Aaron Shepard Talks NASA, Robots, and Starting Company Cogito

Aaron Shepard on The Social Academic blog header, photo of Aaron in a flight suit

Aaron Shepard is a Robotics Intern at NASA Langley

Aaron Shepard has dreamed of being an astronaut forever. Now, he’s an In Space Assembly Robotics Intern at NASA Langley. Aaron and I met on Instagram, and I’m so excited he’s joined me for this feature interview.

Aaron Shepard @SpaceCadetShep
@SpaceCadetShep

Video is a great way to communicate your science. We’re talking about Aaron Shepard’s TEDx Talk, “Make America Space Again.” And, his MTV Cribs-like video he made to introduce MakerSpace at NASA.

Welcome to the last feature interview of 2020. I’m Jennifer van Alstyne and this is my blog, The Social Academic. I share articles and interviews about your online presence for professors and researchers.

In this interview, Aaron Shepard and I talk about

  • networking and connecting on social media
  • his TEDx talk, “Make America Space Again”
  • interning at NASA and the application process
  • what it’s like to be an intern at NASA
  • making a tour video for the new MakerSpace at Langley
  • why science communication is important to Aaron
  • outreach, education, and change for the future

Aaron says, “if you get nothing else from this podcast…Say, yes, to everything.” Learn why in this feature interview.

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Want to appear on The Social Academic in the new year? Join me live on YouTube for an informal conversation. Email me to pitch your idea at jennifer@theacademicdesigner.com

Meet Aaron Shepard

Listen to “Aaron Shepard Talks NASA, Robots, and Starting Company Cogito

Subscribe to the interview series on Spotify | YouTube | TuneIn | ListenNotes | Blubrry

Jennifer: Hey, everyone. My name is Jennifer van Alstyne.

Today I’m talking with Aaron Shepard. He’s an intern at NASA, and he recently started his own company Cogito. So we’re going to be talking all about online presence today, about some of the videos that he’s done.

Aaron, I’m so glad that you joined us. Would you mind introducing yourself to get us started?

Aaron: Yes. So like Jennifer said, my name is Aaron Shepard. I am currently in school for my engineering degree.

And while I was in school, I decided that I really wanted to work on space stuff. So I got connected to the South Carolina space grant and eventually NASA. I spent the last 3 summers working at NASA Langley.

On top of that, I really like controlling things with my mind. So I started a company, Cogito, that lets me do that. And hopefully one day that’ll get me paid, but today at least I have a little bit of fun. And that’s the most important thing.

Jennifer: And your dog has joined us for this interview. Would you introduce your dog to everyone who’s joining us on video?

Aaron: Yes. Hey, so this is my dog, Ashton. He does not know any boundaries. And anytime I come online or even when I have video meetings, especially this past summer. So all the interns at NASA were virtual and he would be in all of my meetings. So I’d be sitting here trying to show a design and then my dog would just come on the camera.

Jennifer: Oh my gosh. That’s so funny.

Aaron: Oh, yeah.

Doing a TEDx talk to move past fear of public speaking

Astronaut in space

Jennifer: I am so glad you joined me for this feature interview. We connected on Instagram a couple of years ago. And I’ve been following your journey since then.

So one thing that I’d love to ask about to start us off is your TEDx talk, Make America Space Again. What made you decide to do a TEDx talk? What inspired you?

Aaron: It was a couple of things. One, I’m really passionate about not just space flight, but the story behind it. And in doing that research and in learning the history of why we went to the moon, what inspired us. I realized that there was a flaw in our original perspective.

We did it out of fear and we were so, and when I say we, I mean the United States. We were so concerned with beating the Soviets that we rushed up there.

We got to the moon. We planted the flag. It was great. But then afterwards it was, well, okay.

Once we didn’t have somebody to compete with or somebody to be afraid of, we just let space flight dwindle.

Don’t get me wrong. I love everything we’ve done with Skylab. I love everything we’ve done with the International Space Station, but at the same time, it’s like, man, we should have been on Mars by now.

Aaron: And so, the message that I wanted to spread was two things.

  1. I wanted to share the origin story and point out the root cause of our stalling in space.
  2. And then, I really wanted to help give the perspective of, okay, well, let’s make space about science and inspire a generation.

A generation who will want to go up and go out and stay out there this time. So that way, we can accomplish all the amazing things that we want to in space flight.

Jennifer: That’s great. Well, I loved your talk, especially your honesty and your humor.

You’re really great at storytelling. I’m curious, what was the process of writing your talk like?

Aaron: Very long, very difficult.

I would say that that is the hardest public speaking event or thing that I’ve done in my life.

And actually I changed the talk the night before and I spent five hours because…Just to give you guys a little bit of background, there had a bunch of us go on that day and there were some really amazing talks.

I had about a 5-hour period between when I came into the building and when I had to go on stage. And so I just spent all 5 hours doing my talk over and over and over again. So it was very challenging but rewarding at the same time.

One of the reasons why I wanted to do it in addition to sharing the message and spreading the story is, I wasn’t the best public speaker. I wanted to do something that would give me the confidence to go out and continue speaking.

Because for me, as a scientist, as an engineer, I realized that our work is only as good as our ability to communicate it. And traditionally, we are not the most communicative people.

I really wanted to do something to help kickstart that speaking aspect of my career or my mission to make science digestible to the everyday person. So with that, I was, okay, let me try to do something hard. Let’s do TEDx. That’s pretty hard.

And then after that, I feel so much more confident now when I do speaking. It’s okay, I can do whatever. At this point I barely read my notes. I’m like oh, I did TEDx now. No big deal.

Jennifer: That totally changed your perspective. It sounds you approached it because you had some anxiety around public speaking because it was something that you were nervous about and taking on that challenge really changed how you feel about public speaking.

I love that. It’s actually why I took on videos, why I started this interview series because I wanted to get more comfortable talking to people, but also I wanted to get more comfortable with myself just like being on video. And then I started doing live video. So I would be more comfortable not having to edit myself or feel I needed to.

It made a big difference for me just like practicing. But I would have been too scared to dive right into something as big as TEDx. That’s amazing.

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The hands you shake, not the grades or things you make

Cute robot lying on side waves hello

Aaron: Yeah. And then too, I tell everybody it is all about who you know. It’s the hands you shake, not the grades or the things you make.

Through social media, I connected with a guy named Jake Voorhees, who he was running his own online platform. It was dedicated to science communication. And he happened to be the camera man at the TEDx Wilmington site. And he was like, “Yo man, if you want to do a Ted talk, I’ll help you.” And so I said, okay. And through that relationship, I had that opportunity and the rest is history.

See more from Jake Voorhees of the 1% Engineering Society on YouTube.

So I always, when I talk to people and they always ask me, well, how did you do it? I’m honest. And I’m just like, well, it’s because I knew somebody.

And that is truly one of the components to success that I feel doesn’t get communicated. Everybody tells you, yeah, I work hard and you have to come up with these amazing original ideas. And that’s true. However, part of it is, the relationships that you build.

So that’s one thing that I’m really focusing on in this stage of my development in my career, is building those relationships and just creating that network of people who I believe in, who believe in me and who have shared goals. And so that way we can all help each other, get to the places that we want to go to.

Jennifer: And it sounds you connected on social media. That was an online connection that developed into a collaboration and really something that helped move your career forward. It helped move, how you felt about public speaking and in a new direction.

So that online relationship turned into something quite tangible for yourself.

Aaron: Yes. That’s the age we live in.

Social media is powerful. I tried to treat it as a tool and I try to use it.

When I’m in school, when I’m in class, I’m the one kid with all the NASA merchandise. I’ve been dubbed by one of my classmates as the NASA kid. But then when I hop on social media, I can find 100 other people like me.

And we can all get together. We can do live streams. And that connection is so valuable because it’s, I’m a big like…well comic books, but I really liked the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And so it’s like the scene when in Iron Man 2, when Tony Stark finds out about the Avengers and Nick Fury is like, yeah, there’s a world that’s much bigger than you. There are other people like you. So you’re not just a hero in your own world.

Watch Aaron Shepard’s appearance on Twisted Younginz TV (YouTube 56m).

Aaron: You’re part of this bigger collective universe. I really like how social media has allowed me and other people in the community to connect.

Connecting with people into space and NASA on social media

Cardboard cutout of space shuttle launch

Jennifer: When you first realized that you wanted to connect with people that were interested in NASA, that were interested in space or maybe robotics. How did you go about finding them on social media? How did you start making connections?

Aaron: Honestly, It just was organic. I found people’s profiles who I liked. I’ve followed them. I engaged with them. They would engage with me. And then, we’d start messaging…

Jennifer: Conversation start, yeah.

Aaron: Yeah. Conversation start.

One thing that I really focus on is building organic relationships. So it’s not just, “Oh, well, I see you, you have a bunch of followers. So let me try to manipulate you into following me.”

It’s like, no, I really want, I really like what you do. And I’m asking you questions, I’m engaging with you. And then that leads you to engage with me. And then there’s a connection. So…

Jennifer: Right, who are you as a person? Social media is about real people and making connections and having conversations with real people about things that you’re both interested in.

Aaron: Yes. Which, let me remind you, engineers we are not the most talkative people. So it’s interesting.

It’s an interesting hurdle to overcome, but it’s so powerful and that just opens up a dimension in your career that I didn’t previously have access to. And then it also, it’s just so many opportunities and it’s just the way that the world is. I can’t think of any better way to do this.

Jennifer: Yeah, for sure. Especially right now, when we are all at home, when you said you’re doing your internship at home and connecting with people online to talk about your designs and everything like that.

Public speaking shared online continues to reach people long after

View of earth from outer space

Jennifer: So let me ask more about your TEDx talk. After you finish it, it’s such a public talk and it’s on YouTube. So more people can watch it. What kind of response did you get to the talk?

Aaron: I got a really positive response. I’ve read comments. People would say, “Hey, I saw your talk and it really…”

From my end, I put it all together at the last minute. And so I’m like, Oh gosh, it’s terrible. And then of course, like everybody else, I don’t like the way that I sound on video. I’ve watched maybe 30 seconds of it. And then I was, okay, I can’t do this anymore.

But the fact that it’s always interesting when I meet people like you. And when I go on other podcasts that are STEM-centric and they’re, yeah, “I really liked your talk. And I really got all of these ideas from it.”

I’m like, “You did? Oh, that’s great I’m glad you did but I felt it was all pieced together at the last second,” but I-

Jennifer: Well, it was in a sense that you did write a lot of it at the last minute, like you said.

But it’s not that you weren’t thinking about it for months. You were planning it and thinking about what your audience was going to think and how they were going to react to it. That’s why you were rewriting until the last minute.

Aaron: Exactly.

Jennifer: You were working on improving it so that people would continue to get that reaction.

And it sounds they still do. I did certainly.

Aaron: Yes. And that makes me so happy. Because again, I had the, every talk has a central idea. And my central idea was, hey, the way that we did space flight was cool the first time. But if we want to go out and stay out this time, we got to change our perspective on it.

So I’m really, it makes me really happy to hear the positive feedback and to hear how, and in some cases, some people have responded to me and say, oh, I didn’t even know that’s what, I didn’t even know that all that was happening. I just thought we said, hey, let’s go to the moon. So it’s really cool to see just how the idea is interpreted by different people.

Jennifer: That’s wonderful. I love that.

Applying to be an intern at NASA

USA space launch system

Jennifer: Now, not long after your talk, you started to intern at NASA. I feel that’s something that people dream about. So I would love to hear what has that been like?

Aaron: Oh man. Okay. So bit of a background story, and if you don’t mind? It’d be like two seconds, I promise.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Aaron: Earlier that year, it was October. And I was, okay. My grades are mediocre. Not terrible, but not excellent. I was like, I had this research experience that was semi NASA and space related. I was, okay, let me go ahead and put in an application.

So I filled out the application and I actually applied for the Robotics Academy at Marshall. And right at the end of the application, it was like, hey, there were other academies such as Aeronautics at Langley. There was one at Goddard.

And then it said, do you want to apply for that? Yes.

Check the box if you want to apply to all.

Sounds like, yeah, let me check the box. Just check it. Didn’t even think about it.

So fast forward to March of that next year. On Friday, I get home from work and my wife was watching Hidden Figures (2017). And I was, okay, so I’m sitting there watching Hidden Figures and I’m like, “Oh yeah, babe, that’s a real center. Langley’s a cool place. I wouldn’t mind to go there.”

No lie. The next Monday, I got the email from the Aeronautics Academy at Langley’s saying, “Hey, do you want to join our program?” And it was, I didn’t technically apply for it. I just said I would be open to it.

So I always tell people, click the box that “yes, apply for all.”

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Aaron loves interning at NASA which is why he’s on his 3rd internship there

NASA space shuttle Endeavor

Aaron: But yeah. So interning at NASA being a part of that is something that honestly I am extremely proud of. There is so much history on center.

First of all, it feels really cool because when you come on, you have your badge or you get a real badge. It’s from the US government. It’s got “intern” on it and you got to pass some security. You feel just, you are important.

But beyond that, when you’re on center, you realize, yes, Katherine Johnson did work here. She started out in flight research, which was in near the hangar where I worked at.

You do tours, and somebody mentions, oh yeah when they were practicing from the moon landings Neil Armstrong used to come in and change right there. And so just to see the history and other things that just really blew my mind.

You’d sit in a meeting and that old guy in the corner, worked on the moon landings. Your boss worked on the shuttle, designed the heat shield for it. And there’s just so much.

It’s just really hard to describe. It’s so awe inspiring. You just like, wow, all this stuff really happened. And to be a part of it is just incredible.

And I really like how NASA treated the interns. They were very inclusive. They were, okay, you are a part of our family, our legacy, our brand, you are our ambassadors.

They were really fun. We had all a bunch of social events. We went and played laser tag a lot. There’s a picture of about 30 of us sitting with laser tag guns. And it was also really cool because I got to meet other students like me who were really passionate.

I can truly say that I’ve worked with the best and the brightest. Kids that have done amazing things, top of their class, top of their field and just, everybody’s so nice, so open. We’re all bought into the mission.

One thing that I really love about working at a place like NASA is…NASA, I don’t know too many people that just end up at NASA. We all had to decide, okay, I really want to go here. So there was just a level of passion that comes into the work that makes it so exciting and so much fun.

Jennifer: And you’ve held multiple internships at NASA. Is that correct?

Aaron: Yes. I’m on 3 right now. I’m debating on going for a 4th.

Jennifer: Oh my goodness.

Aaron: Yes. So the 1st time I worked on urban air mobility, which basically translated to flying Uber cars.

Watch this episode of NASA X to learn more about Urban Air Mobility (24m on YouTube).

Jennifer: Ooooh.

Aaron: Yeah. It was a really cool project.

The 2nd time I worked on soft robotics. So they were the soft squishy robots that…My biggest claim to fame is that I’m on one of the promo videos for the project. And it’s got half a million views. If you look, you can see my elbow. And I’m like, that’s my elbow.

Watch “Life at the Lab: Soft Robots.” You can actually see Aaron’s whole face in the video (not just his elbow) at 0:39.

Aaron: That’s the video.

And then the 3rd summer, which we just wrapped up summer 2020, I was on another robotics project to help construct solar panel arrays on the moon.

Jennifer: It sounds all of these internships are very project based and it’s something that you really get to see firsthand to get your hands in and really learn a lot on the ground. And it sounds NASA is a really great community. And so that must be such a fun environment to be in, to grow in.

Aaron: Yes, it is. I recommend it to everybody.

I’ve had other students at my school find me online and just say like, “hey, what’s it like? Do you recommend it?” And I’m like, “Yes.” And then one thing too, is that there really is a sense of connection.

So to touch that earlier theme. I’ve mentors that I can call up and say, hey, I need help with this can you help me? And if they can’t do it, by the end of the day, I’ll have a list of people that can, and it’s incredible.

And I got to pay it forward again, one student reached out to me, he was like, yeah, I’m really interested in doing aeroacoustics. Do you know somebody? And I was like, yeah, I know somebody. So 48 hours later, he was talking to somebody at NASA. It’s being a part of that group in that family. And I just love every second of it.

Creating a video tour of the new MakerSpace at Langley

Cut, film movie clapper

Jennifer: Wonderful. Thanks for sharing that with me. One of the things that I definitely wanted to ask you about was one of the videos that you made.

You produced a video for NASA introducing the public to MakerSpace. Can I ask what is MakerSpace for people who are listening?

Aaron: Okay. Yes. So the MakerSpace was a specific building at Langley. And in it was meant to be a community space. There were 3D printers, laser cutters there were seeing, was there a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine? Yeah, there was a CNC machine. There were a whole bunch of parts, components.

And so if you had a project or an idea, you could come to that space and essentially work on it. So the story with that video was somebody from the NASA public relations team was like, “Hey, we need somebody to do a MakerSpace tour.”

And that summer I was on the soft robotics team and we were based in that area. So we had given tours as a way to pay for our use of the space. And so I was like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll do it.”

So if you get nothing else from this podcast, people listening say, yes, to everything.

But yeah, that was a really fun video. I got to walk around, give the tour, do the MTV Cribs thing. Like “Yo, what’s up, y’all? Government funded crib right here.”

Watch Aaron Shepard’s video tour of MakerSpace at NASA Langley (Facebook video).

But yeah, it was a really fun place. And I actually learned a lot about rapid prototyping, 3D printing. Because it was a central hub I got to connect with a bunch of the other interns and people working on different projects. And that was really cool. So it was just an incredible experience.

Jennifer: I love the video. I actually remember when it first came out because you had posted on Twitter, check out this MTV cribs style video.

Jennifer: It was just so fun. I felt I was learning a lot about the space as you were walking through it and you showed a lot of different projects. And because of that, it really felt community oriented.

So it was an effective tour for the type of space that you described as a place where people can come together and work with these particular tools.

Aaron: Yes. And then too, I definitely have to shout out his name is Garry Qualls, the engineer that helped put together the MakerSpace. And he’s been at NASA for 13+ years. If he ever hears this, he’s probably felt like you got it wrong. But really great guy. Has worked on some really high-profile projects. And he just a wealth of knowledge. And he actually travelled to a bunch of Maker Faires and MakerSpaces all over the country. And that’s how he got the idea for building Langley’s.

Jennifer: I love it.

Aaron: Really collaborative space. And, the conversations were incredible.

One day, we had a very interesting debate on whether you should send robots and space for people in space. And as a roboticist who does space stuff. It’s a conflict of interest because I’m like, of course I want to send people to space. I want to go to space. But then it’s, yeah, but I want to build robots that go to space too.

And so the idea that we came to is that you send people in giant robot suits and that’s how you do it. So like Gundam Wing. That’s the ideal plan, but I don’t think that’ll get funded.

I looked up Mobile Suit Gundam Wing to learn more about it and came across this giant robot from the Gundam series!

Jennifer: It’s funny, but I really liked that these conversations are something that’s inspiring to you. It’s something that really sparks curiosity and debate. So that’s really interesting.

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Star Wars inspired Aaron to want to control things with his mind

Yoda figurine from Star Wars with hand raised, The Force

Jennifer: You founded your own business called Cogito.

And you said that you want to control things with your mind. Tell me more about that.

Aaron: Okay. So yeah, there’s always a story.

So with Cogito, this goes back, this started when I was 5 and they just released Star Wars in the theater. They did a release in the 90s. My dad and I went to go see it. And I got to see Luke Skywalker and he’s moving stuff with his mind. And there’s rocks lifting, the lifts of X-wing out of the swamp. It’s like, Oh, cool. I want to do that.

So I go home and I just sit there in front of my door and I got my hand up and I’m trying so hard. And door didn’t even budge. I’m like, “Haah,” I just feel defeated.

When I started my engineering degree in 2016, I was doing a freshmen robotics class. And it, one of the things that came up with, I would just, I really liked robots. I would just take it home. And I would go above and beyond, one of the few classes that I do that in.

I would just find different ways to control it. So I hooked it up to an Xbox controller. Did try it a bunch of different things.

One day I was reading about these things called brain computer interfaces. And what they essentially do is they measure the electrical activity of your brain. And they can output certain things:

  • it can measure how focused you are
  • how relaxed you are
  • if your mind is wondering something like that.

It turns out these are relatively cheap. You can find them on eBay for $20. And so I found one, and I hooked it up to one of the robots from my class.

And then I’m sitting here, I’m like, okay, in theory, if I do this right, when I press the button to turn it on, it should drive based on how focused I am. So if I focus really hard, it’ll drive.

So I’m sitting there and again, I’m doing the Star Wars thing and I’m like it moves. I’m like, Oh my gosh, this is awesome. If you dig, if you go away in the depths of my Instagram, you can find it. I’m sitting on my apartment floor with my pajamas. It’s pretty awesome.

Jennifer: I’m going to go back and look for that and embed it. Yeah, for sure.

Aaron: Yeah. I will try to dig it up if I can send you the link.

Aaron: With that being the nerd that I am, I was like, “Oh, hey, this is really cool. I want to share with other people.”

So I started demoing it at my school when we did science outreach events. Did that for a few years. And enough people pulled me aside and said, hey, you could really do something with this. Why don’t you try to make something of this.

And again, theme of the episode: “Yeah, sure. Why not?”

So I partnered with two classmates who had helped me out with a lot of the outreach events and yeah. Now we started our own company, Cogito. Our mission is to make things that you control with your mind and to get it out for the public.

Jennifer: I love that. And especially that focus on outreach and that being an inspiration for why you decided to actually make it a company, why you decided to start moving forward in that direction.

Aaron: Yes. One thing that I’m really excited about is we are partnering with the Discovery Station up in Maryland. And we’re doing a whole bunch of brain-controlled pieces for them. We’re actually meeting later tonight to work out the logistics of that, but I’m really excited.

The Discovery Station in Hagerstown, Maryland is an interactive children’s museum focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM).

Jennifer: Oh, that’s very cool to hear. Thanks for sharing that with me.

I want to be a STEM personality, like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson

I remember growing up and being really into science and not having too many people that were also into science. And so it felt lonely and isolating. My mission has always been to really become a prominent voice. Aaron Shepard @SpaceCadetShep

Jennifer: Back when we first spoke, so this is a couple of years ago back on Instagram, you said that you wanted to be a STEM personality, like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Is that still your goal?

Aaron: Yes. I have a lot of goals.

Yes, I would like to be a STEM personality. That is still one of the goals.

I really think that, I personally believe that when you’re talking about science and its impact on the world, there has to be a personality with it. Because in my opinion, that’s the only way that you get the general public to embrace it.

And as you can tell, we are not a society that embraces science all the way. And that has had some interesting consequences in the last 365 days.

And then, especially me growing up black. And I remember growing up and being really into science and not having too many people that were also into science. And so it felt lonely and isolating. My mission has always been to really become a prominent voice. Now, whether or not that’s happening, I don’t know, but it, I’m just going to have fun and try to do as much good as I can.

Jennifer: I love that, trying to do as much good as you can.

And also I love how you’ve really focused on organic networking, organic real connections with people who inspire you, who you’d like to connect with long-term, both of those things.

And really just striving for pushing your boundaries. You always say yes to things. You’re taking chances and pushing where you feel the anxiety for public speaking. You were like, let me do a public speaking, the top talk that I can do, let me do that. When you applied to NASA, you weren’t sure exactly. If you could do all those other internships, but you checked all those boxes.

That is the message people should take away from this. You kept taking chances. You keep striving towards those goals and finding your way there because of those connections and chances.

Aaron: Yes. And one thing I always tell people, I try to be as authentic as possible.

Yes, there are highlights. They’re for every, “Oh my gosh, I get to build this awesome thing at NASA.” There was, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t even know I could make that low on a test,” Or “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to really work hard.”

And I have faced setbacks in my academic career. I’ve had to retake classes. The first couple of times when I’ve met failure, it was really hard to process. But now I’m like, look, it’s part of the game.

Honestly if you want to be great, you got to pay a price. You learn so much from your failures and your mistakes, that it really helps to propel you forward to the next level. So I try to be authentic and I try to share that as well. Occasionally on social media I’ll show all the not fun parts of what I do. It gets not fun sometimes.

But again, it’s all about appreciating the whole picture. For every night that I have been up at 2:00 AM and buried in a math problem…Every time I’m like, “Oh my gosh, am I doing the right thing?” Or, “Oh my gosh, why am I not succeeding?” There have been moments that make it all worth it. So I tried to tell people, there highs and their lows, but you use your setbacks and your low points to propel you further, higher.

Jennifer: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And I’ve certainly felt your honesty during this talk.

Thank you for sharing everything that you have about those struggles that you’ve gone through and things that happen setbacks at times, but you still push forward. And then that’s inspiring.

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Inspiring the next generation of scientists an engineers

Girl and boy build robot together

Jennifer: Now, you seem particularly interested in education outreach and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Why is that so important to you?

Aaron: There is a quote by, I believe Aristotle, right? [It’s not.] And I don’t have it in front of me, but the quote is “a wise man plants trees whose shade he knows he will never sit in.” And for me, I’m a fan of the green, a fan of classical literature. And for that just really stuck with me in that it’s not about, the goal is to be an agent of progress.

And so it’s about planting seeds and really setting up the next person under me or the next generations of people under me to go further than my generation will. That’s what we’re supposed to do as humans.

So what was the quote really, and who said it? Well, no one’s really sure. Garson O’Toole of Quote Investigator says it’s likely this adage developed over a long period of time, and explores the history in this article.

Aaron: I see it as the only way to solve the big problems that are coming. Because yes, I will have a hand in solving some of the major problems.

There are problems, that’s about to get really interesting. You have to think about global warming. At some point, we’re actually going to be attempting to Mars landing. There are a lot of questions about ethics and technology, integrating technology with the human body. Something like Neuralink.

These are hard problems to solve.

I’ll have a part in it, but I’m not going to be the one who finishes it. So I’ve got to make sure that the person who finishes it has, or that the right people want to step in and finish those problems.

Jennifer: It’s really interesting that because some of the things that you’re most interested in seeing move forward are part of these larger projects, part of something that couldn’t possibly be done just alone or just by you, or just maybe in this lifetime. That because those things are true for you, you also see this larger perspective as an ultimate goal for how you are in the world.

I love that image of, or idea of planting a tree that you wouldn’t be able to just sit in the shade of. Because of course, a tree takes forever to grow, especially to grow so large that people could relax underneath it in a shaded area. So that’s a beautiful image to me.

Aaron: Yes. And then, with everything that has happened this past year, I’ve really examined how in my lifetime I’ve been the beneficiary of that.

Just thinking about my own family lineage. If you go up a couple of generations, I had family members like my great great grandmother was hardworking, but she was illiterate and an immigrant.

And then from there to be in the position where I am today, where I can go to school and I can read, and I can get all these degrees. That’s something I don’t take lightly.

It’s almost impossible to keep politics out of science because what we do ties into politics, but the notion of being able to vote.

It wasn’t too long ago where my family members wouldn’t have been able to vote. And a lot of people suffered and sacrificed so that I had that. And so being the beneficiary of that and seeing how it’s changed my life, it’s just wanting to pass that desire for progress down on to the next generation and the generation after that.

Wrapping up the final feature interview of 2020

Cute robot waves hello

Jennifer: Well, I love that, Aaron, thank you so much for this interview. Before we wrap up, is there anything else that you’d like to share?

Aaron: Oh actually, yes, there was one more thing.

One of my buddies that I’ve connected with on social media, his name is Lee Giat. He started a project called PASSAGE. And his goal is to fly science supplies down to a bunch of countries in South and Central America and really help inspire them.

So if you guys are listening, please check it out. Incredible group. You get a lot of interesting things for donating. Let me back up by saying, he’s filming a documentary as he does this because he’s a filmmaker, and a pilot, and a STEM enthusiast.

And so he’s filming a documentary. So if you donate, you get a chance to go to the premier, you get access to a masterclass library. I’m teaching a master class on robotics. There are a bunch of other science communicators teaching masterclasses, and there are a whole. There are so many more cool prizes for not prizes, but incentives to donate. This is such a big mission I really care about, that has the potential to do so much good in the world. So yes, guys, check it out.

Jennifer: Awesome. I will link to that in the blog post.

Aaron, thank you so much for joining me for this interview. I hope you have a great day.

Aaron: Yes. You too.

Jennifer: Thanks so much for joining me this season on The Social Academic interview series. Wishing you a happy holidays and warm New Year.

I’ll be back on Monday with the last article of the year. What do you do when you feel like social media is consuming your life? How do you spend less time on social media? Don’t miss it.

Subscribe to The Social Academic blog today.

Bio for Aaron Shepard

Aaron Shepard bio on The Social Academic feature interview series

Aaron Shepard is an In Space Assembly Robotics Intern at NASA Langley, and a Robotics Research Assistant at Clemson University College of Engineering and Science.

Aaron also works at R&D Engineering Co-Op, Itron, Inc., and is the Founder/CEO of Cogito, a company dedicated to creating mind controlled technologies.

Connect with Aaron on Twitter and Instagram @SpaceCadetShep.

Visit Aaron’s website.

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Jennifer van Alstyne View All →

Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and public relations consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help academics, researchers, and writers control their online presence and share their work with the world.

She holds a B.A. from Monmouth University in English, and an M.F.A. from Naropa University in Writing & Poetics where she was the Jack Kerouac Fellow. Jennifer also holds an M.A. from University of Louisiana at Lafayette in Literature and Cultural Studies where she was one of four master’s fellows and a finalist for the Outstanding Master’s Graduate Award.

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