We recently spoke with aerospace engineer Keji Sojobi about her role on Netflix’s “Ada Twist, Scientist” — as well as about diversity in science, technology, engineering and math careers and how to encourage curiosity in kids.
Please tell us about your role with “Ada Twist, Scientist.”
Each episode of “Ada Twist, Scientist” is followed by a quick segment with a real-life scientist who explains a different topic relevant to their field in an easy-to-understand, fun way for kids. I’m an aerospace engineer and am featured at the end of Episode 101: “A Fort of One’s Own.” I explain what I do as an aerospace engineer with the goal of helping kids understand that science is fun and can be found every day all around them, and that anyone can be a scientist
How did this opportunity come about?
I was approached by the segment producers after they got my name from a mutual contact in the aerospace field. Because I always love talking with kids about what I do, I said yes to an initial info and brainstorming meeting. And here we are now!
You live in Long Beach — did you grow up in Southern California? What in your childhood sparked your interest in science?
Much love to the LBC. I did grow up in Southern California, but I was born in Nigeria and moved to L.A. with my parents when I was a toddler. The common joke-but-not-really with Nigerian kids is that you’re expected to become either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer as an adult, so there’s that. Jokes aside, though, my parents are very well-rounded people and fostered the same in me and my siblings from the start; they encouraged any and all interests I showed from a young age, and I have always loved math and science. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since preschool! I think the interest began simply with awe at the world around and beyond me, and science and math were these amazing tools for grasping understanding of (and increasing) the awe.
How did your parents support your interest?
They made sure I had every opportunity to learn, and they made sure I had fun doing it, in a nutshell. They played math games with me starting from before I can remember. When it came to toys, they tended to focus on ones that fostered math and science knowledge. They bought a whole Encyclopedia set that I loved reading. They did a lot to keep me in schools, specific classes and extracurriculars that encouraged my curiosity.
How would you describe your experience as a woman in an industry that is still dominated by men?
In truth, throughout my life, I’ve become so used to being in male-dominated environments that I didn’t feel conscious of it most of the time — for a while. But the times that I was consciously aware of being the only woman in the room were glaring. Working through some of my internal struggles in recent years, I’ve realized that despite my enthusiasm towards science, I do often suffer bouts of imposter syndrome, being not just one of very few women but also usually the only Black person in my immediate environment — both during my studies and now at work. It’s been lonely. I’m working on acknowledging that loneliness while coming back to my enthusiasm, thereby regaining confidence in myself and my chosen profession.
I’m naturally a person who gives others the benefit of the doubt, and most of the time I don’t believe that people in my aerospace experience are deliberately or consciously discriminatory in their hiring processes. However, people tend to surround themselves with those who share a lot of similarities. When it comes to mentoring and lifting others up, people with the power of choice are most often choosing from those pools of similarity. That is why I think it is so important for women and people of color in STEM fields to make deliberate efforts to mentor and encourage others like themselves — others within their own pools of similarity. It’s very important to me that I mentor young girls of diverse backgrounds (especially young Black girls) who show an interest in STEM. I do recognize and am so happy to see the efforts being made by many to diversify the STEM field. It’s why I was eager to participate in “Ada Twist, Scientist.”
What advice do you have for parents to encourage their kids’ interest in science, especially for young girls?
- Tie science and math into everyday situations and observations: Whether it’s counting toys with your kiddo while cleaning up or googling the actual distance together when you tell them “I love you to the moon and back,” little curious conversations can lead to bigger ones. For example, whenever we have a particularly spectacular moonrise, I can’t help pointing it out to whoever is in my vicinity at the time. That then, more often than not, leads to questions and a conversation about why the moon may appear so big, or so yellow or red or whatever, during this moonrise. Science starts with curiosity and awe.
- Start as early as possible: With the above, start early. Humans start out curious, and a child is never too young for nurturing curiosity in this way. We know of the importance of early-childhood reading literacy. I think we should place equal importance on early-childhood math and science literacy, and I don’t think that has to look like much more than you and your child observing the world around you, together, from the moment their senses come online. And don’t be afraid of their follow-up questions once those come along!
Overall, stay curious about your child’s curiosity. Be active and involved whenever possible in whatever way is possible. I like sharing a memory I have of counting and doing simple arithmetic with sugar packets at restaurant dining tables with my parents when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old. Math games with a little one don’t need to be more complicated than that — it’s just about instilling in them early that math doesn’t need to be an intimidating thing. Same goes for science when the focus is on merely observing, asking questions and looking for answers together. Books and TV shows that show science and math as fun — like “Ada Twist, Scientist” — are definitely useful tools here, too.
Was there a special mentor in your life?
One of my favorite teachers ever was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Card (it would be so cool if this got to him. Hi, Mr. Card!). He really cultivated curiosity in students. He saw my enthusiasm and aptitude, and he encouraged me with fun extras beyond my required school work. I was formally introduced to astronomy by him and looked at the stars through a telescope for the first time as part of his class, furthering my interest in space exploration. I remember him as someone who, like my parents, was excited about my curiosity and fully encouraged it.
How would you describe yourself as a child?
Precocious! I had observations about my world and thought they should be taken seriously by all, never mind that I was a child! As I was introduced to new things that sparked my interest, I wanted to take part in all of them — math and science, yes, but also music, dance, art, sports. I was excited about life, I would say.
What would you tell your middle school self now?
I would tell my middle school self that she would eventually come across real challenges in her academics, and it doesn’t mean she’s not as smart as she always thought she was. She might feel looked down on, or like her intelligence was in question in the midst of those challenges. She might feel alone. But I would want her to know that she will never be alone. I would want her to always remember how much she loves what she’s chosen to study, and that love is enough evidence that she belongs in every classroom or work environment where she might be feeling that loneliness. “Ada Twist, Scientist” is such a sweet example of a little girl who just loves science and lives her young life by that love. I want to help show young women who are watching the show that they can be and do anything they want to, and that STEM is truly for everyone who wants to be part of it.
Do you have a personal motto?
Something my mom got from her mom and passed on to me and my siblings: “Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.”
When not working, what do you enjoy doing in and around Long Beach and Southern California?
So many things! I love staying active and outside, so I do plenty of hiking, running, roller skating, surfing, yoga — anything to keep my body moving. I’m an L.A. girl at heart, and I love coming up from Long Beach sometimes to spend time at some of my favorite spots in the city — Griffith Observatory, the Baldwin Hills area, Exposition Park, Hollywood Bowl, the campus of my alma mater UCLA, to name a few. In Long Beach, I’ve been part of the music community and hope to get back to performing at open mics as those are reopening post-lockdown. Then there’s also food. I love food, and there’s a lot of good food to enjoy in the Southland, for sure.
What is your current position and with what company?
I am currently an opto-mechanical design engineer and space vehicle integration engineer for Northrop Grumman.