Now, as a researcher on NASA’s New Horizons mission—which you may know as the first reconnaissance mission to the dwarf planet Pluto and the Kuiper Belt—Dr. Zangari is part of a team exploring new frontiers in outer space.
But before she worked on spacecraft voyaging to the edges of the solar system, Dr. Zangari was a Girl Scout. Read on to hear her advice for budding scientists, why you should always be nice to your local Girl Scout cookie entrepreneur, and the best ways to search for stars in the night sky.
What kind of impact did Girl Scouts have on you?
Girl Scouts was something I did from kindergarten until 12th grade, and some in college. It was a great way to get together with girls of different ages/grades outside of school and sports activities. From Juniors through Cadettes I had a great leader, Cheryl Bourdony, who always had us do things for ourselves.
Did you sell cookies? If so what did you learn from the experience?
I sold cookies every year, from Brownie to Senior. When I was in eighth grade, there was no one who wanted to be "cookie mom" for our troop, so I was "cookie kid.” (My mom helped a bit). I got to go to training with the other moms, helped pass out the cookies to fill orders, and collected the whole troop's money. I learned that sometimes adults don't meet their deadlines, which was a surprise at the time.
As an adult/Girl Scout alumna who buys cookies at booth sales, I much prefer to interact with the actual girls, rather than with adults who take the money, make the change, and pass out the cookies. Brownies can do all of that—don't do it for them!
Any camp memories you would like to share?
I think I most enjoyed that we sang all the time. We did a lot of singing around the fire and while walking around when I went camping with my troop, but at summer camp, we also sang after meals, at flag ceremonies, and at large group evening get-togethers with the whole camp. I've gone camping with friends since Girl Scouts, but being one of a couple hundred girls all singing the same song (“Camp, Camp Hoffman!”) was an experience I never really had any other time. Outside of religious groups and saluting the flag, people don't really sing in large groups. There's something immensely beautiful and humanly satisfying about it.
What advice would you give Girl Scouts who want to pursue a career in STEM fields?
In college, it's not just your grades that will launch a STEM career, but relevant research experience (and for engineering/tech careers, internship experience). Your school and professors should be able to point you toward the right summer and school-year jobs, either through your school or a separate program. (The NSF REU program is great for the sciences!) Many of your professors are also hiring people to help them out, and experience working with them is key to [advancing] in the sciences. It will make up for less-than-stellar grades or GRE scores. So ask!
If you’re a high-schooler looking at colleges, ask about the research/internship opportunities available to students in areas you are interested in, and pick a school that has good ones. If you can find a program that lets high-schoolers work with college professors on projects, DO IT.
If you’re a middle- or high-schooler who isn’t yet looking at colleges, I’d advise you to take the hardest classes you can in math and science. If there's a math team or Science Olympiad, etc., join and just have fun. (Don't do it to pad your résumé!) Computer programming is also worth taking. I use in my job what I learned there more than [what I learned in] any other class. Science Fair, if your school still [holds one], is also great, and one of the few opportunities you get to imitate a scientist in school.
For younger students, I'd just say continue to do well in school. When you’re young, teachers don't like it when you go ahead in the lessons, but being able to teach yourself is one of the most valuable skills you can have. When you’re excited about something, you should never stop learning about it.
And this applies to everyone: Both working in science and doing work in science classes can be a tough and lonely path sometimes. The way you handle being stuck on something is really important. Do you give up easily, or do you try again? Do you try something slightly different? On the other hand, it's just as important to know when to take a break and when to stop altogether. A lot of recent research shows grit is a huge predictor of success, and STEM is no exception.
What was your Gold Award project? What inspired you to work on that project? What did you learn from the experience?
I relabeled the local library's video tape collection so the videos were sorted in alphabetical order. For some reason, our library put numbered stickers on the videos, and the numbers just got higher and higher (up to 7,000). It meant people could see what was new, but not find any specific title. It seems like a simple project, but it actually took over a hundred hours of work!
With my project, I learned how to work on something that wasn’t solved in day or even a week. [Years later], as part of my work on Pluto, I catalogued every research article I could get my hands on since Charon’s discovery and noted the longitude and latitude conventions it used. It took months. I think the same kind of patience I learned through working toward my Gold Award applied there, too!
Girl Scouts love stargazing when they camp. Any insider tips you would like to share?
There are some awesome apps that tell you what star you’re looking at [by just holding up] your phone. These are great in the city when you’re not sure if that bright thing in the sky is Saturn or Sirius—but when you’re away from civilization, keep your phone off! The light from the screen will ruin your “dark adaption” and make it harder to see stars. You can get a flashlight that only uses light which will hurt your eyes the least, but if you can't [get one of those], cover a normal flashlight with red plastic wrap or other red plastics.
Anything else you would like to share?
When I was in high school or maybe middle school, I came across a button attached to either my sister's or my own Brownie uniform. It said "The Girl Scouts: As Great As You Want To Make It!" I realized how true it was. It's not a program where you sit back while awesome experiences happen to you—it's an excuse and an opportunity to [make that “awesome” happen] yourself.