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A Big Fish in a Small Pond No Longer
Erica Alston embraced her love for math and science and found a career at NASA.
October 11, 2012
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8:08 PST
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Erica Alston at her graduation
Erica Alston stands in her graduation cap and gown after receiving her Ph.D. at her Georgia Institute of Technology. Credit: HenMan Studios

My story begins my freshman year in high school when I was making decisions about the next four years of my life. Those four years seemed like an eternity to my fourteen year old self. My approach has always been to go down the path of least resistance. For me, that meant keeping to my strengths, science and math. Those subjects were my solace. No teenager really wants to be exposed as a nerd, yet at the time I could not escape it. I was precisely that: a nerd. So I embraced it, and braced myself for the backlash.

That backlash never really came. Once I decided to embark upon this journey and be proud of my nerdiness, I was not ridiculed because I exuded confidence and acceptance of my chosen path. My peers respected it. Maybe they did not understand my choice, but they respected that I had made a choice. I loaded my schedule with math and science classes: Algebra, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

I come from rural North Carolina, a small town in Franklin County where the schools were not well funded and where opportunities could be scarce at times. Yet, when opportunities did present themselves I made a point to take advantage of them. For me, going to college was an escape from a place where everything always seemed to stay the same. I did not know who I wanted to be, but I knew I could never become that person if I stayed at home. School and success were urgent affairs to me. They had to be. I felt that I had one shot to step onto on the path to the next chapter in my life.

After I graduated high school in 1999, I went to Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga. I felt like I had so much to prove, that this little country girl could survive and thrive in the big city or something like that. What really happened was culture shock. I was not prepared for people who thought college was just a fun game. I had too much riding on my success to treat it that cavalierly. My objectives were to keep my scholarship and to graduate. In college, I continued on the path of least resistance again by focusing on science and mathematics.

I began as a chemistry major. After my first year and lots of critical self-examination, I decided that I would rather be a big fish in a small pond, so I changed my major from chemistry to math. The math department was small, but it was filled with professors who were invested in my success.

During the summer of my sophomore year, I began interning with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That was the first time I saw the practical applications that existed for my science and math background. I started to consider careers beyond teaching.

Interning with NOAA gave me two choices for summer experiences. I knew I could have a challenging, rewarding summer either with the National Weather Service (NWS) or with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). I choose to work with NMFS for 3 years. That decision allowed me to travel to Mississippi, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., and to develop the topic and research that culminated in my master’s thesis in Applied Mathematics.

My work with NOAA directly led to me getting my position with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In the fall of 2003, NASA hosted a job fair at Clark Atlanta University, which I decided to attend. I met with a female engineer from NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) who shared her story about why she chose to work at NASA. She read my résumé, which highlighted my problem solving, data analysis, and statistical background. I was soon offered a job at NASA LaRC.

I am very appreciative of those opportunities that have allowed me to grow and challenge myself since coming to LaRC. I recently completed my Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). There are many women making great strides in this discipline, and I look forward to continuing that tradition over the course of my career.

Atmospheric Science is dynamic yet poignant. My research that I complete is not only scientifically interesting but important for everyone. We all have a stake in air quality and the future of our climate. The better we understand the Earth system now, the better we can make decisions and adapt to changes. I no longer consider myself a big fish in a small pond…I rather think of myself as a fish in a community that can grow and thrive in the ever-changing oceans of life.

Join Erica Alston for a Twitter chat on Thursday, October 18, 2012 from 12noon – 1pm ET. She’ll answer any questions you have about what she does, her background and careers in Earth Science.

Post by Erica Alston

More information:
Twitter Chat with Erica Alston
Daring to Learn the Language of Mathematics (article)

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