Transcript: Space4U podcast, Laura Gehl
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
I am Colleen Kiernan with the Space Foundation. And you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today. We are joined by author Laura Gehl. Laura is a children’s author and PhD neuroscientist.
Who’s written a biography of Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, the mother of Hubble. In the book, always looking up Nancy Grace Roman astronomer Gehl tells a beautiful story to have the inspiring Nancy Grace Roman who overcame weak eyesight and gender discrimination to become chief of astronomy at NASA and led the team that built the Hubble Space Telescope and the books acknowledgements Laura.
Thanks Dr. Roman for helping encourage, she researched the book in the course of their conversations. Dr. Roman shared much of her schoolwork, an essay on Galileo and essay on the moon. A perfect score on a math test. These endearing elements help to shape the book into a story. Children can relate to Nancy.
Grace was told that math and science were masculine subjects that calculations and facts were best left to men. She should study literature history. Thank goodness. She didn’t listen. In addition to being a prolific children’s book author with seven books out from major publishers in 2019 alone, Laura Gehl is a mother of four.
And as a PhD in neuroscience, Dr. Roman’s life has been an inspiration to her in another series of books, always looking up, Laura has published a series, introducing babies to scientific careers. “Baby Astronaut” was released earlier this year. Thank you so much for joining us, Laura. We’re so excited to have you on that podcast today.
I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me. Absolutely. So, you know, the first thing that I thought of when I was looking over, you know, your biography and everything, so you have a PhD in neuroscience. So that obviously was probably not a very easy degree to come by, but you’re actually a children’s book author as well.
So by having that degree, what inspired you to then become a children’s book author? So it was a little bit of a winding path. I was working in a lab when my first son was born and also when I became pregnant with my second son and I really loved doing lab research, but I also knew I wanted to spend more time home with my kids.
Then working in a lab would allow. So I started doing science writing. I wrote for adults and for kids, all different types of articles with the only common theme being science. And that was a much more flexible type of work at that time in my life. And one of my favorite things I did was writing about science for children’s magazines.
And so that kind of led me naturally into writing children’s books. Very very cool. And so we kind of talked a little bit about it in your intro here that you’ve got a series of these baby scientist books that are introducing babies into specific scientific careers. So can you tell us about the careers and why you select the particular ones you have so far?
So there are three baby scientist books out so far, baby oceanographer, baby botanist, and baby astronaut, and a fourth book, which is baby paleontologist will come out, uh, in February of next year. And so I picked areas of science that I thought would be of immediate interest to babies and toddlers, water plants, space dinosaurs.
I was a little tempted to try. Baby neuroscientist. But is that the idea of studying the brain just as, not as accessible for, for that very young age? I think it could be done in a picture book, but it would really be a stretch for a board book. And that’s understandable. Yeah. Of the ones that you’ve done so far of the baby scientist series.
Do you have a favorite book so far? So asking an author to choose a favorite book is definitely like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. But I really love baby astronaut because that book focuses on the science side of being an astronaut. And so the main character baby astronaut is working up in the international space station, doing science experiments.
And when I was doing research for the book, I had so much fun reading about all the experiments that astronauts have actually done in space and deciding which ones to include. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily my favorite, but it definitely has a very special place in my heart. Wonderful. Well, and speaking of the baby astronaut book, um, I had read that originally that book was supposed to be baby astronomer.
So there’s obviously similarities that space. Um, you mentioned that space has kind of, uh, one of the highlights of that book. So what prompted the change from astronomer to astronaut? Yeah, so my editor really, really wanted the illustrations to show the baby astronomer up in space. That illustrator had actually already illustrated baby astronomer.
And it was really adorable, but of course baby’s trauma was not up in space. And my editor thought that having the main character in space would be more visually interesting. And I completely saw her point, but I also was absolutely not okay with having baby astronomer up in space because I knew that would confuse kids about the difference between astronomers and astronauts, which kids get mixed up anyway.
So we played around a little bit with the idea of baby astronomer, dreaming about being up in space and kind of cheating that way. But in the end we decided which incubate the astronaut made the most sense, and I’m really happy with how it came out. Wonderful. Do you think that that would be, you know, if this series continues that maybe there would be a baby astronomer down the road?
I really do. I think so. I think, um, we’re going to try if we do more books. To focus maybe next on babies, apologists, baby entomologists, things that kids can see and touch in their, in their everyday life. Cause that seems to work the best in terms of the illustrations, um, for the series. Now, you’ve got another book that we mentioned before.
That’s not part of this series. Um, it’s called always looking up. Um, and we noticed that you think Stephen Garber, uh, for the idea of writing the book and Steven was actually a previous guest on our podcast earlier this year. Um, so that name stood out to me. I was, I know that person. Um, so can you explain a little how that suggestion came to be.
Sure. So Steve works for NASA and he’s a good friend of mine and our families actually have dinner together every month. So we were actually at the swimming pool one summer with our kids. And he mentioned that I should write a book about Nancy, grace, Roman, and I wasn’t familiar with Dr. Roman when Steve mentioned the idea, but I went home and I started reading everything about her that I could find.
And it did not take very long for me to realize that Steve was absolutely right. And Dr. Roman would make a wonderful subject for children’s book. And the best part was that Steve was able to connect me with Dr. Roman. And he also connected me with other astronomers and experts who helped with fact checking the book and with my research, how wonderful it’s so great when you know, these connections can happen organically like that.
I love it. It’s yeah, it was, it was wonderful. And so you did work directly with Nancy Grace Roman on the book. What was that like? Working with her. It was great. I was a little intimidated, but she invited me to her home. She let me ask her lots and lots of questions. As you mentioned, she shared her, he thinks and memorabilia with me and also all of her childhood photos.
So I felt like that added a lot to my understanding, even if. A lot of what she told me and showed me, didn’t make it into the final book. It really helped as I tried to figure out what I wanted to focus on. And she also helped fact check my drafts along the way. And that gave me a lot of peace of mind knowing that she approved everything and that I wasn’t making any mistakes either with her life or with the astronomy.
How wonderful is that so great to have that chance to work with her? It says, um, we mentioned to her that she was known as the mother of Hubble, so I mean, that’s, that’s really fantastic and I’m sure it was a great pleasure for you to work with her. Absolutely. So, you know, obviously it sounds like you worked very closely with her.
Um, on this, it wasn’t just kind of a one-time. So in the conversations that you had with Nancy Grace Roman, over the period of the research and the writing, what surprised you the most? Well, I think what surprised me the most was when I asked her about her proudest accomplishment, because of course I expect there expected her to say the Hubble space telescope.
Since, as you mentioned, she’s known as the mother of Hubble. Uh, actually, she told me about a much smaller telescope called the international ultraviolet Explorer or IUE. And she said that nobody other than astronomers knew or cared about the IUE when it launched. But that the data from that small orbiting telescope was invaluable to the astronomy community.
And I believe it was more than 5,000 papers were published using that data. And what she said to me was that in her opinion, someone would have eventually made Hubble a reality. Even if it wasn’t her. Now I talked to other astronomers who did not agree with that and said it wouldn’t have happened without her, but that was what she told me, but she said the IUE would never have existed if she hadn’t fought for it.
So she was so proud of that. And in my original version of the book, it was a longer book. And so I was able to include that. And when it became a picture book, And I didn’t have that in. I felt like it was really important. So I put a note at the end because I really wanted kids to know that, you know, bigger is not necessarily better in everyone’s minds.
And that Dr. Roman saw this little telescope is just as important, if not more important than the giant telescope that everybody knows about. I think that’s such a profound thing to say, because in the time we’ve been doing these podcasts, we have a new home for about a year. Now we started early in 2019 is we’ve had very similar circumstances of asking people, you know, what is your most proud moment in your career or whatever.
And you know, a lot of them, we would imagine it would be the big things they worked on that we know of, you know, the huddles, the Apollo programs, that sort of thing. And a lot of times. Even though that’s a proud moment. It’s usually not, not the one they’re most proud of. And I just think that that’s so important that, you know, we’re telling these stories.
So, you know, we’re telling them through our podcasts and you’re doing it through these books of sharing that with children, which is so prolific because the kids need to have that understanding of, you know, it may not be the biggest thing that you do. So I love that you included that, you know, in the end notes that we are able to still kind of get it in there.
So, as you’re telling these stories and inspiring kids, can you tell us about the book writing process? You know, what does it go through? How long does it take? So this book took five years, which is longer than usual. Um, but every book is a long process. Picture books on average take about three years from when you have the idea to when it ends up on a shelf, in a library or in a bookstore.
Part of the reason this one took longer is that I, as I mentioned, I originally wrote it as a longer book as a chapter book that, that had been what Steve and I had envisioned and a lot of editors expressed interest, but they said that a single chapter book, that’s not part of a series would not sell. So I began to change the project into a picture book and it was really difficult because in a picture book, you really want to have a strong.
Arc. And every editor wanted Hubble as sort of the central part of that arc. But Nancy grace retired before Hubble actually launched. So that made the arc complicated. And writing nonfiction is a lot harder than fiction because you can’t make up events or change the timeline to make things more dramatic.
And so I had to write a lot of drafts before I finally got it right. And it was, it was painful. And I was so grateful for my agent because she believes so strongly in the story. And that helped me continue believing that I could do it even when I started to doubt myself. And as I mentioned, Dr. Roman read a bunch of drafts from the, you know, long chapter book version to various picture book versions.
And that was really helpful because I worried that I might and changing it so many times I might be introducing the stakes inadvertently, and it was very important to me, uh, to get everything right. You know, it’s, it’s funny because we got, had copies of the books to look at and it’s, it’s incredible the time that goes into it.
And I don’t think a lot of people understand that when you see a child’s book, you think, well, there’s, there’s not maybe as much to it as a chapter book, for example, but sometimes it’s harder to actually cut things out, which I’m sure you can attest to that. You’re taking things out sometimes as much more difficult than adding.
Things in for length. So even three years, um, I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that it would take such that amount of time really from that thought process all the way to completion. So that’s really incredible. And I’m sure she enjoyed reading the multiple different versions just to see a different format of her life.
Yeah. I was really sorry that she passed away before she got to see the artwork because Louise and Alex. Did such an incredible job on the illustrations. And I actually cried when I saw the cover for the first time, it was so beautiful and I really, really wish that Dr. Roman had had a chance to, to see that part of the book.
But unfortunately, that, that was not meant to be. Well, it’s good that she at least got to read the version that came out. So that’s, you know, I think that definitely speaks to something for sure. Yeah. Yeah. I was really glad that she, she did have the chance to read the final text. And is it, are those the only, um, children’s books that you’ve done so far is kind of the picture books and the baby books?
Or have there been any others like chapter books for older children? No, I, um, I think I have 17 or 18 books out, but they’re all picture books and board books. Um, my first early reader is coming out next year, but nothing longer. And at the moment I’m not working on any chapter book projects. Although I really do want to write a graphic novel, cause my kids love.
Reading graphic novels. So I’m trying my hand at that. That’s awesome. That actually piqued my interest a little. Um, my mom always likes to say they’re comics and they keep telling her no, there’s, there’s something different about a graphic novel that it’s not just a comic book. So that’s, that’s really exciting.
And, um, you know, I think that really is a hot thing for, um, kind of the tweens and even the teenagers. So I think that’d be really exciting. So definitely wish you luck on, on that thing. That’d be a lot of fun. Thank you. Now, one of the other, um, areas that about you, that in your past is you have expertise in antique telescopes and scientific instruments, and you’ve actually covered some of those for the antiques roadshow.
Uh, what has been the most notable piece of equipment that you’ve seen in this role? Okay. So I have to say first that I don’t actually have any expertise in this area. I’m just good at research. And so I did a lot of research for those pieces and I interviewed the people who actually have the expertise.
And one really helpful thing is that when you’re talking about antiques, a lot of the people who collect antique telescopes and other antique scientific instruments are retired scientists and doctors and academics. So they have a huge wealth of knowledge and they also have a lot of time to talk. So doing the research involves long conversations with people who are so excited to tell you.
Everything they know. Um, that said, I think the most interesting pieces of equipment I came across when I was writing for antiques roadshow, insider were the antique dental instruments and antique authentic instruments. You definitely can’t be squeamish when you are learning about those or writing about those, but they’re really cool.
For example, there was something called a Pelican. Which is an instrument that dentists used until the 1700s. And it looks kind of like a Pelican’s beak and it has a hook and a lever that put pressure on the tooth and, you know, they had no novocaine. So it just getting that really makes you grateful for your dentist, however much you might not like going to the dentist.
And I have to go to the dentist this week. I mean, it was a lot worse back then. And then as far as. The eye instruments, like they had lens scoops, just that name, lens.
Yeah. Cataracts. And they had laid the clamps, which bleeding when you’re operating on an eyelid and all of that was state of the art at one time. So it was just so fascinating to learn about and definitely, uh, makes you grateful to be living in 2019. Oh yeah. A lot of that just sounds right. Awful. I’m just squirming a little thinking about it.
Absolutely think they were instruments of torture and, you know, they kind of were, but they were the most advanced medical instruments available. Do you recall? Uh, same of the dates on those of like what decade they were from? I really don’t, it’s been a few years. The only one I remembered was the Pelican, which was like up through the 1600s and then retired and in favor of newer technologies even back then.
Oh, wow. So that’s, that’s definitely antique, um, for sure. Now, one of the other really interesting things that you’ve done is with a science teacher, you introduced and directed the science fair at the Casablanca American school in Morocco. You tell us how this came to be. Yeah, so I felt as a teacher, that there comes a point.
In childhood when kids sort of stopped thinking of science as fun and interesting and start thinking about it as difficult and intimidating. And that’s actually as an author, why I wrote the baby scientist series, because I wanted to get kids thinking about themselves as scientists and seeing science as accessible before they had the chance to lose interest or get intimidated.
And the science fair came from that same general place of wanting kids to see that carrying out a real investigation, just like scientists do. And their work is actually very simple. You don’t need fancy equipment of any kind. You don’t need a wealth of scientific knowledge. You just need a question with measurable results.
And it’s funny that you ask that because this afternoon, my daughter’s friend is coming over and they are about to start their science fair project for this year. And, um, they’re in fourth grade, this is going to be their first time. And their question is which type of bread bakes the fastest. I told that to my husband and he just.
Rolled his eyes. He said, that’s going to be so hard, but they’re super excited about it. And they’ve given it a lot of thought. And so we will see how it goes. And we’re going to end up with a lot of loaves of bread as a result. So that’s going to be a big bonus. Oh, that’s great. I remember, you know, doing the same thing and I did one, one year of which type of ball will bounce the highest.
And, you know, sometimes it is it’s these simple, simple things, but it gets us asking those questions. Well, those steps, I had one in, probably in high school, uh, which was more, you know, advanced obviously at that time. But my idea was to test whether a different yogurts, the bacteria that’s supposed to be so beneficial in different yogurts, whether it actually survives.
The stomach acid and therefore can still provide health benefits to you. So I was taking different brands of yogurt and I was mixing them with acid to mimic the stomach acid. And then I was trying to use that mixture as a starter to see if I could make yogurt in a yogurt maker, because my idea was, if I.
Still had active cultures that meant they had survived the stomach acid. And my mom found some of the yogurt that was made with the stomach acid mixture and ate it out of my creator was, uh, that was an interesting experiment. I did find that there are differences in terms of which brands had more. More of the beneficial bacteria survive.
So that’s great. Oh, and hopefully she was okay afterwards. She was absolutely fine. But after that I put a sign on the, uh, on the experimental yogurt.
And what was the age for the kids at the science fair? So this was middle. And high school, maybe definitely starting with middle school students. I’m trying to remember if the high school students did it too, or if it was just for the middle school students, but I think it started with the sixth graders.
Okay. And that was kind of my guess, cause that’s about the age where I know we had to start doing science fair type things. And you know, I think that that’s where exactly where you hit the nail on the head is. You know, it’s, it’s fun. And then once you, in the middle school, things get a lot harder. And that’s where I think some of those STEM fields can become a little more difficult and it goes from a fun experiment to homework.
Right. Right. Exactly. Which is so unfortunate because science at the highest levels and the people who are doing science at the highest levels, they think it is the most fun. Ever, you know, like my thesis advisor, Joe Neal, he had so much passion for neuroscience and he showed up every day thinking, Oh my gosh, maybe we’re going to discover something today that no one has ever known.
And that is the incredible thing about being a scientist is you are literally discovering things that nobody has ever known. You’re adding knowledge to the world, which is amazing. And I feel like if kids can. Understand that passion and see that amazing chance to truly add to the collective knowledge of all humans.
Like ha I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Right. But that’s, they don’t see that. And that’s something that I definitely want to keep adding to with my books over the rest of my career is trying to get kids to see how exciting science can be in any field at any level. Absolutely. And that’s why I love that.
You talked about which fields you chose for the baby scientists books, because it is the things that they can touch and feel and have that visual stimulation. Um, Because if you asked probably even a lot of teenagers, they may not know what you and your neuroscientists does, but you know, a lot of people have a good idea of what an astronaut does and, you know, we need to know about our food and our plants and space and all of these different areas.
So I love that. You’ve been very thoughtful with what professions have been selected for those. I think that’s really fantastic. Yeah. And I have a book coming out in a couple years. For older elementary age, which. Focuses on other scientific careers and trying to show kids that scientists can be any race, religion, ethnicity, age, and that scientists can work in all these different fields.
And also the scientists are like them in terms of loving, junk food or loving movie pets. And again, trying to make science seem accessible, but in a, in a very different way for that age group. That’s really, really awesome. So, I mean, obviously science is very important to you. Um, you know, it’s your background, it’s, you know what you’ve, you’ve done.
It sounds like your entire adult life and probably even as a child with, you know, having interest in that sort of thing. So with how important science is to you, what advice do you have for kids that may want to go into the STEM fields that maybe have some of that hesitation? I think my biggest piece of advice base would be just to stay curious and ask lots of questions and maybe try to figure out the answers or find someone else who can help you find the answers, but also not to get discouraged if you can’t figure out the answers, or if you’re doing experiments and things go wrong.
I mean, scientists get discouraged all the time and have experiments that fail all the time, but they keep going because. They have more questions to ask or more ways to try to find the answers to the original question. Also Nancy Grace Roman told kids that they should be flexible in their interest because many scientific careers might exist by the time they’re adults that don’t exist now.
And I think that’s great advice. There are so many interesting careers out there now, but they’re also going to be so many more. I mean, some of the things that exist now, like video game developer and robotics engineer, I mean, Nancy grace, when she was a kid, She dreamed of becoming an astronomer and that was a career that already existed.
But today we have all kinds of things. She could never have envisioned in her wildest imagination. And I’m sure that’s true now, as you and I are, are talking, there are new careers developing that, you know, my kids could have one day that we wouldn’t be able to imagine now. So I would tell kids to just keep an open mind, be flexible.
Never lose that natural sense of curiosity that all babies and toddlers have, but that starts sometimes getting drummed out. Um, like you said, with homework and starting to feel that sciences is too hard or too scary. And again, just always asking lots and lots of questions and wondering about. The world and spending time outside looking around and having that spark more and more questions.
I think that’s great advice. And especially as you said, that there’s careers that. You know, our children, that next generation are going to have that we’ve never even dreamed of. You know, when I was a kid podcasts, weren’t even a thing. You actually have a job that didn’t exist. So exactly. And I was actually thinking about that over the weekend because I also, um, do a lot of our social media and that was not a job.
Um, so when I think about my kiddos and, you know, they want to. Be YouTubers or whatever. It’s like, well, you know, maybe something else will come and, but there will, there’s going to be jobs that we haven’t even imagined yet. And it’s so great that that curiosity and all of that is what’s, what’s fueling it.
And I really loved what you said about, um, you know, adding knowledge that that’s such a great way to think about it, that, you know, you’re actually adding new knowledge and new insights into. This world with millions of people, that there are still things left to be discovered. And I think that’s huge for kids to think about that they could be that person to discover some of it.
Right. It’s kind of like every kid is amazed by the idea of being an Explorer and exploring new places. And there are still new places. On earth. And of course in space that haven’t been explored, but you don’t have to be an Explorer to add new knowledge. You know, you can do it in a lab as a scientist and scientists are doing that every single day.
That is incredible. Uh, well, Laura, it’s been so great to have you on the show today. Um, you definitely shared some really cool insights. Um, you know, one of the things we try to do with the podcast here is to talk to different people from, you know, all sorts of different fields. And I think that it’s important to talk to someone like you, who is helping tell these stories, because these are the, the real-life stories that are going to inspire kids to.
To be an astronaut or an astronomer or an engineer. You know, they asked me to get a lot of glory sometimes, but they can’t get there if it’s not for the engineers and the scientists on the ground. So, you know, it’s critical that we have people like you who are helping tell those stories and inspire kids in another way.
Because as we know, we all learn differently. Some are hands-on, some are learning by reading somewhere, doing something visual. So it’s, it’s so important that we have people like you out there who are inspiring and it whole different way. Well, thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you, and I love what you guys are doing with this podcast.
And I think that as you said, podcasting is a way to add value to the world. Sciences away writing is a way, and you know, it’s exciting that kids thinking about what they want to do. There are, there are just so many options open to them and all of them start with asking questions and being curious. So I love that.
Absolutely. Well, thank you again so much, Laura, and that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And of course our website at www.spacefoundation.org.
On all of these outlets and more, it is our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community. Because at Space Foundation, we will always have space for you. Thank you for listening.
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