Female NASA exec inspires Woodlands Academy Students

As a young girl growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, Grier Wilt would often gaze lovingly at the stars in the sky. On one such occasion she asked her father how she could “go there.” His advice was to become an astronaut. Fast forward to now: As deputy director of NASA's operations in Star City, Russia, Wilt oversees all NASA astronaut training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Prior to this, she worked as a spacewalk engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

On Jan. 25, Wilt gave Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart students plenty of truly inspirational advice and interesting insights during the second installment of the all-girls college-prep high school’s 2020-21 “Imagine Yourself in the C-Suite” series. This was the first program in the multi-year series to be initiated by a student. Senior Safia Karimi met Wilt while running a Young Women Leadership Conference program in Kabul, Afghanistan, and felt she’d be an outstanding C-Suite speaker.

Speaking from Russia to students at the Lake Forest school via Zoom, Wilt said she has yet to achieve her goal of becoming an astronaut, she told her Woodlands Academy audience that not being selected for the program on her first try opened her eyes to other opportunities that led to her current NASA career path.

In response to a student’s question about the challenges of being a female in a NASA leadership role, Wilt said she’s definitely seen a shift in the agency’s culture since she started working there in 2008. She was quick to note the recent all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station. Wilt also said NASA’s goal of returning to the moon in a few years includes having a female be the next person there.

Another student’s question dealt with the impact of private firms, such as SpaceX. Wilt said they’re not going to put NASA out of business. In fact, she added, the public and private agencies work well together – complementing each other in helpful ways.

Asked about the best advice she’s received, Wilt replied, “Be lucky. Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” In her case, that preparation was a degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State University (she later received a master’s degree from the University of Washington.) “Focus your limited energies on achieving your goals,” she added.

Community service is an integral part of a Woodlands Academy education. Wilt discussed the importance of that as she described how rewarding her various volunteer activities have been to her. They include mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Partnership for the Advancement & Immersion of Refugee (PAIR). She encourages all to seek out not one, but two mentors – one that’s like you and one that’s not.

Wilt’s parting advice: “Remain curious – do as much as you can to learn, especially about some things not in your wheelhouse.”

Woodlands Academy’s "Imagine Yourself in the C-Suite" speaker series invites highly accomplished individuals to be interviewed by Woodlands Academy students in order to learn from their experiences and then begin imagining themselves in leadership positions. In non-pandemic times the series has included one public forum open to girls from other schools in and around Lake Forest as well.