people.”
Working for NASA, said Ham, enabled her to “do some really cool stuff,” and gave her the “the opportunity and pleasure of living my dream.”
She encouraged the students to pursue their dreams, like she did.
“Find your passion — find what makes you happy,” said Ham. “If you go do that, you’ll be really good at it. You’ll enjoy going to work.
“Find what you enjoy and pursue that,” said Ham. “But it’s not always going to be easy. You’ve got to work at it.”