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Allison Anderson on Loving the Stars

TEDxMileHigh Imagine speaker Dr. Allison Anderson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. She studies human physiology in extreme environments and is passionate about enabling a human mission to Mars. Learn more about Allison’s experiences, inspirations, and beliefs. 

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As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up?

I grew up on a farm in rural Missouri, so the stars at night have always captured my attention. 

I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t feel in love with the stars. 

When I was in 3rd grade, two pivotal things happened. One day in class, my teacher, Ms. Korn spent the entire day on “Astronauts.” I was blown away. It was the first time in my life I really understood that people could visit this place that had previously been an abstract concept – space. I basically had my hand in the air the entire day, asking questions. 

Later that year, my family took a trip to Disney World. By chance, my Dad saw on the news in our hotel room that a space shuttle launch would be happening the next day. My parents decided to scrap the amusement park plans and we headed to the Kennedy Space Center. I still remember the tiny trail of smoke ascending into the sky. From that moment onward, I wanted to be an astronaut.

A lot of people say they wanted to be an astronaut when they were eight years old, too. I think for me the difference was that my love of space also matched my love of math and science and my love of building things. Aerospace engineering was a logical extension of my interests. When the time came to select a graduate school, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). My advisor, Professor Dava Newman, designed spacesuits. This was yet another lightbulb moment where I realized “People can do that?!” Working with her set me on a path that ultimately led me to where I am today, working to advance the cause of human space exploration.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

Unlike many people, I don’t have a definitive “crucible” story. Rather, I feel like I’ve had a series of much smaller crucibles aggregated together to define my life trajectory.

One turning point for me was my decision to do my postdoctoral studies at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center with my mentor Dr. Jay Buckey. Originally, after my Ph.D., I was planning to move to Germany to work at the :envihab, which is essentially the European Space Agency’s facility to do research on the human body in space. 

That fell through, and on a whim, I took a hard right from engineering into space physiology. I began working in a hospital doing research on how the body adapts to microgravity. 

My time there allowed me to study the eye in space, the cardiovascular system, decompression sickness, and the psychological impact of living in an isolated, confined, extreme environment.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. I’m the 4th child in a family of 5
  2. I’m obsessed with watching the Olympics
  3. I am horrible at spelling!

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. My grandpa, Elden Whiteneck. He was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met
  2. Neil Armstrong because he embodies exceptional dedication to a goal without personal gain
  3. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. His books inspire my sense of adventure while also causing me to reflect upon how I interact with other people

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

I’m partial to any talk on space, but the way Dr. Shields combines her passion for outreach and science really resonates with me:

And, I think the message delivered by Dr. Grant on Givers is something we should all take to heart: 

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

All you can do is your best. If you fail, then at least you can be proud of yourself for the work you have done.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work? 

I think my biggest challenge is probably similar to most people’s big challenge – the perception of being “too busy”. We are all overprescribed because exciting opportunities are difficult to say no to. One of my mantras, though, is not to succumb to “race to the bottom” thinking. 

We are tempted to let everyone know the weight of the burdens we carry.

Somehow, we’ve developed a social marker for busyness as a point of pride and get into a cycle of trying to one-up each other. I talk about this concept with my sophomore students because the undergraduate college culture is a competition to see how little sleep you can get while taking on the most classes and doing the most extracurricular activities. I will not pretend to be immune to these challenges, but I think attitude is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and ensure happiness with the choices you make.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

Compromise. It feels as though the inability to compromise is inhibiting how we function as a society, both on micro- and macro-scales. We value achieving our own all-or-nothing objectives, rather than yielding on certain fronts to achieve an overall optimal solution.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be? 

I would like to get my instrument rating. I am currently a private pilot, but I can only fly when the weather is good. If I had my instrument rating, which allows you to fly the airplane safely under weather conditions that affect your visibility, I feel I would be safer and more competent in adverse conditions.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea?

Excitement for a human mission to Mars is the highest it’s ever been in my lifetime. The TEDxMileHigh community can continue to believe it is possible to send people on a journey of that magnitude. We can push it forward with financial support and public will. Perhaps most importantly, we can support it by recognizing that everyone can contribute to the objective of sending people to Mars by maintaining the spirit and drive needed to carry out the mission.

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