Geeking Out about Space, Women in STEMM, Climate Change and more with Dr. Michaela Musilova

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Geeking Out about Space, Women in STEMM, Climate Change and more with Dr. Michaela Musilova

About The Episode Transcript

Dr. Michaela Musilova, an accomplished astrobiologist, author, and analog astronaut, joins the She Geeks Out podcast to discuss her mission of making science and climate change accessible to all. She shares insights from her space-related research and leadership roles, including being part of Homeward Bound Excursions empowering women in STEMM. 

Links mentioned in this episode:

[00:00:16] Dr. Michaela Musilova, astrobiologist, author.

[00:06:00] Importance of sharing pronouns.

[00:09:42] Space dreams and inspiration.

[00:13:36] Overcoming obstacles to study abroad.

[00:15:00] Life on other planets.

[00:21:35] Blackmailed out of grant.

[00:23:11] Overcoming challenges and guilt.

[00:26:57] Overcoming financial challenges in Hawaii.

[00:32:31] Passion for astrobiology research.

[00:36:06] Building settlements on Mars.

[00:38:25] Space exploration and balance.

[00:43:36] An impactful expedition experience.

[00:44:29] Female leadership in STEM fields.

[00:48:33] Pursuing Science and Technology

[00:52:18] Creating your own path.

[00:57:50] Geeking out about rocks.

[09:23] Sign up for our mailing list.

(00:06 - 00:16) Felicia Jadczak: Hi, and welcome to the She Geeks Out podcast, where we geek out about workplace inclusion and talk with brilliant humans doing great work, making the world a better and brighter place. I'm Felicia.

(00:16 - 00:45) Rachel Murray:  And I'm Rachel. And we are so excited to speak with Dr. Michaela Musilova, an astrobiologist, speaker, author, film director, and analog astronaut. We will get into the details of what that is during our interview. She is on a mission to make understanding science and climate change accessible to everyone. She's conducted space-related research at top institutions including Caltech, University College London and so many more and she's led simulated space missions.

(00:45 - 01:13) Felicia Jadczak: Yes, very cool. She's also one of several women that we're interviewing this season who are part of Homeward Bound Excursions, which is a groundbreaking global leadership initiative set in Antarctica, which leads cohorts of women in STEM to heighten the influence and impact of women in making decisions that shape our planet. She's currently a visiting professor, a space company researcher, and she is an Astro 7 Summit leader. We will get into all of that.

(01:13 - 01:49) Rachel Murray: Wow, yeah, she is a busy, busy human, but before we get into that, we want to make sure that, you know, that we have a ton of resources available online and you can find them at So, if you want to learn more about ways to mitigate bias in the workplace in the world, we've got you covered. We would love for you to sign up for our mailing list at forward slash podcast. And what we're doing for this is we are going to give you free access to our mini course on women at work, creating a gender inclusive workplace. And you can learn about more about what we have to offer.

(01:49 - 02:22) Felicia Jadczak: Yes. So let's get into it because we have a lot of other things to offer too. So that's just sort of the let's plug ourselves intro for today. But I actually want to chat with you a little bit, Rachel, about another cool program that we are launching again this summer, which is called Leading DEI Conversations. And so just for anyone who may be totally unfamiliar with what this is and what it's all about, it is a multi-session program. It's open to the public. We have been running this for, gosh, how many years now? Two?

(02:22 - 02:24) Rachel Murray: What is time?

(02:24 - 03:31) Felicia Jadczak: We know what time is. I should also say we're recording this the day after daylight savings time came back into effect. And so I'm definitely feeling that what is time feeling right now. But yeah, for let's say two to three years, we've been running this program. It's open to the public, so you get to experience it with lots of other cool people who are interested in figuring out how to talk about DEI at work. And it doesn't even have to be necessarily at work. So if you're currently fun employed or if you're taking a break or retired, you can also take this program, but it's crafted and created for people who are in workplace situations who are not necessarily DEI practitioners, but you still want to have some understanding, some awareness, some knowledge, some skills, tools, and tips for how you can talk about this stuff confidently and from a place where you can actually make some change. Because as we always like to say, DEI doesn't have to be a separate thing, so you don't have to have it in your title, but we can all think about how to infuse DEI into our work no matter what our title is.

(03:31 - 04:45) Rachel Murray: Yeah, I think there's a lot of people that are doing this work sort of accidentally. So I think a common one are folks that are in people ops or human resources. There are folks that just step up within organizations that are leads of ERGs or of DEI councils. They're participating in councils. And sometimes what happens is you're the de facto person that people will come to to ask questions or learn more. And you may not be skilled in doing this. And I will say as someone who is on the operations and strategy side of our team and marketing side. I am not the facilitator and the content developer the way my lovely co-host and business partner is Felicia and Fatima is. It is such an incredible skill to be able to have these conversations, not only to just be able to make sure that you're informing folks in a way that feels really good, but also not causing harm. and not causing harm to the other person, but also remember not causing harm to yourself because I've just give so much credit to the DEI practitioners who do do this work and hold this space because it's incredibly difficult. And so I know one of the components of this program is also about self-care and community care as well. So I just wanted to throw that in there too.

(04:46 - 06:38) Felicia Jadczak: Yeah, no, that's such a great point. And it's so important, honestly, you know, I think a lot of people who are in this work come to it from a lot of different perspectives and experiences. And we are seeing a bit of a shakeout at this point in 2024, where, you know, 2020 We had so many people who were able to enter into this space for the first time through, you know, being asked to get into it, having opportunities come up. And now that we are about four years later, we have seen a bit of shaking out where I've seen a lot of practitioners leaving. I've seen people step away because they need to for their mental health or their physical health or both. And so it's definitely a changing landscape. But that's why I think it's really great to think about it from the standpoint of no matter what your actual title is, how can you leverage yourself to have these conversations? Because as you know, Rachel, I do a lot of work in my community as well and local government. And what I think is really interesting is just to give a quick example is we are, I'm on these different committees and we're starting to be much more mindful about things like sharing pronouns and thinking about languages. So like not everyone's, you know, first language is English. And so when I go around committee spaces and we do intros, it's not every single person still, but it's so much more common to hear people introducing themselves with their pronouns. And you're also, at least I should say, I'm also hearing more people sharing pronouns that you may not necessarily know that those are the pronouns that they would like you to use or that they are using just by looking at them. So I think that's just such a little plug there for how important that is. But if you don't have that lens, then you're not able to push that forward, right? So just a quick example of how you can be thinking about this work and the learning that this program offers.

(06:39 - 06:55) Rachel Murray: Agreed. And yeah, so what we'll do is we'll make sure to put in the show notes a link to this fabulous program. It'll be happening in April. It's going to start. It's virtual. So we encourage you to participate because I think it'll be awesome.

(06:55 - 07:09) Felicia Jadczak: Yeah, so check that out. And now without further ado, let's get on to the discussion with Michaela. Hello to our special guest today, Dr. Michaela Musalova. Hello, hello.

(07:09 - 07:12) Michaela Musilova: Hi there. It's great to be here today.

(07:12 - 07:16) Rachel Murray: We're excited to talk with you. Same here.

(07:16 - 07:41) Felicia Jadczak: Felicia, do you want to kick things off? I'm happy to. We have a lot to get into, and we're excited to learn more from you. So let's just start off with the question that we love to start off with pretty much every podcast with, which is, what's your origin story? So in case you ever wanted to feel like a superhero, now is a chance. You have done a lot of things, but what motivated you to become an astrobiologist, analog astronaut, professor, author, and public speaker?

(07:41 - 07:50) Michaela Musilova: Oh, wow. Well, it is quite a long story, so I'll try my best to keep it short. And feel free to interrupt if you have any questions or anything.

(07:50 - 07:54) Felicia Jadczak: Take as much time as you want. We love that. We're in the virtual world here.

(07:55 - 21:46) Michaela Musilova: So I guess it started off with just a fascination with nature as a kid. At first, it was volcanoes when I was seven years old. And then a year later, after I was obsessed with Mount St. Helens and everything to do with how volcanoes work. I came across a chapter in a book I was just browsing while bored, waiting for my parents in a supermarket or something. The chapter was dedicated to Jupiter, Saturn, their moons, and all that. I just couldn't stop reading this information. I just wanted to know more. How many rings do these planets have? Could there be life on the moons? you know, that was quite some time ago. So, you know, we didn't know so much about this part of the solar system and the potential for life to be there, but it definitely ignited my imagination. And I started to write little sci-fi stories as a nine-year-old, basically, about what life could potentially exist out there. And I created a whole world for them, so much so, at the time, I had a lot of things that I found fascinating as a lot of kids do too. So apart from now aliens and space, I also loved fashion and I would design different types of fashion garments as I thought, you know, were great at the time. And so I just combined it all, all my different passions, and I wrote little sci-fi novels about these aliens and the world I created. And I designed the clothes for them and I drew them into the book. So it was like, you know, all in one in these books. And I shared them with my classmates. And so it was kind of like a lunchtime thing we would do. I would share them, the next part of the story with them. And yeah, I really, really enjoyed that. And I guess a couple of years after that, I had the privilege of meeting the first Slovakian and so far the only Slovakian astronaut that we have from my home country of Slovakia. He flew to space in 1999 and my father invited him to an event where actually Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon for now, he has some Czech and Slovak origins for his grandparents and so my father organized a meeting between Gene Cernan and Ivan Bela, the Slovak astronaut. And during that occasion, I got to meet these amazing gentlemen and just realized that, oh, wow, I could combine my passions even more and actually like go look for aliens in space as an astronaut. And that's kind of where it all really started, where I just really wanted to pursue this space dream and not just looking for aliens, but to be able to go to space myself. And I think meeting these astronauts was really important in that realization that something like that's possible. But also in a way, I think it motivated me to show that us women can hopefully also do similar things. Because I noticed that there were mostly male astronauts out there, and I was like, where are all the women? And I want to do this, and let me show people that hopefully we can do this too. I haven't been to space myself yet, but it's definitely something I've been working on basically since that age. But yeah, that's how it all started. But since then, it was a very bumpy journey because I come from a more humble background with my family. And from the start, ever since I was a kid, they told me that I would have to pursue this dream on my own, that they couldn't really support me financially or knowledge-wise, because while my parents or social scientists, and my mom's an archaeologist, my father's a diplomat, they didn't have much experience in like STEM subjects. And they just told me that we wouldn't really be able to support you. And so it was a tough decision. But at 15, I decided that I just had so much passion for science, especially biology, geology, and anything to do with space, that I just wanted to do it even though I had to do it on my own. So I started to have multiple part-time jobs, try to get the best possible grades to earn scholarships. And while I wanted to go to the US, it was just unfortunately unaffordable for me, but I did find universities in the UK where I was able to get scholarships and study something similar to what I wanted to do, because at the time you couldn't study astrobiology at university, but I chose planetary science, so geology and astrophysics, with the hope that eventually I would fit biology in there somewhere and create my own version of astrobiology, and I'll just explain here that astrobiology is a very multidisciplinary subject where you really should have a grasp, at least a little bit, of geology, biology, engineering, astronomy, and many other subjects to have a well-rounded picture of where we could potentially look for life in space, how it came to be in the first place, and so on. So that's how I just decided to pave my own path. But even then, even with scholarships, it was very hard because I just didn't have enough money to survive living in London. I was studying at University College London. which at the time was considered, I think, the seventh best university in the world. So the fees reflected that too. And so I would have three part-time jobs and still try to get all the scholarships out there. And I even asked charities for help. So it was a tough time, but it helped me get good enough grades and I guess enough perseverance that when there was a competition in my second year, to go to Caltech in the US. I was able to win this competition, and apparently I was only one of two people in the UK to get a scholarship worth a lot of money that I couldn't even imagine at the time. And that's how I came to the US for the first time to study. And at Caltech, I was able to add biology, environmental science, and all these other subjects that I wanted to do. And what was also great is a lot of people at Caltech at the time were directly involved with different space missions. One of my professors was directly involved in the preparation of the Mars Science Laboratory, which had the Curiosity rover. So it was just so wonderful to be able to work with such experts and learn so much from them. And then I found out through them, and a little bit by chance, that at NASA JPL, which is also based in LA where Caltech is, there is an astrobiologist there doing exactly the kind of research that I was interested in, which was to study what the extreme limits of life are on Earth to help us potentially find life elsewhere by looking at similar conditions. So for example, We have now figured out approximately to what temperatures life can survive on Earth, to what pressures, salinity, and these other factors. And then when we look at someplace like Mars, we see, oh, in these locations, the conditions are a little bit similar to what we found here and here on Earth. Maybe similar life forms could exist there. And so that researcher was doing research along those lines and I was really hyped up about it. And I was like, okay, I have to find a way to work with this person. And it was really hard to get in touch with them. And they didn't respond to emails. I think at the time things were just a bit more complicated technology wise. But I did have a cell phone and I had like almost no money on it. I was saving every penny. And but I decided, OK, it's worth spending money and trying to call this person. So I eventually found a phone number for this researcher, was able to get a hold of them. And they said, you know, I love your enthusiasm and your ideas and everything, but foreign students can't work at NASA. It's just it was a rule at the time. And so that obviously made everything more complicated. But I think he just liked my ideas and my drive and with some effort after about six months of applying for grants and different things, we were able to find a way for me to work at NASA JPL as a visiting researcher, and that way we kind of bypassed the other issues we had. And so I had to actually finish my studies at Caltech first before I could officially work there, but we made it work, and it was an experience of a lifetime in many ways. At the time, they were preparing the Curiosity rover, and my research was related to that. I got to put my signature into Curiosity which is now on Mars. And it was just really like living a dream that's part of my childhood. Actually, you know, fantasies came true. But then, you know, reality hit because of visas. I had to go back to Europe. And that's where I decided to finish my master's degree and pursue my Ph.D. for various reasons, but part of them were the fees and the situation in the US, but also at Caltech I noticed that the postgraduate environment wasn't really what I wanted to be involved with at the time. I didn't like the way the students were treated or it just felt like in Europe the conditions for PhDs were a bit better and so that's why I just decided to continue my studies there and I was able to get more grants to pursue research. Essentially what I was doing at JPL is studying extreme life forms I decided to focus on life in extremely cold environments. I went to the Arctic, to Greenland. I had a grant to go to Japan for some research. Later, I went to Svalbard. That was really great and I enjoyed that a lot. It was during my PhD that there was a call for the first British crew to go on a simulated Mars mission. Though I'm not British, I was doing my PhD in a British university at the time. So I decided to give it a try anyway. And they liked my research ideas and myself as a candidate to be an analog astronaut. That's what we simulated astronauts are called. And that's basically how I ended up doing my first simulated mission back in 2014. So yeah, 10 years ago now, almost exactly to the day. And it was an amazing experience, just like at NASA. In a way, I was living my childhood dream. I was outside wearing a simulated space suit, collecting samples for my astrobiology research. It just felt so close to something that I had been aspiring to since I was basically eight years old. And that's kind of how I got involved in the simulated missions. And after I finished my PhD, I was hesitating what to do. There were options to continue in academia. or maybe to go into the industry. But I must say I was a bit disenchanted by a lot of things that I encountered during my time in academia and not just in the UK, but other parts of the world that I worked in or collaborated with. And so I decided to do something different. Back home in Slovakia, the space sector was rather stagnant. And though there was some research in space being done at different institutions, There was essentially no effort to have a space agency or for Slovakia to join the European Space Agency. We weren't affiliated with that organization in any way at that point. And there were very, very few opportunities for young people to be involved in space, but even in STEM subjects. So we had a massive brain drain. I think at the time around 30% of young people were leaving Slovakia to pursue career opportunities elsewhere. And so I decided, you know what? Let me just go back home and see if I can help in any way. And I thought, at least if there's a time in my life to do that, it was then before I had maybe an established career somewhere else. And so I did that. I went home. It was definitely tough after my experiences abroad to go to an environment where I had to constantly convince people that it's worth investing in space and that it will bring a lot of opportunities back home. A group of young people, we were all under 30 at the time. We had an organization called the Slovak Organization for Space Activities. And we just tried to do basically like a grassroots movement, bottom up to convince the public, the politicians, companies about the potential of space, but especially the potential of Slovakians to succeed in space. And together we built the first Slovakian satellite and launched it successfully to space in 2017. I started with several universities, we developed a space engineering degree program and I started teaching astrobiology for the first time in Slovakia. And so things were going well, but at the same time, I think I was, I'm not sure what the correct expression in English is, but I was ruffling too many feathers or, you know, stirring the waters too much. And let's just say there was a group of older male professors that didn't like all this change I was bringing to the country. And I was also a very visible public person because that was essentially the only way to really convince the public and politicians that it's worth investing in space. And they just, they thought it's, beneath a scientist to be doing outreach and science communication and all that kind of stuff. So it actually ended up turning pretty ugly and very quickly. At one point, they were trying to blackmail me out of a grant that I helped win in the first place. And so I didn't want to let them blackmail me. And I use the word blackmail, but basically they threatened me that if I don't give up my position as a professor, which I was nominated at the time, I was only 28. So they were upset that someone so young was nominated as professor. They said, if I don't give up that position, they'll kick me out of the grant. And I just decided to step away from the grant myself and the organization.

(21:46 - 21:50) Felicia Jadczak: That sounds like blackmail to me, Michaela.

(21:50 - 21:52) Michaela Musilova: I mean, I was like, am I using too strong of a word?

(21:54 - 21:58) Rachel Murray: I feel like there should be an even stronger word. Just awful.

(21:58 - 22:52) Michaela Musilova: So sorry. It was really awful. And then because they basically shot themselves in the foot because that grant wasn't valid without me because I was one of the main people, you know, who put it forward and all that. So then no one got the money, which I think was a better solution in the end anyway. But then that, because it didn't work out for them, they decided to try and spread lies about me in the media. And that campaign took like almost a whole year of, I never worked for NASA and I'm lying about this, that and the other. And so it was a really tough time in my life. And it's actually in the middle of that, that there was an application to do and to be part of a NASA-funded simulated mission in Hawaii. And I just decided, oh, why don't I just give it a try? And, you know, I wasn't too hopeful it would work out. But to my surprise, I was selected as the chief scientist of that mission.

(22:52 - 23:03) Felicia Jadczak: And I decided that, you know, maybe this is a good time for me to leave this not very… I love it because you're like, not only did I work at NASA in the past, I'm currently working for them. Boom.

(23:03 - 23:07) Rachel Murray: Right? And in Hawaii.

(23:09 - 23:11) Felicia Jadczak: Like, there could be a lot of worse places to be a simulator.

(23:11 - 25:00) Michaela Musilova: Yeah, for sure. And so, I mean, it was tough for me to leave, though, of course, I was very happy to leave all the toxic stuff behind. But at that point, you know, I was a professor, I had multiple students, I set up a startup company in Slovakia, related to space technologies, I was the head of the Slovak organization for space activity. So I had all these things going on. And I felt extremely guilty to put that on hold basically and go pursue this NASA mission. But I made sure to set everything up to be as safe as possible for my students and organization and CEO, so I didn't leave anyone in the lurch. But I guess I myself struggle with the concept of doing something for myself after having been doing things for others for many years. And then to make things even more complicated, the mission was stopped very early on. And that's because, it's a long story for another time, but a series of unfortunate events led to one person on the crew having to go to the hospital and then a different person backed out from the mission because of the stress of everything that had happened. And so essentially that mission was cut short. And then I found myself essentially stranded in Hawaii because I could have gone back to Slovakia, but then I wouldn't have been able to apply for another mission like this for a couple of years. It's again to do with visa regulations. Or I had two weeks to find a job that would essentially replace that simulated mission in terms of visa requirements. And if any of you listening know anything about visas, you know, two weeks to find a replacement is like mission impossible, essentially.

(25:00 - 25:07) Felicia Jadczak: I'm just I cannot wait to hear how you did this, because I feel like the answer is you did it. And that feels 100 percent like a mission impossible mission.

(25:07 - 25:11) Rachel Murray: Like like Tom Cruise. Watch out. Honestly, something like that.

(25:12 - 31:41) Michaela Musilova: Yeah, honestly, I think at first I really, like, almost had a depression because there's no way I'm going to find a solution to this situation. But I just didn't want to give up partially because, you know, I knew all the not so, how to put this, positive people in Slovakia would, you know, have quite the, what's the expression, they would be very excited about me failing at something. Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude, I believe. Yes. But the other thing is, by that point, I had been doing so much science communication in Slovakia that I became a role model for a lot of young people, or actually people of all ages. And my motto was always to try my best, where there's a will, there's a way, that sort of thing. for this to go wrong a few days into the mission and for me to just give up and go home was kind of against my personal beliefs, but also felt like I would let down those people looking up to me. So I thought, okay, I need to try my best. Let's see what I can do. So I sent an email out to everyone I knew in the space community, because by that point I had already been teaching at the so-called International Space University. That's a thing, I know it sounds kind of like something from Star Trek, but we do have this on Earth, not in space yet. So I had, you know, quite a community there and through my NASA contacts and the simulated missions and all that. And I also reached out to all sorts of other friends for help because I was also stranded in a very difficult financial situation because I wasn't expecting to live in Hawaii with the expenses of Hawaii. I was meant to be locked up in a research station for eight months, so very different kind of conditions. And I was just extremely fortunate that a telescope on the same island I was on, on the Big Island of Hawaii, they needed an astronomer to analyze some NASA data. And because I was willing to, you know, go be paid, let's say, essentially minimum wage for that, but just to be able to extend my visa, we were able to make it work. But literally, it was like, you know, two seconds to midnight that we were able to file all the paperwork and get it done. And yeah, I'm just extremely grateful that that worked out. But it was it was very stressful to the last moment. And it was basically just me reaching out to everyone I knew. and my friends reaching out to people and making it work. And then, you know, it meant living for six months in a dorm, which was, you know, interesting after having been away from student years for a while to kind of go back to that environment. But, so yeah, basically my visa was extended for six months. And that was the period during which another analog mission was meant to start. And that's basically why I wanted to stay in Hawaii, because this was my only other way of being able to do another mission like that, instead of waiting for two years after coming back to Europe. And then who knows when the next mission would be. And maybe two years later in life, I would be in the middle of some other job or something, and I wouldn't be able to leave. So I waited for six months. In the meantime, I worked with the owner of the facility in Hawaii called High Seas. And this person wanted to start doing some lunar simulated missions as well, because their big dream is to have settlements on the moon. And so I was communicating with this person, sharing some ideas. But in the meantime, Let's just say an article came out about what happened during my mission. That article did the rounds, and it was because one of the crew members, I guess they felt they needed to justify what had happened or their decision during that situation we were in. I'm not sure. I can only hypothesize. But let's just say a lot of details were revealed that originally were not meant to go public to protect the medical safety or the personal information of the person that had to go to the hospital. So we had just agreed to only share certain information, but let's say more information went out than we hoped for. And then NASA decided to back out of those missions, that it was just, they thought it was unsafe or whatever their decision was. I don't know. Again, I can only hypothesize. And so suddenly those missions were canceled and I was left in Hawaii going, okay, now do I go home for sure this time? Or, you know, this essentially, what's the reason for me to stay, even though I enjoyed my job at the Canada France Hawaii telescope. And that's when the owner of HI-SEAS was like, well, I really loved your ideas last few months. Why don't you stay and run the facility and organize the missions here? And so that's basically the silver lining of that story. I became the director of HI-SEAS and I was there until now almost two years ago, and I organized over 40 simulated missions to the Moon and Mars, of which I was the commander of over 30 such missions. And it was a great experience working with people from all around the world. I learned a lot, but it was also during that time that I realized that I would like to pursue my astrobiology research further and try some other opportunities. And that's how I came up with my current project. So finally getting to the end of the story, my Astro Seven Summits project. And the goal of the project is to climb the tallest mountain on each continent and during each of these expeditions to perform scientific research, educational activities, and film educational documentaries, and share that with the public as much as possible. So far, I've been able to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Last year, Aconcagua in Argentina, South America. And then in a few months, if all goes well, I'll be climbing Denali in North America. and Vincent in Antarctica later this year, and Everest, if all goes well, next year. So that's basically what I'm working on currently. It's a challenge because not only is the physical challenge of climbing these very tall mountains and dealing with very hard conditions, very cold temperatures, high elevation and all that, But I also am funding all of this myself so having to do fundraising for this project has been challenging and applying for grants and getting sponsors and all that. But it has been very rewarding to be able to do things on my own terms. not have to deal with a lot of the issues I encountered in academia, in industry, and other very toxic environments that I unfortunately have been part of along the way. Wow.

(31:41 - 31:47) Felicia Jadczak: I'm like, Michaela, take a breath. What a story to open us up with.

(31:49 - 32:30) Rachel Murray: I mean and like if we had popcorn we would be eating it right now because wow first of all we've been taking a lot of notes on the back end as you've been talking and it's just so impressive that first of all that you had this passion from the age of nine and that you are still living that that is a feat that in and of itself is quite rare and special. And then to overcome so much adversity. So much drama. A lot. Yeah. So really, congratulations to you for still having this passion and this drive to do such important work. And we have some questions.

(32:31 - 32:52) Felicia Jadczak: I'd like to do a slightly irreverent question, but maybe that'll help like, you know, balance out the story we just went through. But I was really wondering, as you were sharing your origin story and all the things that you've been going through and doing and researching, have you ever seen any signs of alien life?

(32:55 - 33:01) Michaela Musilova: Number one question. I wouldn't be able to tell you even if I had. Which means yes.

(33:01 - 33:06) Rachel Murray: Okay. Noted. If she told us, she'd have to kill us and everyone who's listening.

(33:06 - 33:38) Michaela Musilova: I didn't say that. You did. I know. Don't worry. I would be happy if I could find some at least like really simple microbial life somewhere, but we haven't gotten to that point yet. But who knows, you know, I'm very optimistic because astrobiology has been advancing a lot and pretty fast the last few years. So especially thinking back when I started that, you know, no one knew what astrobiology was and it was kind of frowned upon in some academic circles. And now, you know, there's astrobiologists all over the world, even in Slovakia, which makes me really happy.

(33:40 - 33:59) Rachel Murray: It's so impressive and to follow up on that relatedly, that's why you're focused on the cold. environments, are you looking for life within our solar system? Like, any sort of evidence of life within our as opposed to saying, like, there might be life outside of the solar system? Maybe we'll have some environment?

(33:59 - 35:10) Michaela Musilova: So both, I mean, I would say I would specialize more in the life in our solar system, just because we can, we have so much more information about what the conditions on the surface of Mars are, what they're likely on moons of Saturn and Jupiter and the other ones we have that are very interesting from an astrobiology perspective, whereas anything beyond the solar system we have just very limited data. Now there's more and more of these exoplanets we're finding and many of them look promising, but even then we barely have some information about maybe what the gases in the atmosphere are or things like that. So astrobiology can definitely be applied there and that's essentially why so many people are looking for planets similar to ours. Earth-like exoplanets, because they're hoping to find, you know, potential similar life there to what we have here. But that's just, I would say, a bit more abstract and more hard to study, whereas things in our solar system are much more tangible. And it's easier to have more specific information about, you know, temperatures, pressures, and all these things that could indicate that there could potentially still be some life form in those areas.

(35:10 - 36:06) Rachel Murray: I have one more related question, and then I will stop. Because we have other things to get to for sure. But it just occurred to me. So we here on the SGO podcast are not fans of Elon Musk. Nor do we think that his ideas of trying to colonize you heard it here at first. No late breaking news. She geeks out does not like Elon Musk stocking. He believes that, you know, we should try to like colonize Mars. And I'm curious, given the work that you do, do you think that that is something that is realistic or desirable? And it is related to the fact that when we'll get to the homeward bound excursions that looks into climate change, do you think that it's more important to sort of focus on our planet versus trying to colonize another one?

(36:06 - 39:39) Michaela Musilova: So first, I'll just say that I like to use the word like building settlements. on, say, Mars and not colonizing, because that has a lot of negative connotations. And those that continue to use it, of course, some people might not realize this. Others, unfortunately, I feel like they do have that mindset of taking over another, you know, bit of land or a whole planet and doing what they want. And that's the problem. And that's where I agree with you that that kind of view on what people like Musk want to do with space exploration is really dangerous, I would say. We really shouldn't feel like we can own everywhere we go and everything we touch. If anything, we should always respect everything, treat it carefully. We don't know. There could still be life on Mars. And that's why I'm hoping that we will still first do research on Mars before these settlements are built. Or if we build anything, it will be in an area where we're very, you know, it's not very likely we will damage anything or contaminate that area. And we will do it gradually. First, maybe have like a tiny little station similar to the ones that I've been running the analog missions in and slowly built that to be something more sustainable long term. But before we try and have anything more permanent on Mars, we need to explore it. Be sure that we're not damaging that land. We're not killing something that might live there and really, truly understand that environment first. But also, you know, another important thing to realize that even if one day we are able to live on Mars, it's still going to be very hard and it's still going to take very long or, you know, even on the moon. Earth is still our only home. This is really the only place where we're most likely to be able to stay for long periods of time as humans and to have a future. So we most certainly need to take much better care of our home than we've been doing so far, and not just have our hopes that, oh, we'll eventually move on to somewhere else, because that's not happening anytime soon, and it's going to be extremely hard to do that in the first place. So I personally definitely think it needs to be a balance of both, where we certainly need to take better care of our planet, But at the same time, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't explore beyond our planet. And at least from an astrobiology perspective, try and search for what else is out there. Maybe start building these first settlements gradually, carefully with respect to that environment without further damaging it if possible. And so ideally this kind of balance of both, because I find that space exploration is something that so many people are interested in. It's a way to build collaborations between nations. Space in general and astronomy has been something that has been inspiring people around the world. Everyone is curious about the night sky and is interested in it in some shape or form. So it's a great way to build bridges, especially in these difficult times around the world. And I keep on hoping that the first missions to Mars with humans will involve an international collaboration, which will finally put all our boundaries and political issues and all that aside and actually bring people together. So that's why I always hope for that in relation to Mars and space exploration in general. But if it were to be just in the hands of, say, one company and them doing things their way, then yes, that could definitely be a problem.

(39:40 - 39:55) Felicia Jadczak: OK, new podcast idea. You don't have to say yes, just want to plant the seed. Is you reviewing these space movies where people go into space and live there? I'm thinking about Interstellar in particular, as you were talking.

(39:55 - 40:17) Michaela Musilova: Oh, I'd love that. I actually did that once for, oh goodness, what is it called? It was a Netflix series with Steve Crow. Oh, is it like Space Force One? Yeah, yeah, yeah. There was like an episode where they were in like a lunar habitat or something like that. So I kind of reviewed that episode. It was good fun. That's amazing.

(40:19 - 40:22) Rachel Murray: We're all about coming up with new podcast ideas. Yes.

(40:22 - 40:38) Felicia Jadczak: We'll talk later if it's of interest. Both you, Rachel, and you, Michaela, you mentioned the Seven Summits and the Homeward Bound excursion. So I'd love to hear more from you about the Homeward Bound project in particular and what that's all about and your involvement with it.

(40:39 - 43:25) Michaela Musilova: So I heard about Homeward Bound actually was just before the pandemic or so. And it's a global leadership initiative for women and non-binary leaders. And, you know, from what I understand, the goal is to bring us together from around the world and to create new collaborations and try to promote healthy leadership styles, and also raise awareness about our planet, climate change, and how to work together to have a more minimal impact as humans on our planet and to make it be someplace that not only we can enjoy, but also future generations. So it's a combination of this I would say online program where we got together, we worked on our leadership skills, started forming future collaborations, and we raised awareness about some of these important topics like climate change. And then the other part is an actual expedition to Antarctica for about three weeks. And we did that in two groups last year. And altogether, I think it was 188 women and non-binary leaders that went to Antarctica. It was the biggest group of such people ever to go to Antarctica, especially involved in STEM. And I think that the in-person part of going to Antarctica was really important because many times in life, until you experience something yourself, it's so much more difficult to either relate to it or convey the importance of, for example, saving a place like Antarctica or caring more about the effects of climate change on pristine environments like that. I personally have been to a lot of amazing places around the world for my research, so I've always cherished those places and was very grateful to go there. But I think for others who maybe have not experienced that before, I think it was really a life-changing experience to go there, to see an amazing place like that personally. And then together, we were all just so struck by that environment, but also seeing the effects of climate change on it, that it actually I think helped us be more productive in our collaborative efforts. We started several initiatives. A few people from that expedition went to various meetings afterwards where they were able to share our thoughts and suggestions for policies in the future that could protect our planet better, especially Antarctica. That in-person element was really important, very strong. And of course, going to Antarctica in general is an amazing experience. But with such amazing people, surrounded by such amazing people was, I think, even more impactful for me.

(43:25 - 44:18) Rachel Murray: That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. It sounds like it was an incredible experience. And just for folks who are listening, we're going to be talking with a few of the other folks that participated in the excursion as well, because we were asked about who we want to speak with, and we were given a list of women, and I was reading all of your biographies, and I was like, we can't choose just one. I mean, you're all… Absolutely incredible humans. So it must have been really powerful to be in community with so many women who are doing this work and who care about it. It sounds so different from maybe some of the other experiences you were referring to earlier. This is sort of a separate question. I'm just curious, did you find that collaboration to feel a little bit, was there any significant difference in having it be sort of all women versus more of mixed gender or where women are the minority?

(44:18 - 45:24) Michaela Musilova: It was definitely very different to be in an environment filled with empathy, compassion, people actually listening to each other and not having to scream over one another to be heard. Not much power play or any of those things, which unfortunately were very prominent in more male-dominated environments I was in before. And actually, Just a nice, I would say, a side note related to this. I attempted to go to Antarctica. Now I'm trying to remember. I already lose track. This was my 13th, 12th or 13th attempt, I think, to go to Antarctica. And essentially, all my previous attempts were stopped by male leaders that I had in the past, whether they were professors, my supervisors, colleagues, and so on, who either took my spot in an Antarctic expedition, one person twice, or just stopped me from going, and for not the best reasons. And so, you know, kind of symbolic that finally, when I was able to go, it was with a group of female and non-binary leaders.

(45:24 - 46:19) Felicia Jadczak: Well, I'm so glad that you were able to have this chance. Again, we typically like to ask guests about challenges that they've encountered. And we're like, we already covered a lot of that with you. And I have a feeling that we've only barely even scratched the surface. So I do want to sort of zoom out a little bit and maybe talk a bit more sort of on this thread about representation overall, because we know that representation of women is still relatively low in STEM fields. I think they make up 34% of the STEM workforce right now. in a lot of the trainings that we do. We have a lot of research and data that we can pull out about who gets put in certain jobs, who gets treated certain ways, et cetera, et cetera. But can you talk a little bit more about why people should care more about equal representation or better representation in STEM fields in particular?

(46:20 - 48:18) Michaela Musilova: Well, in general, just because it's more fair, but yeah, I'd say like, please, let's be real. I agree. But I'd say, you know, from, I would say, more practical perspective, if you will, women And non-binary people have amazing ideas. And just the fact that you're not including so much brain power in these subjects, you're missing out. And especially in STEM subjects where it's important to make discoveries and advance our technologies and so on and so forth, you're missing out on a giant pool of talent that could be contributing. So that's one massive reason. And the other is the leadership we were talking about. Women in general do have different leadership styles still than men. It is luckily changing for the better, slowly, slowly, and I'm not saying there aren't great male leaders out there or anything. But from personal experience and that of many, many colleagues, mentees, students, and so on, for the most part, a lot of male environments or male-dominated environments have been rather toxic in terms of leadership, just the work environment and all that. So mixing it up and having leaders with more empathy, compassion, who actually want the workplace to be better and people to be happier and people to succeed, not just a competitive environment. And that highlights many times people who don't necessarily deserve a promotion or something, but they just are better at, I don't know, presenting themselves or pushing themselves forward. So I think even from that aspect, having more women in these subjects could really change the workplace in a massive manner. contribute to all of us. So it's not just within STEM, because all the research, the technology advancements and all that in these subjects has an impact on society as a whole, all the time.

(48:18 - 48:33) Rachel Murray: Well said. So just a couple more questions that we have for you, which let's love to hear for folks that are interested in breaking into the fields that you are in, what advice would you give for them?

(48:33 - 50:56) Michaela Musilova: I'd say Just go for it. If you have, you know, a passion, curiosity for something, you know, it doesn't matter what your background is, where you're from. Science is for everybody or technology or so on. But of course, you know, everyone has different circumstances and all that may be trickier. So it depends on exactly, you know, what field people would want to get into. But these days, you can get into a lot of more technical subjects or engineering through actually a lot of experiences rather than education. So early on, having internships in different companies or, you know, even these days, there's a lot of educational competitions and projects around in schools. And so the more you involve yourself in these, I would say, extracurricular activities or, you know, things just outside of school, where you get to hands-on try things and add that to your CV as well. That really helps when then later applying, whether for scholarships at schools or jobs, because they like to see that kind of hands-on experience. So there's, yeah, there's definitely different ways of doing that these days. And what most people just want to see is this passion that you're really a curious scientist or handy engineer or so on, if you want to get into these subjects. But I would say maybe later down the line, yeah, having these extra experiences always a bonus. So for example, when even when I myself am on some kind of board evaluating projects or scholarships and things like that. Nowadays, you can get a lot of students that have great grades or something, but we like to look beyond that because we don't want just people who are maybe good at memorizing things or whatever, but maybe they don't really know how to think outside the box, or maybe they're not a good team player. So we look at all those other things that make a person be a bit more well-rounded. So more, yeah, experiences like that are also, I would say, good for you as a person to have knowledge beyond school or work. Working with other people from around the world is really helpful. That helps you work on both your leadership and followership skills. And yeah, all those things are really a great way to get your foot in the door into something that you're passionate about.

(50:56 - 51:23) Felicia Jadczak: That's wonderful. I'm sure people who are listening will, you know, definitely be taking notes. As we kind of close out and start to wrap up a little bit, I do want to sort of wrap up our more serious questions with a last one, which is what are your future goals and plans? Now, I feel like you've answered that a little bit already, but giving you the space, no pun intended, to more fully answer if there's something beyond what you've already said.

(51:24 - 54:21) Michaela Musilova: And actually, I'll connect that with my previous answer because one thing I forgot to mention, though, hopefully it kind of transpired from my story is a lot of things in my life, I decided to do it my way or create my own path or something. Because when I was in academia, I was really disenchanted by the misogynist environment. I myself encountered some harassment, but there was also things where people were falsifying their data just to get publications. And there was all sorts of negative stuff. Then I tried the industry and it wasn't much better in these ways. And then, you know, I tried stuff in the public sector and I experienced issues. And so that's ultimately what led me to just do my own project my way, which is what I'm doing now. But in the past, also, you know, when astrobiology wasn't a subject, I just kind of created a path towards it. And so what I want to say is that, you know, maybe you're passionate about a subject that doesn't exist yet, it doesn't matter, go for it, you know, create your own path towards it, or You know, it might be something that is in academia, but you don't want to, you know, study or whatever. There is a way you can get to that in, you know, some other path. You just have to create it yourself. So that's one message I would like for people to take home. It is possible to do things your way. It's more challenging, but it's actually so much more rewarding in the end. And that's basically why I'm now, my main focus is my Astro Seven Summits project. And that will take me, I'll be working on that project for at least another couple of years or so. And it's just, yeah, it's wonderful to be able to combine all my different passions, the research, the outreach, educational work. I also published my autobiography a couple of years ago in Slovakia called A Woman from Mars. And Working on getting that translated into English so I can share that with people beyond Slovakia. So that's another project I have on the side. And all the documentaries I'm filming as part of the Astra 7 Summits project, those will be released slowly. The first one came out last year and I'm still figuring out how to send it to festivals and all that, especially internationally, because it's in English. So yeah, I have a lot of these different things going on and it's all, they're all projects that I really enjoy doing and will keep me busy. And then in my life, there's always surprises. Something new is going to come up. Knowing me, some other expeditions somewhere last year, I was part of a simulated space mission with a pair of astronauts that we had someone with a physical disability on the crew, which is a new thing. And we're hoping to make space be more accessible also to people with different types of disabilities. So that was a very important project for me that also just kind of sprung upon me in the middle of all my other activities. So who knows? And I'm actually really excited about that. Not really knowing what's ahead of me in many ways.

(54:22 - 54:34) Rachel Murray: Oh my goodness. So you are not bored. I think that's very clear. But one thing that you mentioned before was that one of your goals is to go to space. Do you think that that will… I'm not even asking. I know that it will happen for you.

(54:34 - 55:49) Michaela Musilova: Thank you. I'm just putting it out there. I really hope so. But I must say it's still a challenge. So one of the main reasons I haven't even been able to apply anywhere for now is because as a Slovakian, there are basically no opportunities for me. And even though through the efforts of my organization and myself and many other colleagues in Slovakia, we were able to eventually convince the government to sign a cooperation agreement with the European Space Agency. And two years ago, we finally became an associate member of ESA. That's the nickname for the European Space Agency. So now we actually officially have a chance at applying for the next astronaut selection process. However, They just finished one right before we became this associate member. So we just missed out. And the next one won't probably be for another 10 years. And even then, the way astronauts are selected for ESA is extremely political and mostly based on financing. So unless my country will contribute with like tens of millions of euros to ESA in some near future, we still basically stand no chance. So sadly, that's still not an option for me.

(55:49 - 55:53) Rachel Murray: Does that mean that we have to like Elon Musk then? Because maybe he'll get you in his face?

(55:57 - 56:02) Felicia Jadczak: I would rather go a different way. Do we need to start a GoFundMe?

(56:02 - 56:59) Michaela Musilova: I would be surprised if people would be so kind to contribute to quite such a GoFundMe initiative, but who knows? Because yeah, I'm currently, I have my own crowdfunding for the Astro 7 summits and then that's a bit of a struggle. But yeah, I mean, there's the option of potentially getting US citizenship, which is work in progress, I'd put it that way, then I could apply to NASA. So still kind of keeping that on the back burner as a possibility. And yes, as you pointed out, the commercial route currently seems to be really the only option. But at the moment, it is mostly for people who can afford it. So unless there's another competition or they need an astrobiologist for something, sadly, that's also not in the near future. But who knows? I'm going to keep trying my best. And I hope that if it doesn't work out for me, I'll at least open doors for some other Slovakians down the line and other people from countries where they also have limited possibilities to be able to go to space.

(56:59 - 57:11) Rachel Murray: Well, we're going to put the energy out there for you. We are so almost out of time. So should we just like ask one question? Do you want to choose one of our cues?

(57:11 - 57:38) Felicia Jadczak: Well, I feel like we should end with our favorite question. And I feel like this whole podcast has been an answer to it. But I am going to ask it anyway, just because I want to get a it's like a challenge. So our favorite question, if you haven't guessed already, Michaela, is what do you geek out about? Because that's in our name. She geeks out. And I feel like I need you to answer this without mentioning space, astrobiology, aliens.

(57:39 - 58:21) Michaela Musilova: Writing, writing, anything that you can talk about. Luckily, I was thinking about this earlier, like, yeah, what do I geek out about? And actually something that is not directly any of the things you mentioned is rocks. I love geology. And I will just like go for a hike or during my expeditions, look at that rainbow. of those minerals and there I am, you know, explaining the whole geology of how that mountain formed to my team. And everyone's like, where did this come from? And why is she looking at rocks so much? Yeah, I love rocks, especially if they're sparkly, colorful. There's like, you can tell so much history from very little information, just looking at a rock or even looking at, you know, a lot of geologists like to do that. So that's what I geek out a lot about.

(58:21 - 58:32) Rachel Murray: That's a fantastic answer, honestly. And then the final final is where can people find your GoFundMe, your crowdfunding, and you and all of the things?

(58:33 - 59:10) Michaela Musilova: Oh, thank you so much for asking. So you can find me under astro underscore Michaela on Instagram, now X, right? Threads and you know, all those. Facebook, I'm under Dr. Michaela Musulova. And my GoFundMe is actually under Australian, similar kind of platform called Chuffed. I'm not sure if it's or .org and then slash Astro Seven Summits. I have that on all my social media as well, so it's easy to find that link. If anyone is interested in helping out, I would really appreciate it.

(59:10 - 59:18) Rachel Murray: Yes, I love it. Thank you so much. We'll make sure to include all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much for spending time with us.

(59:19 - 59:28) Michaela Musilova: Of course, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for hearing my long story and all that. I hope it's useful to the listeners. It was wonderful.

(59:32 - 59:38) Felicia Jadczak: So much goodness. We hope you enjoyed listening to this interview as much as we enjoyed the conversation.

(59:38 - 59:54) Rachel Murray: Thank you so much for listening. And please don't forget to rate, share and subscribe. It makes a massive difference in the reach of this podcast and by extension this work. Visit us on YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, and of course, SGLearning and for all things SGO.

(59:55 - 01:00:04) Felicia Jadczak: And are you still itching for more? Sign up for our mailing list again and don't forget to grab that free code for one of our many courses. See you next time. Bye.