This Johns Hopkins grad is the modern-day Katherine Johnson
25-year-old engineer Ariel Bowers is forging her own path just like the NASA ‘hidden figure’
John Hopkins graduate Ariel Bowers spends her days testing software for the James Webb Space Telescope, a state-of-the-art NASA telescope that will be launched into space next year.
The Baltimore native has been peering into the night sky in search of stars and constellations since she was a little girl. At 25, she’s a modern-day Katherine Johnson, the NASA scientist portrayed in the award-winning movie Hidden Figures.
With summer on the horizon, Bowers has some great advice for students and their parents: Spend the summer engaged in learning, find a mentor or enroll in a summer camp in a field you’re interested in exploring.
Bowers is an integration and test engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. She is the lead engineer in testing the telescope’s data management subsystem.
“It is definitely the most powerful telescope, and it will be able to see the furthest back,” said Bowers. “We should be able to look back to the very first and early galaxies that were created after the Big Bang.”
Space exploration is “a dream come true,” said Bowers. “It’s literally what I wanted to do as a young girl. And to have worked on two of NASA’s flagship missions: I worked on the Hubble telescope for three years, and now to be on the team that is helping to test the software for James Webb.”
In her spare time, Bowers serves as a mentor to young students, particularly girls, encouraging them to consider careers in physics, astronomy and computer science. Exposure to such fields is critical if young women want to break the glass ceiling.
Bowers comes from a family of educators. She credits her grandfather with introducing her to the wonder of stars. “My grandfather worked with the city schools and was also a principal. We’d go out and look at the stars together. Astronomy was his No. 1 love.”
She attended Wellwood International Elementary School, a French immersion school in Baltimore County, and continued her education at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School in Pikesville, Maryland. Bowers transferred from Baltimore County Public Schools to attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute to take part in the Ingenuity Project, which provides highly accelerated math and science courses to high-achieving students. As part of that program, Bowers did a Research Practicum, which pairs students with mentors who are scientists and engineers to complete a research project.
Rita Bowers said her daughter has always been an excellent, highly motivated student. But a social slight at an early age made her work even harder. Her best friend, a white child, had a birthday party and invited everyone in the class except for her. The experience, while heartbreaking, was a wake-up call.
“My mother said to [Ariel], ‘You can always beat those who think less of you. They will always respect you if you’re smart enough.’ That idea stuck with Ariel,” said Rita Bowers. “Her whole school career she knew she had to go in there and be the best that she could be.
Bowers loves working with younger students. She believes it’s never too early to teach kids about science and astronomy.
“Being able to make something tangible for younger students was really interesting,” she said of teaching her aunt’s pre-K pupils. “I always go back to career day at least yearly at my old middle school. I share what it’s like to work in the field of astronomy. When kids think science, they think lab coat and beakers. But a lot of scientists don’t do that kind of work. It’s kind of cool to show them another facet of what astronomy and engineering is.”
She urges students to seek out opportunities to attend camps and shadow professionals. Guidance counselors say this is a great way for students to figure out whether they will really enjoy a career they have their eye on.
She and her mentor, Max Mutchler, are now colleagues at the Space Telescope Science Institute. When he first met Bowers, Mutchler said, she was a poised and very mature 15-year-old. “She was working on projects with Nobel Prize winners, and she was unfazed by all of that. I was so impressed.”
At Johns Hopkins, Bowers majored in computer science and minored in French and space systems engineering. She was first exposed to the story of Katherine Johnson when she read the book Hidden Figures.
Bowers identifies with Johnson’s character in the movie of the same name. Every time she starts a new project, she has to prove herself to colleagues who wonder whether she’s up to the task. It’s a common problem for women working in male-dominated fields such as science and engineering. But Bowers quickly quells any doubts they have about her abilities.
Lisa Frattare, an astronomical image processor at the Chandra Observatory in Boston, worked with Bowers on the Hubble telescope and can relate to her experiences.
“That whole male stereotype, ‘Let the girls play with Barbies and let the boys play with Legos,’ well, Lego has found that they have a market with girls,” said Frattare. “We’ve had to take a couple of generations for us to learn that girls are very good at this. The possibilities are endless.”
Bowers is back at Johns Hopkins working on a master’s degree in space systems engineering that she expects to finish in December. The sky is truly the limit.