Ulyana Horodyskyj Climbs the Mountain to Inspire

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Currently the crew commander of a mission with NASA, Dr. Ulyana Nadia Horodyskyj is the founder of a company called Science in the Wild, aimed at giving people from all over the world and from all walks of life a chance to immerse themselves in adventure citizen science expeditions – ranging from climbing mountains, to paddling glacial lakes, to exploring Moon/Mars analog landscapes on Earth. She earned her Ph.D. in geological sciences in May 2015 from the University of Colorado Boulder​. Prior to CU, she completed a B.S. in earth sciences at Rice University and earned a Master’s of Science in planetary geology from Brown University, where she focused on the volcanic plains of Iceland as an analog to past climate conditions on Mars. Her passion for the sciences and the outdoors have taken her to all 7 continents, with a particularly unique experience working as a deckhand on an icebreaker in Antarctica at age 21.

What motivated you or inspired you to go into your field?
Curiosity. I had it in spades as a kid and my parents funneled my energy into science and sports camps. As I reached my pre-teens and teenage years, I started entering science fairs and symposia, which exposed me to scientific discovery and exploration. An early blend of academics and athletics led to my eventual career as a field geologist.

What were the first few steps you took to pursue your field in STEM?
I read everything I could get my hands on. My favorite series as a teenager was “Secrets of the Universe.” Every week, a package arrived in the mail with new pages to add to my binders – exploring topics like exoplanets, black holes, dark matter and time travel. It fed my imagination but was also firmly rooted in science.

Preparing projects for science fairs provided me with the opportunity to explore and discover without having to worry about grades. This freedom to make mistakes and to fail served me well as I learned patience, humility, and resilience.

Finding a mentor was key. In my teens, I reached out to Dr. Robert L. Forward, a famous astrophysicist and author to help me with a project on solar sails, a way to travel in space without fuel. To my surprise he responded and aided my work until his untimely passing when I was a junior in high school. Since then, I’ve adopted the motto to “pay it forward” in life, in his memory.

What message do you have for girls who aspire to be like you?
If you are passionate about science, technology, engineering, art, math – pursue it with your whole heart. If your school doesn’t nurture it, find some place that does. I found it in the science fair world – I could be myself amongst my peers and talk freely about changing the world. Think big!

Tell us about your job. What are some of your responsibilities? What is the environment like in your workplace?
I am the founder of a company called “Science in the Wild” which has its roots in the Himalaya and is branching out to other parts of the world. Currently I have partners in the U.S. (P. Rowe, Midwest ROV; Z. Bowland, Vanguard Diving & Exploration), Nepal (A. Thapa, Epic Himalaya) and Argentina (L. Ignacio Photography). The company launched on January 1, 2016 and has grown to over 25,000 social media followers in that short time.

My responsibilities include leading and teaching immersive and educational science expeditions around the world. Past trips have included the Arctic and Himalaya, while future trips (2017) include the Andes and some of the highest volcanoes in the world. I teach participants how to collect, analyze and interpret data – the art of science storytelling. To explore field sites, we hike, climb, ski and/or paddle. Science in the Wild blends science with sports, providing people with opportunities to enrich their experiences by exploring wild landscapes #likeascientist. The world is our laboratory!

What have been your biggest challenges so far? How do you maintain positivity and motivation despite obstacles or barriers?
As any start-up company can attest to, it’s challenging establishing a solid foundation from which to grow. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears – a lot of behind-the-scenes work the public doesn’t see. I get to travel the world for my job but it took compromise and sacrifice on the personal and financial front to get to this point.

I believe that experiencing nature up close is very healing. In order to get motivated and inspired, I go for a simple walk in the woods or a bike ride. I often sit by Boulder Creek here where I live in Colorado, meditating and listening to music blended with the sound of flowing water. Nature gives great perspective – that what I am doing matters in this life.

What has been the most rewarding about your career/interest?
The most rewarding part of my career has been sharing it with others. In the spirit of “pay it forward,” I will not rest easy until I feel I have done my best to reach as many people as possible with the Science in the Wild endeavor. While not all people can come on expeditions, as the company grows we will open up opportunities for domestic short courses and workshops, “classrooms in the sky,” as well as online/virtual exploration of our expedition databases and field sites.

How have you combated gender/racial stereotypes in STEM?
You combat stereotypes by shattering them.

When I was 14 years old, I competed in a national symposium in Washington, D.C. I was in the physics category with all males, aged 16 – 18. I recall moments before the winner (me) was announced, someone walking up to me and said, “little girl, are you lost?” It lit a fire.

My parents and my mentor Dr. Forward saw my potential and nurtured it – teaching me there is no limit to what you can do in this life. In adulthood, I’ve paid that forward most recently by teaching for a program called “Girls on Ice.” This brings young women to the mountains, teaching them science, art and climbing skills as well as confidence and resilience.

What message do you have for girls who aspire to be like you but don't believe that it's possible?
I come from humble beginnings. My family emigrated from Ukraine in the 1940s and we never had much money growing up. My parents taught me about sacrifice and resilience, lessons that I have carried throughout my life. When the chips are down, when things don’t go according to plan – I can rise again – because I have before. Grit is key in life. There’s a saying that dreams don’t work unless you do, and it’s absolutely true. Work hard. But also work smart. Find mentors. Persist.

Why is it important to close the gender gap in STEM fields? Why are education and inclusion for girls pursuing STEM necessary?
We live in challenging times. The world is changing. If we are to survive as a species, we need creative outside-the-box thinkers, movers, and shakers. Girls can (and will) be these game-changers, but they need opportunity. Otherwise, half of our population’s talent is left as untapped potential.

As they grow up, girls need the freedom to speak up in class without being subject to ridicule; to be mentored by strong female role models; and to learn how to fail big, as this builds resilience and aids in future success. The world as a whole will benefit from educating and including girls in STEM.

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