Haritina Mogoșanu is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Astrobiology Network and New Zealand's first 'Martian'.
What do you do on an average work day?
During a normal workday, I usually worry about biosecurity threats to New Zealand as a Risk Analyst for the Ministry for Primary Industries. At nightime and in the weekends I look at the stars and try and do as much space sciences outreach as I can.
I also run an online platform, www.milky-way.kiwi, where I write about the night sky, space security, Mars and educate about the role of people in space missions.
Probably my most interesting 'average work day' was when I worked as New Zealand’s first “Martian”. That started in 2011, when I first went to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah, a place that looks like Mars and mimics a Mars mission, so if you’ve seen the movie The Martian, it was more or less what I did.
I didn’t really grow potatoes, only lettuce and herbs, and I was in charge of the Martian green house by day and of the Musk telescope by night (same old story but in a Mars analog setting). I’d really like to go back there and do this full time. I have been involved with MDRS many times since my first 'Martian' mission.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
When I was young we had to choose our vocation at 14 and since there was no astronomy at high school then, biology and chemistry became my focus “for a real job”. Then I went on to do a degree of horticultural engineering that took five years of full time study. It was the best as I learned how to create farms and prune trees, vines and roses, drive the tractors, fix their engines, and calculate a lot by hand, from land survey to accounts and maths. Horticulture was so much fun!
I also got the chance to be part of the team that acclimatised the kiwifruit in Romania - little did I know then that I was going to end up in New Zealand! The thing I’m most proud of probably was introducing celery as a crop in Romania. Celery is very tasty, so we had to have it!
After my degree I got a scholarship from the European Union for a very prestigious university in England, Wye College, which is now part of the Imperial College of London. Within the Biological Sciences department, I learned the secret language through which plants and their pathogens communicate. I had no idea they can do that!
It opened a whole new world of understanding in my mind. I find it forever fascinating to learn about life. Twenty years later I went back to school and it was, again, the best! I have since finished a Masters in International Security at Massey University. I guess, the thing with learning is that you never really stop.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes very much so, especially for the biosecurity work, where we must understand the whole system, how it works and how to best protect New Zealand as well as we can from biosecurity threats. Then, when I went onto learning about planetary protection - which is biosecurity in space - my knowledge was once again built upon like layers of an onion, and everything as a system made sense.
For my other job in astronomy, astrobiology and space sciences, I read a lot. Actually first thing I do in the morning is read my 'Feedly' feed about space and astrobiology.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
If I had a second chance to start my life again knowing what I know now, I would pay really close attention to what I love and simply ignore everything else.
Growing up in a communist society I had the (un)opportunity to more or less let other people choose for me, and unfortunately that was the model then. There were no job counsellors, no career advisers. Everyone expected you to know what you wanted to be at just 14 years of age! I knew what I wanted to be - I loved my stars - but that was not an option at the time, as well as considered not to be a “proper job”.
It took me twenty years of going around in circles but I found a workaround and now I am doing astrobiology, which is actually giving me the chance to use all the knowledge I acquired on my way here.
So if you have a dream, stick to it. I promise you it will come true.
If someone close in your family says you can’t be an astronaut, or a pilot or anything your heart desires… Who are they to tell you who you are? How can they know? I am telling you, they don’t. They all speak from their point of view. So ignore them and follow your heart!
I can tell you that when you follow your passion, things start to happen as if they were miracles, but I can assure you they are not. It is your reticular activation system working: a part of your brain that focuses your attention and finds opportunities for you.
Anyone who learns a bit about how the brain works will know that the reality is we only have one choice: to follow our passion. That’s when we function at peak performance. Because when we do things we love, they stop being a chore and you end up waking up in the morning excited to start another day at work.
Then, last but not least, imagine the time when you will be very old and look back into your life, what would you like to be remembered for? What is it that matters for you, the thing that you wish to know more about?
That is your passion and that fire will burn with you throughout your entire life. It’s worth keeping it alive. And we are literally made of stardust too, which for me is the most awesome thing! All you have to do is the tiny thing of really listening to your heart.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I went to NASA Ames with an internship in planetary protection - that was amazing! Working there with Mars and all the rovers, and it felt so good as I could apply all my government and biosecurity experience to understanding how to preserve life.
Then working for Carter Observatory was another highlight, as an astronomy educator. I looked at the Eta Carinae star one night through the big 40cm telescope at the observatory, peering into the Universe. I also feel privileged that I get to contribute to New Zealand’s biosecurity efforts.
And last but not least, when we managed to establish the New Zealand Astrobiology Network, that was brilliant! New Zealand has so much to offer in terms of space sciences and it’s one of the best places in the world in fact to learn about space, with the beautiful night sky, the geology and the life forms we have here.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
I have a ten year old daughter who wishes to do arts. I said to her, you can do as much arts as you wish but you will become so much more creative if you learned how things work. This is what STEM does, it teaches you that.
We talk a lot about creativity, my daughter and I, and she tells me she doesn’t think she is very creative as other people sometimes have more ideas than she has. So I’ve been trying to tell her, that creativity is something you can learn. You can do that by observing what is going on around you, deciding what you like out of all that, and then doing your own thing - follow your passion and do the things you like.
I’m not saying arts is not good, it is brilliant. Being an engineer, I might be biased of course, but I always wanted to know how things work and it always helped me go the extra mile: knowing when to stretch the fabric some more, trusting my tools, knowing when to stop, being able to create magic.
If you don’t understand STEM then it’s like living in a bubble. How can you run anything without fear if you don’t understand what’s underpinning it? STEM is not a goal, STEM is just tools to help you achieve your dreams better and knowing that you are supported by something solid, that science is backing you up, and then it doesn’t matter what you do; you know you will make the difference.
It's easier to ‘get’ what is going on around you when you understand how things work and I think if people could understand more about how things work, they would be happier. Why not take the easy way that goes through understanding your environment? That is what I believe STEM empowers people to do. And I have yet to see someone who doesn’t want to be happy faster.
It’s never too late to start learning, so the best time to start is now!
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Because if we don’t, then we miss the most important thing there is: taking our society forward. Women understanding how things work are empowered women.
Women are like stars, they have internal light. And us “older” women want to support younger ones in pursuing their passions in STEM. We really do. Women are wired to network and support each other - and if anyone tells you otherwise, they need to go study anthropology better. So if you're just starting out and you need advice or someone to talk to, come and have a chat!
Haritina Mogoșanu is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Astrobiology Network (NZAN) Watch her TED talk video on YouTube or connect with her on Facebook
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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