ISU is awesome but I’m a little crazy

By James Bevington, USA, B.S. Biosystems Engineering M.S. Environmental Engineering, MSS15

Space is something that many of us are interested in but when it comes time to think about entering college courses and selecting career paths space isn’t usually a viable option. For me it was the same. As a child I loved space science, space missions and astronauts and like most kids- thought it would be cool to someday become an astronaut. As I grew older, the rest of the world began to pressure the selection of a more “attainable and realistic” set of life goals and career path. When I applied to colleges I looked at aeronautical engineering programs and was set on an airplane design trajectory. However, by the end of the first semester, I had decided that this was not the path for me and so I switched to biosystems engineering. Without even noticing, my dreams of space flight had vanished.

Fast-forward a few years: after completing a B.S. in biosystems engineering and an M.S. in environmental engineering, I still wasn’t content on my life’s trajectory. I love the environment but as an engineer, there isn’t much that I can do to solve the current environmental challenges. During my masters I was introduced to an emerging field called synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is analogous to what computer science was in the 1940s and 50s. There is a huge potential to solve world problems but the current implementations are bulky, crude, and not well understood. I submitted applications to some PhD programs only to find out that the stereotypical “interdisciplinary and diversity in backgrounds” statements made by most programs were mostly just hype. This was somewhat expected so I had a backup plan which was to volunteer in a lab until they realized that I was useful enough to keep around. I started my internship in March on a 3 month appointment, volunteer status. Knowing that my position was somewhat unstable I spend much of my free time identifying potential opportunities and submitting applications such that I would have a constant stream of options available. For the most part, none of them were as good as my internship so I didn’t have to consider them much. ISU, however, was different.

I identified ISU by looking at current astronaut profiles. Jessica Meir, selected in the 2008 NASA class, had attended ISU in 2000. When I read the words “M.Sc International Space University” I recall being stumped. What is the International Space University? I didn’t know such a university existed. I immediately googled the school and learned about the master’s program but more importantly- that applications were still open. In a rush of excitement I immediately wrote my essay. But, after this initial rush of excitement, I stalled. I was on a synthetic biology path and making good progress. “Space?! I can’t be changing fields again! What am I going to do with a space degree? Can I even afford it?” I saved this essay in a folder with all of my other essays and I stalled. I was afraid.

After a few weeks had passed, I received an email from ISU reminding me that the deadline for submission was coming up and my application was incomplete. I knew the safe bet was to finish the application and push the decision until later if I was to be accepted. To be honest, I kind of forgot about ISU all together after completed the submission. I was busy preparing for a presentation of my work to the rest of my lab mates. This presentation would have implications for my future in the lab. Besides, forgetting is the best way to deal with the anxiety and the only way not to let it affect your current productivity. The day after my presentation, I met with my PI who suggested that she could find some money to keep me in the lab as a lab tech. While it wasn’t a PhD it was good experience. It was a sign that I was succeeding and I was pleased. I finally got the job offer which I had been chasing for several months. Only 4 days later, 2 weeks before the expected deadline, I woke up to an email from ISU which stated that I had been accepted. In addition, they were offering a partial scholarship which was more than I had requested. I remember the initial burst of excitement. I could hardly make it to the bottom of the email and I had a huge grin. But as with the essay, this burst was followed by a lump. “What am I thinking? I finally made it and now I am going to leave?! What will PhD admissions committees think when I apply again this year?”

Again, I was afraid. I was afraid that people wouldn’t understand my decision and that it would appear rash, undecided, and not logical. I was afraid that the MSS program wouldn’t be challenging. When I was in Italy the master’s, students were not like masters students from the states. Their programs were very soft and not very intensive. I couldn’t get this out of my mind. Even with the scholarship the cost was still significant. I was afraid that I was going to waste a lot of money on a degree that didn’t provide any benefits. The university is accredited but the degree program isn’t. I was afraid that I would have an expensive set of credits that amounted to no value. I couldn’t help but to compare this degree to a degree in sociology- the stereotypical “useless degree” in the states. It costs the same as an engineering degree but you build a skill set that is not sought after in industry.

I went back and forth on my decision constantly. However, within days of being notified, I had to start planning in case I did decide to go. I had to put down a deposit and pay the tuition. I had to get a visa. I had to move out of California and back to TN. I worked very hard to fit all of the pieces together and I still hadn’t decided. I even gave my notice that I would be leaving because I know I could decide to stay but I couldn’t leave without giving notice.

My biggest concern was that there just wasn’t much information about the program. I was used to seeing elaborate university sites with hundreds of forum posts and rankings from various news and education institutions. For ISU there is one little, difficult to navigate site and one forum post from a random guy in 2008. I was so concerned that I actually devised a backup plan in case the program was a bust. I decided that I would learn French if I had excess spare time. I even took immersion classes and made sure to find a French roommate- no simple task if you don’t speak the language yet.

I’m here and I love it. I learned quickly that my colleagues are awesome. They are very accomplished people who make my interest in space seem small. Some of them eat, sleep, and breathe space. The class content is very valuable and the program is intensive. Even though other universities might not recognize the credits, ISU is well known and respected in the space community. The alumni network is referred to as the space mafia and students refer to themselves as space nerds. This is a special program and I am so glad that I overcame my fears. I am still looking at PhDs and it isn’t easy to convince prospective labs that I am useful but it never was. However, when I mention ISU to prospective PIs they are at least interested and curious in the program. I feel a sense of self-respect for not following the traditional route. To anyone considering ISU, if you love space, go for it!