Career Geeks: An Interview with Sideshow Collectors at NASA

We’re unashamed sci-fi fans here at the Sideshow studios, and our love of fantasy space adventure overlaps wonderfully with our geeky enthusiasm for the real-life space adventures of the team at NASA.

We were delighted to recently discover that two Sideshow collectors and fellow pop culture fans are actually part of the NASA team*!

Kayla (TW: @On2Mars_Kayla) works at NASA JSC Mission Control as an OSO (Operations Support Officer) who describes her role as, “helping to put the round filter into the square receptacle…if you have seen Apollo 13.”

Kayla was a winning competitor on the TBS reality show “King of the Nerds”. She’s also a lifelong comic book collector and massive Star Trek fan:

Liz (TW: @spasmunkey) is a Senior Program Director on behalf of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. Liz has spent nearly two decades studying the effects that space has on health, including the effect of microgravity on plants and animals.

Liz loves science, hiking, sloths, monkeys, and everything Star Wars:


SIDESHOW: It’s an absolute pleasure to chat with both of you! I will admit that quite a few of us at the studios geeked out when we discovered that you both work for NASA! It’s an absolute honor for us to hear that you like what we do!

KAYLA: It is a very mutual feeling. Most of my colleagues and I are nerds/geeks to the core. We often have water cooler talks bragging about new pieces of cosplay, collections, artwork…etc. You all create amazing works for our fandoms.

Hobbies

SIDESHOW: Do you have any geeky hobbies that you use as an outlet for your fandom?

LIZ: I used to love building and painting plastic models of airplanes and spacecraft. I haven’t done that in a while, but it’s something I want to get back into.

KAYLA: I am the type of personality that tries to always be busy with something and when I find a project or hobby, I jump in the deep end first. Hobbies that I have that would be labeled as nerdy/geeky offhand would be amateur astronomy and going to conventions when I can. Yes, I have a few cosplays for the occasions.

I also have hobbies that would not come off immediately as nerdy, but I find ways to bring my love of comic books and sci-fi into them. I am a gearhead, and Batman has had AMAZING Batmobiles over the years. There are some very iconic cars from geek culture- DeLorean, anyone? I’ve also played hockey most of my life, so I have Batman themed jerseys, stick tape, and Klingon stickers on my helmet.

Collecting

SIDESHOW: What do you collect?

LIZ: My collection has evolved over time, as I think is true for a lot of people. My Star Wars collection started when my dad gave me my first Kenner figure Darth Vader. I still have all of my very-well-played-with Kenner 3 ¾” Star Wars action figures and vehicles. Today, my attention is focused on Yoda and the Millennium Falcon.

KAYLA: I am a collector of collections. I just love to collect. I have a hockey puck collection and a challenge coin collection. I collect diecast car models of all the cars I wish I could own. I have starship collections, Batman art, and Batman Hot Toys collections. Bookshelves full of all sorts of books and textbooks relating to all things space history. A space and aviation patch collection. I treasure my space artifact collection that has pieces of historical rockets, meteorites, and space flown items. I am even working on collecting photos with every main Star Trek character/actor.

I love having memorabilia around from my college sports teams and my NHL team, Star Trek, and comic books. If I have a passion for it, I want to collect it and display it.

Favorite Collectible

SIDESHOW: What’s your favorite thing in your collection, and why?

LIZ: Picking a favorite is hard! It’s got to be my Yoda Legendary Scale™ Figure by Sideshow Collectibles because it is the most accurate representation of Yoda I have ever seen. He looks like he stepped right out of the movie screen.

KAYLA: How do I pick just one? I have many things that come to mind, but I think the first two items in my collection that are my favorites would be the first two items I pick up and pack when I have to plan to evacuate for a hurricane threat. The first is my framed drawing of Batman and Batgirl. The centerpiece of the Batman collection, I had it commissioned from the legendary artist, Neal Adams. I love his work!

The second item is my Mars rock! I have a small fragment of Martian Meteorite NWA 6710 that was a gift from a mentor. It is amazing to hold a piece of that planet and to think about that rock’s journey… 6710 is a shergottite type meteorite. Shergottites are pieces of the crustal mantle of the planet Mars. They were blasted into space by an enormous asteroid/meteorite impact hitting the red planet and ejecting debris and pieces of the planet into space. These pieces would spend ages in space, traveling around the inner solar system before being caught by the Earth’s gravity and falling to Earth.

Career Goals

SIDESHOW: Did your love of pop culture influence or inspire your career goals?

LIZ: I was born a scientist, full of observational curiosity about the world around me. I do think that some early exposure to science fiction (Lost in Space and Star Wars) turned my curiosity to life in space. To this day, I am absolutely enthralled by the effects of spaceflight on living systems.

KAYLA: Yes. Most definitely. I was a Star Trek fan from a very young age. In 7th grade, my science teacher, Mr. Thomas Herrmann, challenged me to take that love of Trek and explore real space exploration. It did not take long for me to become completely obsessed with astronomy and all things space history and space exploration. From 7th grade on, I knew working for NASA was the only path in life for me. Everything I did had some sort of purpose to get me to that goal.

Sci-Fi Mistakes

SIDESHOW: Do you tend to notice “mistakes” in sci-fi and other fiction because of your scientific knowledge? Or does that suspension of belief add to the joy of the fandom for you?

LIZ: For the most part, I am able to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the entertainment! But sometimes, I can’t help but point out the flaws in films/TV series that attempt to depict realistic spaceflight. I think it’s great that audiences are interested in both fantasy and more real-life stories of space exploration. Science fact takes inspiration from science fiction and science fiction builds upon science fact; they are inseparable, really.

KAYLA: Yes, I can and do see the mistakes. My level of annoyance or acceptance depends on the show though. Fast and Furious: Oh, lords of Kobol, are their physics messed up! But I do not care because I watch for the cars and the outlandish stories. Star Trek is iffy, most of the time I can put on my suspenders of disbelief and enjoy the show, unless they go deep outside of left field and then I get annoyed, i.e. Red matter…and spore drive…really? Ugh.

The hardest ones for me are shows that are either based on a real event, or are using technology of today for near future stories… Gravity: the visuals were stunning, but I could barely get through the movie because so many things were wrong; orbital mechanics, physics, space operations…

I can see it the other way too, sometimes I will be watching a show with my disbelief suspenders on and then I can be taken aback when they do something accurately and it surprises me. There were several moments in season 2 of the new Lost in Space that did that for me.

For the most part it just makes me laugh and makes for good conversations with coworkers. Macy’s had a Christmas commercial a few years ago that took place in the ISS and they turned the Cupola into a snow globe. The chatter at work at the stupidity and outright danger of that actually happening was very entertaining for a week or so. Ha!

Favorite Sci-Fi Series

SIDESHOW: Space and space travel are portrayed in so many different ways in science fiction and pop culture, from the optimism of Star Trek to the stark industrialism of Alien, to the melding of science and magic of Star Wars. Do you have a personal favorite?

LIZ: I like the gritty industrial feel of the Alien series, and of course I love the look of the Millennium Falcon. Both are utterly unlike today’s spacecraft which have a sterile aesthetic. Alien and Star Wars represent a future in which space travel is so commonplace, the ships get weathered and worn.

KAYLA: Star Trek for sure. Voyager has always been my favorite, along with TNG and TOS. Just the idea of traveling and exploring space for the sake of gaining knowledge and growth. Not for profit, not for war, but to learn. It is a very optimistic view, maybe unrealistic, but I am drawn to that type of idea for the future. Maybe because I am drawn to space exploration as just that, pure exploration and discovery.

On Surreal Moments in Science

SIDESHOW: The impact and scope of the work accomplished by NASA is out of this world (pun intended). The research and the discoveries made by the NASA team literally change the ways we think about our lives, our planet, and our universe. We can’t imagine the incredible things you’ve seen and experienced during your time at NASA, but, as a pop culture fan and geek there must be some very surreal moments. Has there ever been a situation when you did a double-take, or when you were like, “Nahhhh, that’s not real. That’s totally out of a comic book”?

LIZ: Observing astronauts living and working aboard your International Space Station provides surreal moments pretty much on a daily basis for me. This November marks 20 years of continuous human habitation on the space station – that is an incredible achievement – and watching science investigations unfold in microgravity before my eyes can literally bring tears to my eyes. On the International Space Station, we are literally on the frontier of novel scientific and technological achievement every day.

Another example is watching a SpaceX rocket launch, disappear into the sky, and a few minutes later, return to the launch site for a pinpoint landing. That is pretty surreal.

KAYLA: I have double take moments a lot at work, mostly in the form of, “I can’t believe this is my job, I made it,” and, “I love my job.” Now surreal moments- I was working in the Control Room when the Starliner has its first un-crewed test landing last year. That was an amazing moment. First American dry landing of a capsule, and the first American capsule landing I was a part of. Also, some of the science experiments that are sent up to the ISS make you question if it is real or a comic book. There are some very inventive researchers out there.

Favorite Fictional Tech

SIDESHOW: Is there any tool, device, or piece of equipment from pop culture that you wish were real?

LIZ: Advanced propulsion systems. We are currently limited in our ability to explore by chemical propulsion. Significant technological advances are required for us to make real progress in interplanetary travel.

KAYLA: The holodeck. Imagine if your history class was field trips in the holodecks? You would get to see living history. Or you could sit on the glass when Bobby Orr has his famous diving goal of the Cup Finals. To be immersed in these events in a way even TV cannot give you.

The holodeck can have so many other uses too. Can’t afford to own a McLaren P1? Well, you can simulate driving it. Want to climb Mount Everest? There is a sim for that too. Want to put on a costume and fight crime, or to fly like Superman? No problem. If you want to have a boxing workout one day and swimming the next, the holodeck has your back.

From history, to storybook lands, to any form of sport, or exploration of any type, the holodeck can let you experience it and live it. Stuck in your house for 6 months due to a global pandemic? No worries, the holodeck can let you go anywhere, do anything, or talk to AI, all without leaving the house. It would be VERY nice to have right now. LOL!

Advice for Aspiring Scientists

SIDESHOW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us! One last question. If you had any message for a young geek who was interested in space, science, and the work that NASA does – what would it be?

LIZ: Stay curious and keep learning! Learning is a lifelong endeavor and the most rewarding pursuits are those that require some work; for example, trying a new instrument, starting a new hobby, or creating art.

KAYLA: Follow your passion, no matter what. If you stay true to yourself and your dreams, you can achieve them. That does not mean that it will be easy. You might fail at a class, or a job, but if it is something you want in your heart of hearts, keep going. Take the class again, find a new job. Be focused enough to keep trying and moving but know that your path might have to be flexible to get to the end result you want.


*all responses shared by Kayla and Liz represent their personal opinions and individual experiences within the realms of science and fandom.