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St. John's-born scientist Bethany Downer brings space closer to home

Bethany Downer. Photo illustration by Belle DeMont
Bethany Downer. -Photo by Eric Bartlett, photo illustration by Belle DeMont.

MEET BETHANY DOWNER

When Bethany Downer was a child in St. John’s, N.L., the idea of becoming an astronaut was an out-of-this-world, unattainable dream.

“I didn’t have an accessible, local example of someone working in the space sector that I could look up to,” she says.

Now she’s on a mission to change that for the next generation.

Over the past few months, Newfoundland and Labrador’s first scientist-astronaut candidate has been on an outreach tour across the province, engaging with approximately 10,000 students from elementary to university.

“I’ve taken it upon myself to find innovative ways of bringing space closer to home, to the people of Newfoundland,” she says.

In 2018, Downer completed her first flight and simulations in Florida, and she does communications work for several space-related organizations.

She says many people are intimidated by the term “rocket science" and consider much of the industry incomprehensible.

“My goal is to communicate everything space in a way that it can be easily understood, valued and shared by the general public.”

She hopes her journey is something everyone in the province can be excited about.

“I recognize this is an adventure that extends much further than just myself,” she says.


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While she has many rooting for her today, it wasn’t always that way.

Downer said her space aspirations were dismissed by many people, and sometimes still are.

“I want to give voice to the young students who are aspiring to far-reaching — or what some perceive as ‘crazy’ — dreams.”

Downer emphasizes all career goals are attainable, and she credits three factors for the success she’s had in achieving hers so far: “Family, friends, hard work.”

As for those close to her, best friend Tiffany MacDonald says Downer sees the world without boundaries.

“She’s never considered a geographic, gender or age barrier to be a factor in what she wants to do in her life.”

That doesn’t mean Downer’s not aware of some of the barriers that do exist, especially for women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“There have certainly been significant challenges in this industry with sexism. Although this is improving, there’s still work to do.

“At times, it can be difficult to avoid letting these experiences have a lasting impact. Instead, I use them as a sort of motivational fuel to push me towards further meaningful work in space, and to improve the experience of the next generation of girls who will work in this industry.”

Downer said space is a highly technical industry that still struggles with equal representation, so she works to improve that.

As for herself, 2019 is set to be a busy year. She’ll be working on space communications for several clients all over the world, and has speaking engagements globally.

She’s even working on her first published book, intended for international distribution, with her literary agent out of London, England.

She says her biggest challenge this year will be time management.

“I hope to find a way to make the most of my time wherever I am.”

While she’s travelling, she hopes the people in her home province learn from her example that “no dream or aspiration is too out of this world.”

One thing she’s learned in her experience — which she hopes others can learn from — is that there will be challenges, hard work and sleepless nights. There will even be people who fight your success and test your strength.

“But there is no limit to the possibilities that amount from hard work for those who are infinitely motivated.”

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