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FEATURE/Taiwan-born scientist takes a leading role in U.S. space weather

11/02/2023 10:47 AM
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Space scientist Fang Tzu-wei. Photo taken from CO-LABS YouTube
Space scientist Fang Tzu-wei. Photo taken from CO-LABS YouTube

By Chung Yu-chen, CNA staff reporter

When a geomagnetic storm caused 38 SpaceX Starlink satellites to burn up and plunge to Earth in February 2022, Taiwan-born space scientist Fang Tzu-wei (方慈瑋) and her team were there to help.

Not content to simply provide the company with weather prediction and warning data, Fang's team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado made the laboratory's operational neutral density model, which provides information for space traffic coordination and collision avoidance, available to commercial satellite operators.

A slew of space companies have continued to reach out to Fang and her team to explore opportunities for collaboration, which marked the latest in a long string of achievements in space science for Fang since her passion for the field was ignited over 25 years ago at the National Central University's space camp in Taoyuan City.

"From some others' perspective, I might just be lucky -- like the opportunity just fell from the sky. They probably didn't see me, still writing emails at 11 p.m., to answer all the questions and concerns these companies have," Fang told CNA in a recent interview.

Like many Taiwanese students, Fang rushed to cram schools after regular school hours, her parents desperate to see her go to became engineers or take a government job that would ensure "iron rice bowl" -- a Taiwanese term for secure jobs.

However, Fang said that she knew early on that space was her calling.

"[Space science] was incredibly intriguing; there were so many unknowns, a lot of things that we don't know. I felt that this field was fresh for me," she recalled.

Her decision to spurn engineering in favor of a space-related degree did not go down well with her parents, who were uncertain about job opportunity in Taiwan.

"My mom got angry and questioned how I was going to provide for myself studying space science," Fang said, before relenting after a month and allowing her to enroll in the National Central University's space science program in 2000.

Video: CO-LABS

While gaining her Ph.D at the same university, Fang was trained as a research intern at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado from 2006 and 2009.

It was during this time that she decided to pursue a career in the U.S. space science field, drawn by its advanced research environment.

However, securing a job in the U.S., let alone a Federal position at the top space weather organization, became a years-long journey filled with challenges for Fang.

"I had to produce papers, and demonstrate academic achievements to prove I deserved U.S. permanent residency. After a year-long wait, there was an additional five-year wait for citizenship. Only then I was qualified for a Federal position."

"Living in U.S. and like most of the first-generation immigrant, there are plenty flaming hoops to jump through," said Fang, who finally obtained a Federal position in 2021 at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center that she enjoys.

Despite being one of only a few women at the center, Fang said she "never believed that females couldn't compete with males."

However, with the progressive trend in the United States in recent years, advocating diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), she found herself bathed in self-doubt, wondering "am I in the team because I'm a woman? Or is it because of my age?"

The 41-year-old scientist recalled a space science project a few years ago in which the U.S. government enlisted three male and three female members, including herself.

Two of the female members were over 60, making her curious if the leadership wanted to include a "middle-aged female scientist" as part of the government's DE&I efforts.

Fang didn't dwell on such thoughts for long. Instead, she seized the opportunity presented by this trend.

She went beyond to strategize on utilizing her network to support Taiwan, particularly during its current surge in space exploration. She is also participating activities that help guide two Taiwanese students for their Ph.D work in the field.

When questioned about the sacrifices of working around the clock, the mother of two attributed her commitment to a genuine love for space science.

"I told my children the same thing: You have to do the job that you enjoy because when you enjoy it, it's a career choice, not a job anymore," the scientist said.

Enditem/ASG

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