I was 15 minutes early for my first meeting with Kristen Griffin. I started to copy the interview questions in my phone onto the slightly yellowed pages of one of my Dad’s abandoned notebooks. I became more and more anxious as I sat, realizing that I was about interview someone so important they deserve the hefty title of Director of Global Strategy and Mission Solutions for the Autonomous Systems Division. For the past few months my parents have been singing her praises. Through them I learned she is brilliant and well-traveled. She went to a small liberal arts college before going to Berkeley for a doctorate in astrophysics. She traveled to amazing places to observe the universe at their observatories. She’s a member of the Women in Leadership program at Northrop Grumman. All of this to say, Kristen Griffin is a very impressive woman, and I was very nervous.
I took a sip of my tea as I waited at Starbucks. The tangy flavor caught me off-guard, taking my mind off of my nervousness. I looked back at the menu and realized I’d ordered a pineapple black tea. Either way, I was glad to have it as a distraction. I looked down at my notes and tried to psych myself up to be confident and give a good impression. I did a fairly good job of it, but my heart still sped up a little each time the door opened. A couple women came through and I wasn’t sure whether or not they were The Kristen Griffin, so I let it be after I smiled too much at the wrong lady. One woman came in and started looking around. I made eye contact with her and smiled briefly, figuring that my name was on my shirt so it would work out eventually, but she walked past. I turned back to my notes, and after the lady made a few more rounds, she stopped at my table and introduced herself, laughing because she’d passed me, having only seen pictures of me before my haircut. I laughed along with her, and my wobbly courage became more sturdy. We sat at our table, and here is an excerpt from our wonderful conversation:
What is your background in STEM, and how did you come to work at Northrop Grumman?
That’s a good one. It’s a long one. I’ve always been interested in STEM. I think similar to you, math and science were very appealing to me in high school. In high school I did the astronomy club and a few other club activities, but not anything crazy. I wasn’t studying at a math school in some foreign country, just standard club activities. The way that I landed on astrophysics, which is what my degrees were in, is that I was taking the PSAT, and I was reading through all of the disciplines. You have to say which ones you’re interested in, and I was like, no, no, no… astrophysics! That sounds interesting! The more that I looked into it, the more I thought, this is really interesting. What I liked about it was that as a discipline, it requires such a breadth of knowledge and also an ability to connect. Astrophysics, to do the discipline right, is math, with things like computational fluid dynamics. It’s physics. It’s atmospheric science and atmospheric physics. It’s chemistry, in really weird regimes. It’s even a little bit of biology. It was about connecting, which really appealed to me, as well as solving the biggest problems. When I looked at physics and chemistry, which were the two that I had direct instruction in in high school, it felt like the big problems had already been solved. I looked at astrophysics, and there’s so much that we just don’t understand. I mean, we literally have no theoretical explanation for 75% of the content of the universe. So that was kind of what drew me to that. I did that all through college, and at the end of college, I felt two things: One, I felt like I wasn’t done yet with learning, and I also felt a little bit burned out from the college experience after my undergrad. So I did a year at a research institute working as a research assistant, just doing the professional work and not doing the course work. After that, I went back and did my PhD. As I was nearing the end of my PhD, around two years out, I was looking at my job prospects, and there’s – I’ve shared with your dad as he’s been telling me about your path – that there’s some good and some bad to an academic career path. Being immersed in a graduate department for 6 years, I looked at what my career trajectory was going to be, particularly compared to my ultimate goal, which was to be really impacting the big decisions that move the needle in the field, and that was a 25 year path after my PhD with about a 10% chance of success. Then I started to learn about some of the opportunities in industry in creating new scientific missions, was doing it immediately! They were saying, what about this mission? Why would I not do that? There were some benefits also, just in terms of the stability and the professionalism of a corporate workplace that really appealed to me. With having to come in a suit and dress up and present yourself, it really makes people bring a little bit more of a professional attitude to the office, but very different from the informal, academic department. This construct appeals very much to me. A lot of people in academia really like the freedom. You can work whatever hours you want, you can work wherever you want, and the fact that it’s informal and you don’t have to dress up in a suit and all those kinds of things. Not to say there aren’t great benefits, but for me, this was the right fit. So that’s how I ended up at Northrop Grumman.
Can you tell me about your travels when you were earning your PhD?
Travel is one of the perks. I spent 500 days traveling out of my 6 years in grad school. Piece of mentorship advice: pick an airline today, and stick with it. Forever. By the time you’re my age, you’ll be platinum. I didn’t do that; I’m only silver. There’s a lot of travel, a huge amount of opportunity. In the academic fields, conferences are always in fun locations. Any kind of science that requires fieldwork is always in an exciting location. Astrophysics, you’re going and observing on top of mountains, in Hawaii, in Chile, in the Canary Islands. You have worldwide collaborations, so you visit your collaborators, and there’s lots of funds for spending 3 months in a foreign country and collaborating with someone there. From that perspective, it’s really exciting. I really miss that in my current job, which is mostly domestic travel. The flip side of that, I will say, is that you get all this free travel time, and you get a lot of leeway with your time to spend an extra week of vacation and that kind of thing. However, in academia there’s an expectation of always being accessible, always reading your email, always working, I’m sure it varies culture by culture in different companies- but in a more professional setting, there’s an understanding of – I don’t want to say the sanctity of PTO [paid time off], because that’s a little extreme, but of the importance of real PTO versus, “I went observing in Australia, and then I took a week off but I was checking email and reviewing a paper.” There’s also a real recognition of when someone’s offline, they’re offline. One thing that I thought was very interesting in academia was that there was a study around my third year in grad school, so they looked for the highest stress jobs. They found that within academia, professors, something like 50% of professors were at the level of extreme stress, and like 10% of CEO’s from major corporations were. One of my undergraduate professors when I was asking her about grad school, said, “It’s a really neat way to spend your twenties.” You know, in some senses it really is. I saw the world. I have a travel bug, and it really fulfilled that for me and kind of enabled me to settle down a little bit.
Are there any unique challenges for women in STEM?
So the answer is yes, of course there are unique challenges. I mean, any kind of quality study you read, (and that is a kind of academic profession; people study that.) it will show statistically that the pay is less. There’s underrepresentation. You’ve heard of the resume study? So there’s two identical resumes, one is named Jane So-and-So, one is named Jon So-and-So. Guess which one gets ranked better? All of that exists. I think there’s absolutely challenges. There’s absolutely inequalities. The challenges, again depending on environment, vary in form. There’s even conscious efforts to improve female representation. The best way, I think, to get through it, to work around it is a couple things I’ve adopted in my life. One thing is just always coming with the A-game and keeping a little bit of imperviousness to any kind of comments. The other thing that I’ve adopted, and probably people that I work with and people who work with me would say I’ve maybe gone too far, is I don’t bring personal life to work at all. I almost never mention my daughter at work, just because I want to be so careful to not pigeon-hole myself into a mental bucket. I tend to talk almost not at all about my personal life at work. Everyone kind of deals with it differently. I also tend to dress pretty gender-neutral at work. That varies office by office, culture by culture, person by person. Everyone has their own strategy that they develop as they navigate through it and navigate through it very successfully.
You kind of mentioned it, but on the flip side, are there any unique advantages to being a woman in STEM?
Oh, I think absolutely. I did mention that because of the way people are becoming more in tune with the needs for diversity in leadership teams, that’s only going to bring women up faster. We heard a speaker at a corporate event in January, a fascinating study about diversity. He basically studied decision making and found that the more diverse the team making the decision, the better the decision. I forget which metric he used to measure the quality of the decision. It was a long time ago, but it was very compelling at the time.
Before you took the PSAT and decided you wanted to become an astrophysicist, was there anything else that you were considering? Like, when you were a kid did you ever say “I want to be a firefighter!” or any of those sort of things?
I didn’t ever have that moment as a kid of like, “I want to be an X.” I’ve always had a science and math bent, as it sounds like you have as well. I had a handful of things that I’ve always been interested in. Neuroscience has always been one of them. If I was not an astrophysicist, I would have been a neuroscientist. And linguistics, the science of language, has always been something that would have been interesting to study once upon a time. As an adult, as a parent, I’ve totally geeked out on the science of child development, which is fascinating. I didn’t appreciate at the time how cool and interesting that is. It’s always been something in science. I’ve changed what science that’s been, and still continue to change it over the course of my career, which I think is one of the benefits of working in some STEM industries is that there’s a lot of opportunities to do some really different, interesting things with STEM.
What is a scientific advancement you hope to see in your lifetime? Is there anything really cool that you’re waiting for? OR, as an astrophysicist, what are your thoughts on extraterrestrial life forms?
Ha, I’ll take the second one first, then I’ll take the first one. They exist. Statistically they exist. Basically, when you look at the statistics of the universe, there’s no such thing as one. It’s either zero, or it’s infinity because the universe has hundreds of billions of galaxies. Every galaxy on average has 300 billion stars. You do math, that’s a lot of stars. Every star statistically has a handful of planets. They keep revising exactly how many they have. It’s out there. One of those planets somewhere. When you think about the statistics of how quickly life evolved on Earth, basically the instant the surface of the Earth stopped boiling with all the volcanoes and stopped being hit by meteors, life came. It wasn’t sophisticated life, but it came immediately. It’s out there. The challenge is the distance. Life is definitely out there. It’s probably pervasive, whether it evolves into intelligent communicative life… There could be a whole planet full of cows and no one would ever know. Seriously! The challenge is even if there were intelligent life, things are really far. Light take a really long time to get even to our nearest star. It takes 3 light years. That’s just the nearest star. Galaxies are hundreds of thousands of light years across and millions of light years away from each other. That’s just the closest one. You could send something out today, and it would never come back, just in terms of the time-scales of the universe’s existence. So there you go. It exists. It’s an unsatisfying answer.
In terms of scientific developments in my lifetime, I’m going to give you a small one first and then a big one. The small one is the last paper that I first-authored- I believe it was the last paper. It was a prediction of the nature of a specific type of cluster in a specific type of galaxy that basically we don’t have the resolution to see today. My deepest wish is for somebody to read that paper, at the appropriate time – People have read it, but to read it at the appropriate time – and when those telescopes – which are being built – are able to make those measurements to confirm my prediction and cite me for it. That’s my real wish for discovery, but also I think more broadly, I’m deeply environmental. I would like to see the world move to a much more energy-efficient place. I would love to see an independence from oil and gas and a leaning towards energies that use solar and wind and water as a baseline.
What advice would you give girls about entering STEM related careers?
Let’s see. DO. There’s so much opportunity, and there always will be. I think if it’s something that you’re interested in and passionate in, you should absolutely do it. I love learning, and when I meet new people who love learning in that way, you gotta pursue that. If you don’t love learning, if you don’t love STEM – because some people don’t want to devote their lives to academic study or something like that – then, I would say, if you don’t have the passion for it, don’t do it. There’s lots of interesting ways to do applied STEM that doesn’t require the commitment of soul, I’m gonna say, for grad school. I would say do, do it with a lot of mentors on your side. Don’t be afraid of keeping a mentor rolodex and reaching out to people. The other thing I would say is develop a sense of personal ability and personal worth. Develop a set of resilience around that. . . . There’s an element, particularly as you get to leadership-type positions, of needing to know your value proposition, which is the worth that you bring to an organization and to a problem, being able to articulate it in a sentence or two, and then just demonstrating it. I guess that’s my advice. I hope that’s good advice.
Why do you love… I’m going to say astrophysics, but you could answer it any way you like, for just STEM in general or working at Northrop Grumman…
Why do I love… life in general? Let’s see. This is what I say in every interview that I have for a position because it’s the truth and it also happens to be a good answer. I am really drawn to solving big complex problems, taking something that’s really challenging to figure your way through, has a lot of different dimensions. Be it, as in astrophysics, different sciences. In business, it’s different business dimensions. There’s an HR element. There’s a technical element. There’s a contractual element. There’s a strategy element… I love those kinds of things that make a lot of people uncomfortable, working it out and making a plan to get through it. I just love operating in that space. I’m sure that kind of problem exists in many fields, but I think in STEM it’s ubiquitous. There’s endless problems for me to tackle. Every one is different. I like figuring my way through that. That’s what I loved about astrophysics, and still do. That’s what I love about my current role in business development, which has very complicated customer, technical, business case challenges. I love it about STEM as a whole. I think anywhere I was in STEM, I’d have this experience.