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Female NASA engineer, children’s author discusses career, research

| Staff Reporter

Physicist, speaker, and NASA scientist K. Renee Horton, Ph.D., discussed the importance of inclusion, her work at NASA and her nontraditional educational path to a crowd of Washington University community members in Busch Hall Friday afternoon.

A longtime NASA affiliate, Horton currently serves as the Space Launch System (SLS) lead metallic/weld engineer at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La. In addition to serving as the president of the National Society of Black Physicists, Horton is a children’s book author and the founder of Unapologetically Being, Inc., a nonprofit focused on helping individuals pursue STEM careers. She is the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Alabama.

An additional talk, titled “The Art of Metal Joining,” was hosted later Friday afternoon and focused on Horton’s main area of research. Both events were co-sponsored by the physics department and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

According to Dr. Mairin Hynes, a senior lecturer in the physics department, the department sought to bring Horton to campus after receiving a recommendation from an undergraduate representative to the department’s Climate and Diversity Committee.

In Horton’s first talk, titled “The Intersectionality of Diversity, Inclusion and You,” she emphasized the need for departments and organizations to emphasize working toward inclusivity. According to Horton, many departments focus on recruiting diverse individuals but tend to fall short in creating a supportive and welcoming environment for these individuals.

“We do well with physical and visual diversity. But that intersection with inclusion is where most of us fall short. The University can go to certain organizations to recruit and they can bring those students in,” Horton said. “The catch is: Did you really include those students? Their culture and their beliefs? Did you make them feel a part of the University? Because it’s their word of mouth that keeps the next ones from coming or choosing to come here.”

Horton noted that the key to creating an inclusive environment is to accept students for who they are without imposing personal biases. Referencing her background in materials science, Horton used the analogy of concrete, encouraging faculty to create a diverse workgroup with a strong connection. She noted that inclusive spaces will enhance the success of the organization itself.

“If you decide not to include the right mix for your location, you would have something that’s not solid. For professors, when you’re bringing in students and starting to build your team, you want to diversify those teams,” Horton said. “It’s a good thing. The catch is: If you don’t include those students, you don’t really have a solid team. And you want your teams to be as solid as concrete.”

Horton included an anecdote about a lab at a different university where several graduate students transferred out. She noted that professors must be attentive to students’ needs and ensure that they have created an environment that enables students to be successful.

“When you are diversifying your teams, you have to accept who those people are. Not try to mold them and change them into who you are or who you think they should be,” Horton said.

Horton also discussed her nontraditional background. Horton began college at age 16 and discovered a year later that she had a hearing impairment. After taking time off, she became a mother and later completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering after giving birth to her second child. Horton eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. degree program in electrical engineering but dropped out due to difficulties with her doctoral advisor and recurring hearing issues. Horton later re-enrolled at the University of Alabama and completed her Ph.D. in Materials Science in 2011.

Sophomore Riley Martell appreciated Horton’s fresh perspective and her emphasis on acceptance being the key to creating an inclusive environment.

“The lens you look through isn’t the same as how someone else does, and you have to be able to just try to be aware of your surroundings and your peers and try to advocate for them,” Martell said. “And understanding your role—I thought that was a good point that she brought up. Your role matters. You’re a part of this.”

Sophomore Austin Stover appreciated Horton’s discussion of her unconventional path to NASA.

“It was really interesting to hear her background and the challenges that she faced while trying to go to university and raise a child.” Stover said. “I had never really considered that because, as she was saying, it’s a nontraditional background. I mostly just interact with other people who are traditional students. So, that was enlightening.”

After concluding her talk, Horton responded to multiple questions from the audience on topics ranging from her educational background to advice on how to create a good workplace climate in a research lab.

Hynes noted the importance of implementing small-scale initiatives to create an inclusive environment in the midst of broader efforts related to faculty recruitment.

“It’s great to have big lofty goals like bringing in new faculty members. That’s a really big important thing, but that’s not an easy thing to do. [We’re] still concentrating on the big things but also making sure we’re doing the little pieces to make sure we don’t lose that momentum,” Hynes said. “The idea of hiring a woman or hiring people with more racial or ethnic diversity, those have always—not always—but those have frequently been on the minds of people. But then, you can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re going to hire someone, and that will fix everything.’ You also have to make an appealing climate that will make someone want to come here.”