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Stanford Report, June 19, 2002

Stay cool under pressure, astronaut Ellen Ochoa tells Phi Beta Kappa inductees


What do you do when you find yourself intellectually "lost in space"? Use your education as a guidepost, astronaut Ellen Ochoa advised students June 14 during the induction ceremony for Phi Beta Kappa, America's oldest academic honor society, in Memorial Auditorium.

This year, 148 Stanford seniors and 26 juniors were elected to the society; an additional 28 members of the Class of 2002 had been elected as juniors. Only one-tenth of a graduating class may be selected.

Ochoa, a Stanford trustee and the first Hispanic woman in space, is herself a Phi Beta Kappa. She's also an alumna, with master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford. One of the biggest challenges of being an astronaut, she said, is learning to handle constant bombardment with information. While astronauts have written procedures for virtually everything, sometimes they must make real-time decisions to deviate from the procedures. That's why pre-flight training, done with the luxury of time, is crucial for handling malfunctions during flight. "It takes a thorough understanding of the systems and the assumptions that go into each step of the procedures to decide when they are appropriate and when they're not," Ochoa said.

When mistakes happen, don't turn them into emergencies, Ochoa advised. Few failures truly require immediate action. "Good decision-makers in any field share the important skill of knowing what is time-critical and what isn't."

In preparing for a mission, plans are nothing, but planning is everything. When a plan must be scrapped and a new one developed on the fly, the pre-flight work was not done in vain. "The ability to develop a new workable plan within hours or days is obviously a result of the months of gathering information, asking questions and understanding all sides of an issue."

Lastly, if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right. "Any endeavor, no matter how glamorous, will inevitably find you mired in endless meetings, paperwork or some sort of political or interpersonal quagmire," Ochoa warned. "You will not be having fun. That's when it's time to step back from the minutiae of your job and remember the larger context of what it is you're working toward and why."

She recalled seeing the Southern Lights upon undocking from the space station. "We were mesmerized by this beautiful, eerie sight. Suddenly, sunrise, and the whole station turned a brilliant white and gold, as if a cloaking device had just been turned off. It was an incredible moment, not just because of what we saw, but who we saw it with. Working so closely with a team to accomplish a challenging, meaningful task is the greatest reward of being an astronaut, and I could wish nothing better for you than the opportunity for such an experience."

Other stars of the night

Just before Ochoa's speech, student Michael DeBaca surprised Wanda Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History, with the society's 2001 Teaching Award. "Now I know why there was so much intense interest that I would come and meet people's parents," joked Corn. "[Students' questions] make you renew your own love for learning, have faith in your own sense of being an educated person and bringing other people into the fold."

Graduate students Sarah Benor, Karen Carney and Timothy Yu were named as winners of scholarships from the Northern California Association of Phi Beta Kappa.

Also on the program were three seniors who shared their "intellectual adventures" with their fellow initiates. Becky Blanchard, an anthropology major, recalled how she felt "lost" as a summer researcher investigating how ecotourists and local workers interacted at a lodge in the Peruvian rainforest: "What was our role as Stanford students, having the privilege to hold such coveted positions in a place where we knew so little and had so much to learn?"

Only when she stopped solely observing and started participating -- scanning the riverbank for caimans or capybaras, dancing to cumbia music, listening to stories about people's families and hopes for the future -- was she able to "find" herself and truly enjoy the experience.

History student Joshua Hawley found himself in a place that was as threatening intellectually as the rainforest is physically when he took Professor Elizabeth Bernhardt's course about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor executed by the Nazis for plotting to kill Hitler.

"I personally wanted to know how this man, one of the most significant Christian theologians of the 20th century, concluded it was his duty to God to kill the leader of his country," Hawley said. What he learned became "so much a part of me that I could not help but share it with others." In the fall of 2001, Hawley returned to Bernhardt's class as a teaching assistant.

Human biology major Abigail Shaw's journey took her inside the mind, where she probed the molecular basis of aggression. And she sought a common denominator to unite her pursuit of service as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer and pursuit of knowledge as a researcher. "Both acts have the potential to improve people's lives," she decided.

But knowledge brings power and power brings responsibility. "It is not enough to be smart," Shaw said. "You must do good for the world."


Ellen Ochoa


Wanda Corn