Every year, alums from around the world visit the University to see how the campus has evolved in their absence and to interact with a new generation of Brunonians. On Thursday, Jessica Meir ’99 made perhaps the most unique homecoming to her alma mater as she spoke to students, faculty and community members from her current post aboard the International Space Station. While the visit was virtual — she was broadcast through a video chat in the Salomon Center — her presence was palpable in the excitement of students and staff alike who cheered when the video chat was projected above the stage.
Thursday’s event featured opening remarks by Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 and Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences Jim Head PhD’69. President Christina Paxson P’19 was also present to welcome Meir to the screen before a question-and-answer session. The event was part of the University’s yearlong celebration of the Open Curriculum at 50.
Originally scheduled to occur during Family Weekend in October, the event was postponed when Meir was slated for a historic space walk. Alongside Christina Koch, a fellow NASA astronaut who returned to Earth Feb. 6 after 328 days in orbit, Meir was part of NASA’s first all-female space walk. When the event was moved, it gave students and faculty the opportunity to fill the void in their schedule by turning their attention toward the history-making moment, Zia said. “It was a fortunate series of events that led us there because there were so many more people on campus aware of (Meir’s) accomplishments and watching with us,” Zia said.
“We really need to make sure that what we are doing as we are moving forward is a reflection of our society, a reflection of all of humankind,” Meir said, reflecting on the significance of the space walk. “As astronauts, we are the face representing that and we need to make sure we are representing everyone.”
During the question and answer portion of the event, Bella Carlos ’21, a Brown-RISD Dual Degree student concentrating in Anthropology and Illustrations, asked Meir to reflect on the most visually appealing thing she had witnessed from her viewpoint on the International Space Station. “From up here you can really see with your eyes the changing gradient of the atmosphere — first of all, the most remarkable thing is how thin (the atmosphere) is. … It makes you realize how important it is that we protect it.” She also recounted one of her first times in the ISS’s observatory, the Cupola. The ISS passed over the Northeast United States first, and she could see “all four corners of Central Park.” They then passed over the city lights of Europe, Meir said, and finally saw “the most amazing aurora that I have still seen since I’ve been up here — we could see the Northern Lights all across Europe. It’s this very otherworldly effect of this dancing green in all directions.”
Meir also spoke about the merits of international diplomacy, diversity and inclusion in the space program, the physiological science experiments currently happening on the ISS and the relevance of climate change.
“Every person you know, every place you’ve ever been, everything in the entirety of your life and in the whole evolution of the human species is down there in this one beautiful magnificent ball, and you realize how special and unique that is and how we really need to do our best to protect that,” Meir said.
During his introduction to the event, Head, who has been part of the University community since his graduate studies brought him to Providence in 1964, spoke of the “tumultuous times” afflicting the nation and the campus in the years surrounding the Open Curriculum’s founding in 1969. He also spoke about his own path toward space-related research, involving the wisdom of late Professor of Geology Thomas Mutch, who helped turn his attention from stratigraphy on Earth to that of the planets and thus kick-started his career in space. He got a job at NASA following graduation, and went on to work on the Apollo missions, assist with astronaut training and help facilitate NASA’s landing site selection.
For decades, Head taught the class GEOL 0050: “Mars, Moon and the Earth,” which is now taught by Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences John Mustard. “In 1998, one of these bright and highly motivated Brown students — Jessica Meir — enrolled in GEO 5, and ended up receiving the highest grade ever in my class. No surprise there,” Head said, adding that despite her biology concentration, Meir sought out his class because of her lifelong aspiration to become an astronaut.
During the event, Meir referenced how both her classes and extracurricular activities on campus set her up for her future.
“Education is about transformation,” Zia said, adding that “I don’t know if (Meir), as a student sitting on campus, could have foreseen all that she’s done. I’m happy that Brown and the community here played some small part in helping prepare (Meir) for all that has happened after.”
After the event, Dana Kurniawan ’22, an Environmental Studies concentrator who asked Meir a question about climate change during the video chat, told The Herald that she was “really glad that (the event) exposes people to so many of the things that are trans-boundary, that are interdisciplinary. … You need to know so much of the sciences and have such an ineffable curiosity for the incredible amount of things she does.”
Since the announcement of Meir’s space flight last April, she has become a bit of a celebrity on campus. Keelin Lyons ’22, one of The Herald’s design editors who works in the Brown Bookstore, helped a customer purchase a Brown flag last semester. After asking for her opinion on two Brown flags, the customer told her that the flag was for Meir to have aboard the ISS. The flag was fastened to the ISS above Meir during the event and visible throughout the entire video broadcast. “I was actually ecstatic, because that’s the closest I’m going to get to the stars,” Lyons said.
After the question and answer session ended, Meir took advantage of zero gravity and shot herself upwards out of the camera’s view — leaving just that Brown flag and a teddy bear emblazoned with the Brown logo floating in her place before the video feed cut out.