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Bruin to Bruin: Anna Lee Fisher

Photo credit: Helen Quach

By Aidan Teeger

March 4, 2024 10:07 p.m.

Anna Lee Fisher, a former NASA astronaut, the first mother in space and a triple Bruin, sits down with Podcasts contributor Aidan Teeger.

Aidan Teeger: This is Bruin to Bruin. My name is Aidan Teeger. Today we’re interviewing Dr. Anna Lee Fisher. She is a distinguished American chemist, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She’s best known for being one of the “original six” women selected by NASA for the space shuttle program and for being the first mother in space. Dr. Anna Lee Fisher, welcome to the show.

Anna Lee Fisher: Very glad to be here. Thanks.

AT: I want to briefly touch on a little bit of background. So, you are one of the first female astronauts to go into space. Officially, you are the title holder of the first mother to go into space as part of NASA astronaut group eight. But before all this, did you grow up in LA or around San Pedro?

ALF: No, my father was in the military. And so we moved all the time and lived in many different places in the United States and in Germany. My father’s last post was Fort MacArthur, which is in San Pedro, and he retired. And so he and my mom decided to stay in California. So when we moved to San Pedro, I was in eighth grade, and eighth grade was my 13th school. So basically, you know, you move about an average of once a year for all the way until I was in eighth grade. So I was really happy to be in one place for most of middle school and all of high school. But it was a kind of a different way to grow up.

AT: So, is moving around that often standard practice for a child with military parents?

ALF: Yes, it is. I don’t know, that’s a little bit more than most people I’ve talked with that come from a military family. I’m not really sure why we moved so much. But it’s definitely moving, you know, living in many different places is the way military families grow up. And, and in some ways, it’s a really neat way to grow up because you get to learn to adapt to new situations, and you get to meet lots of different people. But in other ways, you know, you don’t have friends since the time you were little, particularly at the time that I was growing up. Because, you know, nowadays, you’ve got email, and you know, all these different means of staying in touch with people. But back then you didn’t have that. So if your parents didn’t stay in touch with people, then you really lost touch with your friends. So anyway, I put a pretty high value on my friendships with all my friends from San Pedro and all my classmates from San Pedro High School.

AT: Right. I just want to understand, … I think that I remember reading that you were the first person in your family to go to college. Is that correct?

ALF: Yes, definitely. My father joined the military at 17 and eventually got his GED. My mom was from Germany. And in Europe, they have a system whereby at around eighth grade, you make a decision whether you’re going to go on to a university track, or whether you’re going to go to a trade school, and my mom went to a trade school. So you know, I really didn’t. I knew from a very young age, when I was in second grade, I always said I wanted to go to college, because I knew even then that going to college and getting a good education was a pathway to a successful career. But neither my mom, nor my dad had gone to college. So I really didn’t, you know, they were very supportive, but they really didn’t know how to be supportive for going to college, because they haven’t been there themselves.

AT: Right. And so from what I understand, you only applied to UCLA and nowhere else.

ALF: That’s, yeah, that’s what I mean. You know, well, my family didn’t have the money to send me anywhere else. So I really, I really had to, you know, stay in the Los Angeles area. Now, of course, I could have applied to other schools in the Los Angeles area, but I just wanted UCLA. I had good grades. So I mean, UCLA is a very competitive school to get into, and even then it was but I don’t think it was as competitive when I applied as it is today. I remember that I got a letter when my daughter was applying to colleges that said, ‘Just because you went to UCLA, don’t assume that your child will get in too.’ You know, but so anyway, it just never occurred to me to apply to anywhere else and nobody, you know, no counselor, no teacher, no one ever suggested that I apply to more schools. So I applied to the one that I wanted to go to. And luckily, it worked out. Yeah.

AT: That’s interesting. So do you think it was just that you had a lot of certainty that you were gonna get into UCLA? Or was it something else?

ALF: And yeah, well, I think I just didn’t know any better. I really didn’t (have anyone giving me that information). Nowadays, I always tell everyone, if there are any young people going to college, do not do it. Do apply to your dream schools, and so forth. And then also make sure you apply to a school that you’re fairly certain you can get into. But it was really just a matter of lack of finances, for one thing, because you had to pay a fee back then for every school that you applied to. And UCLA was the school I wanted to go to, and I didn’t understand again, because I really didn’t have people giving me advice. I mean, you talk to your guidance counselor in high school, but I don’t remember them ever telling me that I should apply to more schools. So it worked out for me, but I don’t recommend it to young folks nowadays who are applying to colleges, because it’s definitely a very competitive environment.

AT: Oh, yeah. And I think that remains true, even to this day. I just want to backtrack very quickly. So you earned your bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1971. Is that right?

ALF: That’s correct, bachelor of science in chemistry. And then I applied to medical school. And I didn’t get in the first time that I applied because I, and we can talk about that if you want. But I made my decision to go to medical school very late. And so I barely got my application in on time. And so then I stayed in the chemistry department, and I was actually accepted to the MD Ph.D. program. And that was my intent was to do both. So I actually had one year where I was a, I basically did all the coursework that you need for your Ph.D., and just had my research left to do when I started medical school. And then in medical school, when once I had my momentum going and everything, I just really didn’t want to stop to do my research, I figured I would wait and see what happened. And of course, at that point, I didn’t have any idea that the space program was going to become an option. So luckily, it was a really good decision, because I needed to have an advanced degree to apply for the space program.

AT: So you started off as a math major, then you went to chemistry. And only after that, you went to medical school? Was the decision to go to medical school in the pipeline from the beginning? Or did you only make that decision after you had explored Maths’ and Chemistry and realized that that is what you wanted to do?

ALF: Actually, it was just the opposite. My best friend in high school, her mother, was a nurse. And so she insisted that her daughters be candy stripers. And so I joined and I became a candy striper with her mostly to give her moral support. And so I was actually a candy striper at Harbor general, which is the hospital where I wound up doing my medical training eventually. But the thing I found out is when I was on the wards, with the patients and everything, I found it so hard, because you know, there were people that were in accidents, that had cancer, and all of that. And I thought, I don’t think I’m cut out for this, because I’m going to spend all my life, you know, being sad about all these people in all these situations. So I actually had no intentions of going to medical school. That was the farthest thing from my mind. So as you said, I started out in math, but back then computer sciences and those areas were not big the way they are today. And I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with math. I loved math, but I didn’t think I was going to be a theoretical mathematician. And the only other option that I saw, again, I was making all these decisions on my own without really a lot of guidance. And I really didn’t want to be a teacher at that time. So that was what led me to switch to chemistry, which I really enjoyed because I had an amazing research advisor and I got an undergraduate research fellowship um After my junior and my senior years, and but then as I watched my research advisor, spending most of his time writing grant proposals, you know, to try to get money to support his research and his research group, I realized very quickly that I would not be that I would not enjoy that. I loved chemistry, I love that theory of everything. But, the thought of having to spend the rest of my life writing grant proposals and things like that didn’t appeal to me. And that’s when I circled back and started thinking about going into medicine. And the thing I loved about medicine, that I didn’t realize, when I was, you know, in 10th grade in high school, was there’s so many other areas of medicine, you have so many choices, you can do anything from public health, to taking care of patients to doing research, to going into politics, and you know, looking at medicine on a macro scale. And so you don’t necessarily have to practice and, you know, be in the hospital setting. And, and so that’s what made me decide to go into medical school. I didn’t even know at the time that emergency medicine was not a boarded specialty. At the time, I made my decision to go into medical school. So it was really just a bunch of fortuitous or serendipitous decisions along the way. Without really a great deal of knowledge that so many young people today have, you know, with the internet and everything, you have easy access to finding out how to get into a particular career, what different things you can do and so forth. But it was a lot harder back in those days to find out all that information. So some of my decisions were made without a lot of background information and just fortuitously turned out to be good decisions.

AT: It sometimes feels as though there’s a little bit of an information overload for students, there’s too much noise and not enough direction. So like you correctly said, there’s an abundance of opportunities for students. And this is being broadcast to them 24/7 from all sorts of directions, but it is that lack of certainty, I suppose, for lack of a better word, that is the real stressor. I want to fast forward to your application to medical school. So the time you went and spoke to you had an in person conversation with the head of the department, the relevant department that you wanted to go into, and he effectively brushed you off saying there’s no real room for women in this field. They are unreliable or something to that effect. What I want to know is did that put you off at the time?

ALF: No, not really, because my entire life, I’ve been told that women weren’t supposed to be doing the things I was doing. Even in math and chemistry, as I went to the higher level classes, there were fewer and fewer women. I was often the only woman in an upper division chemistry class and an upper division math class. I took both math and chemistry for as long as I could. But somewhere in my third year, the courses conflicted with one another. To have gotten a double major in math and chemistry, I would have had to go another year or two, just because many of the upper division classes conflicted with each other. And I didn’t want to do that, and I also couldn’t afford to do that. So, I was very used to being the only female usually in my class in the chemistry department. There weren’t a lot of females. So when I finally went to medical school, the episode you’re referring to was actually after I finished medical school, and I was in my internship and then getting ready to choose a residency. That’s when I had that conversation with the head of the Department of Surgery at Harbor General, now called UCLA Harbor General. And yes, it was a little disconcerting to have someone tell you that to your face. But they did accept me into the department. So I think that was great on their part. And then they got very upset when I said that I wasn’t going to take the position. I thought I was being considerate because at the time, I had applied to the astronaut program. And although the odds of getting into the space program were very slim, I didn’t think it was right to take a spot in the residency program when I knew what I wanted to do was to go into space. And that was one of the hardest decisions I ever made because I considered it an honor to have been accepted. And I was really excited about it. But I thought it was wrong to take a spot from somebody else when I knew I was applying to the space program. And so I wanted to just wait a year to find out whether I got accepted or not. And if I didn’t get accepted into the space program, then I would have wanted to go into surgery. But he wasn’t very sympathetic to my plight. And he got very upset when I said that I wanted to wait until I found out if I was accepted. And he said, “Well, you’ll never get into another program in the country.” And that was a very scary feeling because I thought I was being considerate by not taking that spot.

AT: Yeah, when talking about it, in retrospect, it’s pretty interesting, because you chose between a career in the medical field, which wasn’t overwhelmingly popular for winning women at this period. But it was much more secure, you know, the beaten path, but you went for being an astronaut, which, obviously, you are one of the trailblazers and one of the first women to do that. And as a college student, or a young student, at the very least, that’s got to be a pretty anxiety inducing experience. Because you really didn’t know where that was gonna go in for you, you could have been throwing away a very good job, a very good career. So if you can think back, do you remember how exactly you dealt with that? Are there any tools you used? Were there any paradigm shifts

ALF: No, it had been my dream to be an astronaut since I was 12 years old. And I have no idea why that was so appealing to me. I just watched the movie ‘A Million Miles Away’ about Jose Hernandez last night. His family were migrant farmers, and he’s the first astronaut to ever become an astronaut from being a migrant farmer. In the movie, one of his sons asked him, “Dad, why do you want to go into space so much?” And he said, “I don’t know.” I feel the same way; it’s hard to explain why you want something so badly. It captured my imagination, and I have wanted to do that since I was 12 years old. And yes, I was torn because I would have been the first woman ever accepted into the surgery program at UCLA Harbor. I loved surgery, I loved medicine, but that had been my dream. So it really wasn’t a hard decision. It was, but it wasn’t because I knew what I wanted to do. And it was a less well-defined path. Mission Specialists was a new concept, the shuttle hadn’t even flown yet. So it was not a sure thing, whereas a career in medicine was definitely much more of a sure thing. But for some reason, I don’t remember thinking about those things. All I remember thinking was, this is what I’ve always dreamed about. And so I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t go for it. So that’s really about the amount of thought I put into it. I was following my heart without getting too much of my head involved.

AT: How would you suggest they go about facing that uncertainty?

ALF: Well, I went through that with my decision between math and chemistry too. I mean, I love math, and it was the hardest thing in the world for me to give up something that I really enjoy. But I think in the end, you just have to sit down with yourself and think you really just have to follow your heart and your gut. If you sit down and think everything over, and you say, “Well, I’m going to do this because it’s much more pragmatic or practical,” but inside your gut, you feel like you want something else, you need to follow your gut. That doesn’t mean to totally ignore thinking things over intellectually and weighing pros and cons, but in the end, you only get one life to live, and you want to spend it doing something that you love. And then the other thing I would say is if by some chance, you make a mistake, you choose the wrong thing, or you choose it and you find you’re not happy, don’t be afraid to change if you truly aren’t happy with the choices you made. You don’t want to live with something that you don’t really enjoy. Because if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s a cliché, but you aren’t really working. And that’s how I felt about space. Of course, everybody has good days and bad days, and even in the space business, you have that. But in the end, I was doing something that I loved and that I believed in. And so that makes all the difference. And so I guess I would tell young folks to talk to people about their careers, read about it, but in the end, follow your gut. And if it doesn’t work out the first time, don’t give up. For example, if you want to be an astronaut and then you find out you’ve got a medical issue that precludes you from being accepted, there are other ways to be involved in the space program. You can become a flight controller or a flight director. And nowadays, there are many different ways you can get into space. And that’s just an example. But what I mean is, don’t give up if there’s something you really believe in. Look at several of my colleagues, but in particular, Jose Hernandez. Coming from a family of migrant farmworkers, he applied to NASA and was rejected 11 times. I’m not sure that I would even know how to deal with that. But he came back. In the movie, he actually delivered his 12th application in person and handed it to them. Rather than mailing it in, and they said, “Hey, we’ve rejected you 11 times. What’s different now?” And he listed all the things that were different. And then when he said, “Okay, give me your application,” Jose said, “And if you don’t accept me, I’ll be back next year.” I think that’s such a wonderful story of perseverance. And this isn’t the only one; several of my friends and colleagues applied six or seven times. So that’s the main thing. If you truly want something, don’t give up. And sometimes you can find a slightly different version of that pathway that works.

AT: It sort of sounds like we’re talking about a paradigm shift from focusing more on the smaller tactical decisions to the bigger strategic goals. So you know, instead of worrying about “did this application go perfectly?”, just sort of have an idea that this is the place you want to go. I’m gonna play here as many times as it takes, and you know, that can really lead to a lot of perseverance.

ALF: Here there. I’ve got many friends that have gone through that pathway. And I guess it’s that they’re just, they so want to do what they’re dreaming about, that they just don’t want to take no for an answer. And I think after a while, the people who are making decisions have got to admire someone who’s that tenacious. And you’ve got to know that if somebody really wants something that badly that they’re willing to put up with rejection, over and over again, that says something about that person. That’s probably worth exploring.

AT: Oh, yeah, I think most employers, if they saw sort of, most employers worth working for, if they saw sort of seven plus applications for the same program on a resume, they would probably think, “Alright, this is the type of person I want working for me, because they’ve just got such tenacity, they clearly want to do it”, you know,

ALF: I would think you would think that, you know, unless they’re completely totally disqualifying, but you know, particularly for the astronaut program, if you’re making it to the stage where you’re interviewing or something, everybody’s qualified at that point. So it’s just a matter of, who’s the right person for the job?

AT: Yeah, you think they’d want to look at that personal element a little bit? I’m gonna fast forward to your selection as part of NASA astronaut group eight. So this was the first group at the very least the first official group to include women. You were one of six, is that right?

ALF: That’s correct.

AT: So can you share what it was like getting into the program initially, as far as what were you expecting? Were those expectations manifested in reality? What were the sort of general themes? Was there a lot of commentary? I imagine there was because it was quite a groundbreaking group. As far as political commentary goes, there wasn’t really anything like it. So just, what was that like for you?

ALF: Well, the first thing was that NASA created the new category. So now you had pilot astronauts and Mission Specialists. At that particular time in history, women were still not allowed to join the military and fly high-performance jets. So that pathway was still blocked to women. It wasn’t really until the early 1990s that women were allowed to join the military, fly high-performance jets, and go to test pilot school. So at that point, with the creation of the shuttle, NASA was able to create the position of Mission Specialist or scientist astronauts, in addition to pilot astronauts. This opened the door to finding women that were qualified to apply as a Mission Specialist. And that was the real game-changer, giving women the opportunity to become an astronaut in that capacity. It wouldn’t be for another 15 years or so before women would have the requirements in the career pathway to be a pilot. With our astronaut class, there’s a book by Meredith Bagby called ‘The New Guys’ that shows how this class really changed the concept of what an astronaut is. Prior to our class, the book ‘The Right Stuff’ was what people viewed an astronaut as being a test pilot. Now, there are two kinds of astronauts: the test pilot astronaut and the Mission Specialist or scientist astronaut. There may have been people who were somewhat skeptical or unsure, not just about the women but about the Mission Specialists, both male and female. Some of the pilot astronauts perhaps had their reservations. But I think once we started training together and flying T-38s together, they quickly learned that we had the right stuff as well. And that we weren’t going to be a liability in a dangerous situation, whether flying a T-38 or on the shuttle. So I think that was the big game changer that allowed women to be selected at that particular time. And then, slowly over the first several years of us being in the program, the pilots, managers, flight controllers, and flight directors saw us perform in our jobs and realized that yes, we were qualified, and yes, we would do a good job. But there was a little bit of time involved in proving that. And that didn’t bother me. Because the same thing happened in medicine, the same thing happened in chemistry. As a female, you are constantly having to prove that you belong there. And that it was something that you weren’t going to walk away from. So I was used to being in that position. And NASA made it very clear that they were committed to the idea of Mission Specialists and were definitely committed to bringing women into the program, which was very different than with the Mercury 13. There was a group of women that tried and did apply to be part of the Mercury astronauts. But society wasn’t quite ready at that time. And as it happened, two weeks before I was assigned to my flight was the birth of my daughter, Kristen. So that was two weeks before I was assigned to my flight. I was pretty shocked, to be honest.

AT: Yeah, I probably would be too. I remember thinking when I first heard that, obviously, I did get confused. But two weeks after childbirth to go into space was.. interesting, a little bit negligent.

ALF: No, two weeks before our flight, they would definitely not have allowed it. On a later occasion, a female astronaut did get pregnant while she was training for her flight. They took her off the flight because it was going to be within six months or something like that, or four months. I can understand that. But no, I was assigned to my flight two weeks before I delivered Kristin. She was 14 months old when I flew. But it was, you know, training for your first space flight and being a new mom all at the same time, without taking a real leave of absence, was quite the challenge.

AT: Well, in the end that culminated in your title as the first mother in space didn’t it.

ALF: But that was just luck of the draw of how the flights worked out. My friend Shannon, one of the other six women, had two children when she came into the program and ultimately had three. My fellow female astronaut had her son a year before I had Kristen. And it’s just the way the flights wound up working out that I was the first mom to go into space. It wasn’t assigned for that reason. That’s just a coincidence of how the flights were assigned.

AT: Happy coincidence. Got it.

ALF: Yeah, my daughter says that I owe it all to her.

AT: In one sense, she can take credit for it. Before we talk about you returning to UCLA, I had heard about a mission where you and your team became the first to go into space, collect malfunctioning satellites, and bring them back to Earth. Is that accurate?

ALF: That’s very accurate. I think we were the only ones to bring them back. There were several flights where they repaired a malfunctioning satellite and then deployed it, but they didn’t bring it back. In our case, the shuttle, which can go up to about 200 nautical miles, was taking a communication satellite to orbit. A communication satellite has to be in geosynchronous orbit, which is thousands of miles up, and the shuttle cannot go to that altitude. So, you deploy the satellite from the payload bay of the shuttle, and it has a rocket engine attached. Once the shuttle moves away and there’s sufficient separation between the shuttle and the satellite, that rocket is ignited, and then that rocket takes it to the higher orbit. The problem on an earlier shuttle mission was that the rocket, not the satellite, that was supposed to take it to a higher orbit failed. And it happened to two different satellites. So the satellites, worth around $35-40 million each, were in perfect condition but totally useless because they were in the wrong orbit. The only way to salvage that situation was to bring them back and then get another rocket, called a Payload Assist Module (PAM), for each one of them, and relaunch it on another flight. There was no way to repair that rocket on orbit. So I believe, and I’m pretty sure about that, that ours was the only mission to bring satellites back.

AT: Okay, so pretty simple stuff. I’ve a question. So, did they launch both of these satellites at the same time?

ALF: That’s kind of an interesting story. They deployed the satellites on different days. They deployed one, had the problem, discussed the situation, and for whatever reason, decided that it was unlikely that the same problem would occur with the second one. But they were wrong. They decided to deploy it and had the same problem. It was very interesting because I was sent to New York to be on the ‘Today Show’ because the flight that deployed the two satellites was the first flight of the manned maneuvering unit. And nobody was really all that interested in the deployment of the satellites. But everybody was interested in that first flight of the manned maneuvering unit when you’re going to fly untethered away from the shuttle for the first time in history. So I was sent up to New York to provide commentary for the manned maneuvering unit on the ‘Today Show’. So when I left Houston, the first satellite was deployed and had the problem. So before I left, I knew that it happened. And you have to realize, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have iPhones and all that sort of thing. So when I arrived at the airport, LaGuardia, I think, and I got in the taxi to go to my hotel, I was talking with a taxi driver. And he said he thought that he had heard on the news that the second satellite had been deployed and had the same problem. And I remember saying, “Oh, no, you must have misunderstood, I don’t think NASA would do that if they didn’t understand what the problem was with the first one.” So I got to my hotel and called back to Houston. Sure enough, the taxi driver was correct. They had deployed the second one, and it had the exact same problem. It turned out there was a problem, I believe, and I don’t know that much about it. But I believe there was a problem with the solid rocket propellant in both of them. And that was what caused the problem. But anyway, so then here, I was on the Today Show, and not only now they didn’t just want to hear about the manned maneuvering unit, they were asking me like, Why did NASA do that? And I’m thinking to myself, How am I supposed to know? I thought the same thing: why would you deploy the second one when you didn’t understand what went wrong with the first one? And, and so then they asked me, Did I think NASA would try to go and retrieve the satellites? And I said, No, I mean, there’s no way to do that because that I was the robotic arm operator and to operate the arm and grab something it has to have a It had to be designed to be retrieved, it had to have a fixture on it so that I could grab it with the arm. And they didn’t. And so I said, No, I, I can’t imagine that. We won’t even consider doing that. Those are the best words I ever ate in my life, so that was in February of 1984. And we flew in November, which is a very short time to develop the hardware, the procedures, the training, and all that, to require to do very complicated missions. So it was about as much fun as you could imagine, not only the going into space part, but everything else leading up to it.

AT: That’s a very productive 10 months. Going from an abstract not so plausible idea to actually putting it in practice, and succeeding, kind of makes me rethink my productivity levels in 10 months. That’s sort of what I was getting at when I asked the question, because I would have thought they’d had procedures in place of some kind to make sure it didn’t happen this time, but apparently not.

ALF: Yep, exactly. Yeah, I guess they didn’t think lightning would strike twice. But it did. Well, I guess it

AT: It worked out quite nicely in the end anyway. Now, after you logged 192 hours of spaceflight, at NASA, you went back to UCLA for a master’s in chemistry. Is that right?

ALF: No, that isn’t. It’s really funny how that happens. So remember, I said I didn’t get into medical school the first time. So I was in graduate school. And I did basically all the requirements, the coursework requirements, you had to give a seminar to the entire chemistry department on some area of chemistry that was new. And I was a TA in organic chemistry. So I did all of that. And then I was accepted to the MD-PhD program. But when it came to the way it worked in those days, you would do your first two years of medical school, then you would stop, go do your research for your PhD, and then come back into your clinical years for your medical degree. Well, by that time, I was really on a roll with my medical school. And I just didn’t want to stop, I wanted to finish my MD. And then I would reassess at that point. And of course, I didn’t know anything about NASA at that point. And I would reassess whether I wanted to take the time to do my research for my PhD, or whether I go on to do my residency appeared, I would assess that later. But I at least wanted to get my MD, which thankfully, that was a great decision in light of what eventually happened. So then I got, you know, applied, became an astronaut. And I really just forgot about that year that I had spent in chemistry. Because, in my mind, you know, I didn’t complete my research and all of that. So fast forward several years. And I was speaking at a conference at UCLA for young women, to encourage them to go into STEM fields. And the lady who had put together this conference was the lady in the chemistry department, who, you know, I had gotten to know over the years and who took up track, everybody’s how they were doing the undergraduates and chemistry, the graduates and the postdocs, how they were progressing through their degree, what requirements they had completed, what they still needed to do and so forth. And so we were sitting on the stage, and I jokingly said, and I truly was just joking, you know, well, I really should have gotten a master’s for all the work that I did. And, and she said, Well, when I go back to the office, I’ll check and see if you have the requirements for a master’s. And I said, Phyllis, I’m really just joking. It really doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t matter anymore at this point. You know, I’m well into my career that because this was in like 1986 or something like that. But you went back and sure enough, I had the requirements for a masters so they awarded me my masters in 1987, for the work that I did from 71 to 72.

AT: Wow, so that really must have been a one off, because I just can’t imagine that anyone else has got their masters.

ALF: You know, what happened was, back in those days, people didn’t put a lot of stock into a master’s degree. They wanted people to get their PhD, and very few people went in intentionally to get their master’s, at least in chemistry. Maybe it happened in other fields, but I can only speak to chemistry. Interestingly, I’m on a board at UCLA now that gives advice to the undergraduate Dean in physical sciences. In the last few years, there’s definitely been a trend to encouraging people to pursue a master’s because there are some people for whom a bachelor’s in chemistry is not quite enough, but they don’t really want a PhD. So now they’re actually actively recruiting people for the Master’s program. But in those days, it was more like a consolation prize for not finishing your PhD. But I thought it was really neat because that year in chemistry was a lot of work. You took all the courses, taught the seminar, and was a TA in organic chemistry. It was a lot of work. So I’m glad, in retrospect, that I got my master’s degree awarded, and that they felt that it warranted that, but I didn’t actually go back and earn my master’s if I had already done that work.

AT: Yeah, there’s definitely a conversation now about masters being the new Goldilocks zone of academic qualifications relative to PhDs which off for purpose, in some sense, but tend to be more overvalued by students, undervalued by employers, and you know, they’re only really fit for someone who is uniquely interested in that field, you know, it doesn’t allow a whole lot of flexibility considering the time and the resources expended. So people are saying masters fit nicely in that middle ground.

ALF: Exactly. And finally, the academic community is realizing there’s a need for that. And it’s also very useful, not everybody is going to get a PhD and do research, a lot of people are going to be working, you know, in industry, and so forth. And they just, they need a little more than the bachelors. But, you know, they don’t need a PhD. So I’m really glad that people are acknowledging the value of it. And quite frankly, that year that I spent in chemistry, before I went to medical school, was one of the reasons I was selected. Because in the early days of the space program, they wanted the Mission Specialists, if possible, to have backgrounds in two areas. And so I had a background in chemistry, and I had a background in medicine. And so I’m sure that helped my application. But it was just purely by chance that all those things happened.

AT: Yeah, and it sounds like it came together pretty well in the end.

ALF: And that’s the one thing I want to tell young folks because when you look at someone’s career, who is perceived to have achieved something, it sometimes makes it sound like everything just worked and fell into place. And it was this, and you got your master’s, you got it, and that isn’t the way it was. It was trial and error, very much hard work, and a little bit of luck. Unfortunately, luck does play a role. But if you’re not prepared, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of luck and opportunities when they come your way. So, there’s no substitute for hard work and preparation.

AT: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve thought about the archetype for the ideal role model for a young person. I think the primary defining characteristic would be that they put their imperfections on full display. And that’s something that you don’t really see as much, regardless of what industry, whether these are athletes or entertainers. They only seem to display what they want you to see. So, you are presented with this fully formed image of someone, and that just leads to inevitable comparison because you can see your own failings in your own head on display on repeat over and over again. But then you compare it to these people and you think to yourself, how did they ever get it so fully well together? It just makes it look so easy from the outside, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

ALF: It’s kind of like NASA. NASA worked so hard to make missions successful that sometimes they’re their own worst enemy because they make things look easy that are really difficult. And there’s no substitute for hard work, whether at a personal level or at the organizational level like NASA.

AT: Absolutely. Just before we finish, you’ve maintained your connection to UCLA all these years, would you be able to sum up how UCLA has influenced your journey? Or how it continues to influence your journey? And why was it unique in comparison to a lot of the other institutions you worked with?

ALF: Without the education I received at UCLA, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I cannot speak to all the other departments at UCLA, but the chemistry department was very supportive of women. They made me feel welcome. My research advisor and the other chemistry professors in the department never said that I didn’t belong there. They were very supportive, wrote my letters of recommendation for medical school, and for the space program. Without that, I definitely wouldn’t be here without the amazing education I received. I will never forget my chemistry honors class, which was a very small section of only about 20 students. We had Dr. Libby, who won the Nobel Prize for carbon 14 dating, as our professor in a freshman chemistry class. It’s amazing to have a professor who is a Nobel Prize winner when you’re a freshman. I think we were all so scared of him. We never said a word. We just sat there very quietly, and hardly asked any questions. But just the knowledge that you were learning from that caliber of a person. And then throughout the rest of my career, I can remember another professor that I took quantum chemistry from probably the hardest class I ever took, maybe except for Russian. But he made us come in individually, and pick up our midterms, you had to go in to the professor, not the TA, pick up your exam. And you had to go over it and talk it over. I’ve never forgotten that all these years later, that made such an impression that he took that level of time to schedule an appointment, go over every question with and talked about all sorts of things. And so the education I received at UCLA, the confidence I developed, working in the undergraduate lab, my research advisor was Dr. Fred Hawthorne, who was amazingly supportive. He took me on my first airplane ride that I’d ever been on over to Catalina, and he let me bring my younger brother along. And then he stayed, we stayed in touch over the years, even after I left and went to NASA. And then medical school. I mean, medical school was an amazing experience. And I always say that medical training was probably the best training ever, for being an astronaut. Because everything else seems easier in contrast, even astronaut training, because back when I was training, it was not uncommon to do a 36-hour shift with no sleep whatsoever. So even NASA, when you look at our timeline of a mission, always has eight hours of sleep. So the training I got the type of professors I had, the encouragement I received at a time when women generally weren’t encouraged to do the kinds of things I was doing. Even with that little blip about the chairman of the department of surgery. Overall, the support I received was overwhelmingly positive. And I’m incredibly grateful. And that’s why I never say no if anyone at UCLA asks me to do anything unless I have a hard conflict that I can’t change. I love going back to the chemistry department and talking to students there and seeing, I mean, the lecture halls still look very similar to when I was there. And I can say I remember sitting exactly where you are. And really take advantage of the amazing education you’re going to get here.

AT: That’s super cool. I guess the fact that you have these very vivid memories of specific interactions with you remember, you know, these very specific details about your interactions with your professors is indicative of how valuable a good mentor can be.

AT: Dr. Fisher, I appreciate you coming on. This hour flew by. Your story is incredible. And your message is even better. I hope to talk to you again soon.

ALF: Like I said, I never say no, unless I absolutely have to. Although, I will say one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, aside from going into space, was giving the commencement speech in 2019 and then having to give it twice because the other speaker wound up backing out. Talking to an audience of like 10,000 people is one thing on TV when you don’t see all the people, but it’s another thing to speak in person. It was an incredible honor to be asked to do that and to see all the young people with their families and the pride they felt. It was really a special moment, particularly for someone who’s incredibly shy, and to be able to do that. So, UCLA has always pushed me outside my comfort zone and then helped me learn that I can do a little bit more than I thought I could.

AT: If you enjoyed that conversation with Dr. Fisher, you’ll be happy to know that we have many more episodes of Bruin to Bruin coming out. All you have to do is check back on the Spotify page or follow the ‘Daily Bruin’ on Instagram.

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