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Meet Catheryn Ryan

Catheryn is a PhD student in Geology and Planetary Science at  University of Western Ontario, studying microbial habitability of Mars-analogue volcanic environments. They hold a BSc in Geology from @smuhalifax and an MSc in Earth and Space Science from @yorku. They believe that key to building a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ community in the Space sector is “having as many LGBTQ+ people in positions of leadership as possible to act as examples and mentors would make a huge difference”. In their spare time, Catheryn loves to sew, knit, paint, photograph nature, rock climb, and hang out with their rescue dog Ellie. 

Pronouns: [they/them]

1. How would you describe your current occupation (what and where)?

I am a PhD student in geology and planetary science at Western University, in London, Ontario. 

2. How did you become what you are? Can you describe your journey leading to your career?

My journey has been somewhat convoluted. I have always loved science, space, and the outdoors; in addition, I have always been an artistic person who’s devoted a lot of time to creative pursuits. In high school, I was a “band kid”, and for a long time planned to study clarinet performance in university. It took re-reading one of my favourite books, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, in the spring of 2009 when I was choosing my grade 12 courses that made me change my mind and decide to pursue science rather than music as a career. When I graduated high school I went to University of Waterloo to study Systems Design Engineering, but a combination of factors including poor mental health led me to fail my first semester; this course was unfortunately repeated again the following year. I decided that Waterloo and engineering wasn’t going to work for me and instead started at Saint Mary’s University in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in January 2012. I enrolled in my first geology class that semester and knew immediately that it was the right choice for me. Despite my passion for my studies, I still struggled, and it took being diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 21 and getting much-needed academic accommodations for my grades to transition from Cs to Bs and finally As. 

I was introduced to planetary science at a geology conference and was blown away by the concept of studying rocks in space. I convinced two of my professors at SMU along with an external advisor at Western to supervise me in a Mars mapping project the summer/fall of 2015, going into my last year of my undergrad. I discovered my passion for research and applied to graduate schools; eventually, after my graduation from SMU in May 2016, I was accepted to York University in Toronto. I moved to Toronto from Halifax in January 2017 and began working on a project wherein I used a prototype of a Mars rover instrument to study volcanic rocks collected during simulated Mars missions, looking for traces of organic material within them. And then, September of 2019, fresh Master of Science degree in-hand, I started in the PhD program at Western studying geology and planetary science. I think it’s really important for people to know how much I struggled to get to where I am, because if I had seen someone like me when I was 19 or 20 I would have not felt so hopeless in my situation. 

3. What or who inspired you to explore space exploration the way you have?

I’ve been inspired by a number of sources. My grade 7 science teacher showed the class Contact, the movie based on the Carl Sagan novel about Dr Ellie Arroway the SETI astronomer, and that got me pretty firmly hooked into space. I mentioned the Bill Bryson book above, along with His Dark Materials, the series by Phillip Pullman. I’ve had a lot of really excellent teachers throughout public school who encouraged my enthusiasm for science and learning.

4. What would you say to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Find a way to convince people you’re worth believing in and get their support behind you even if the institution is making things difficult. I didn’t have the grades for an Honours project in my undergrad, but my profs let me do a Directed Study so I could get research experience that way. I was rejected from Western when I applied for my Master’s there, but my supervisor at York saw how passionate I was and took a chance on me. The same thing happened when I applied to PhD programs – I was rejected from all but two. You may not end up exactly where you wanted or expected to, but passion and enthusiasm can actually carry you a long way. Also, don’t be afraid to get academic support if you need it! Without being registered with disability services for my ADHD, I might not have finished my undergrad.

5. Share a fun fact about yourself!

I sew and knit quite a lot! I’ve made a lot of my own clothes.

6.  Is there something you still want to do or learn that you haven’t done yet in your career?

There is a lot of field work I would like to do in the future! I’d really like to travel to Western Australia and see some of the oldest rocks on Earth. 

7. Looking forward, how can we build a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ community in the Space sector?

Having as many LGBTQ+ people in positions of leadership as possible to act as examples and mentors would make a huge difference. I have never had an openly queer professor or teacher. Making EDI training a priority in organizations and providing networking opportunities specific to queer employees and students are important too.

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