Date May 25, 2024
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NASA astronaut Jessica Meir: ‘It’s always worth making the leap that scares you’

With advice from the astronaut and Brown alumna, the Class of 2024 celebrated the Baccalaureate with a lively service marked by wisdom, hope and gratitude.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — People often ask NASA astronaut Jessica Meir if she was ever scared, perched on a giant stick of dynamite preparing for a shuttle launch to the International Space Station, or during her spacewalks, with only a thin, plastic visor separating her from the vast blackness of the vacuum of space.

But she had been dreaming about those moments since she was five years old, and as an adult, spent years studying and training for such missions. A Baccalaureate address? Not so much.

“I wasn’t scared in space — at least compared to the terror of standing here before you today,” Meir said at the podium in the First Baptist Church in America, where she delivered the Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2024 on Saturday, May 25, the second day of Brown’s 256th Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

The colorful, multi-faith service celebrates Brown’s bachelor’s degree recipients and honors the many spiritual and cultural traditions of the University community one day before their degrees are conferred at Commencement. Meir is no stranger to the tradition: She sat in the pews of this very church 25 years ago as a member of Brown’s Class of 1999.

“Ultimately, her desire to achieve her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut and to live a life of usefulness and reputation have guided her ever since she left College Hill,” said Brown President Christina H. Paxson, introducing Meir. “She’s an inspiration. That sounds exactly like a Brown student to me, and it’s gratifying to know that Brown played a role in Jessica’s personal success and her journey in an outstanding, amazing career.”

In a poignant, reflective speech titled “Taking Flight,” Meir connected the hyper-specific to the universal, drawing parallels between her time at Brown and the experience of gazing down at it from 250 miles above as she orbited Earth in the International Space Station.

Cosmic fate and the value of mentorship

Meir, who earned a bachelor of science in biology from Brown, said that the last 25 years are a testament to the quality of collaboration and mentorship she received as an undergraduate.

Students dance during a cappella performance
Baccalaureate Tradition at Brown

The Baccalaureate ceremony tradition during each Commencement and Reunion Weekend honors the degree candidates’ achievements and expresses thanks through prayers, texts, dances and songs that represent the many spiritual traditions within the University community.

 Following a procession from the College Green to the First Baptist Church in America, this year’s ceremony included prayers of worship and thanks from Indigenous, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Contemplative traditions, as well as gospel music, a capella singing, Taiko and Malian drumming, and a Chinese lion dance. The texts were recited, chanted and sung by students in the Class of 2024 who were active in religious life on campus during their four years at the University, as well as faculty and staff members.

“It makes me so happy to report that even two and a half decades later, the relationships I formed on this campus remain among the most important in my life,” she said.

Some of her first classes were with Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences Jim Head, who was one of the scientists who taught Apollo astronauts which lunar rock samples to collect during the first mission to the Moon. Of the 12 astronauts who have put their footsteps on the Moon, Head has trained many of them.

Meir’s life and career have also been a nonstop sequence of full-circle moments, she said.

Her senior year honors thesis was conducted in Professor Emeritus Herman Vandenburgh’s lab in Miriam Hospital, which produced bioartificial muscles flown on a space shuttle. Before that, she was the mentee of Peter Lee, a Brown M.D./Ph.D. student at the time (now a Brown research faculty member) who worked with Vandenburgh and encouraged Meir to attend the International Space University.

Meir said Lee was pivotal in shaping the foundation of her career as a life scientist, and 22 years later, she found herself on the International Space Station conducting one of Lee’s experiments on engineered heart tissue — a technology that was influenced by their shared history together Vandenburgh’s lab.

“This is a profound example of how much more meaningful everything in life is when it has a personal connection,” Meir said. “An experience is worth so much more when it is a shared one.”

Even at her own Commencement ceremony in 1999, John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, received an honorary degree, and Head arranged an opportunity for Glenn and Meir to chat.

“I remember feeling like there was some sort of cosmic fate for me to be amongst such space royalty,” she said. “The stars were aligning: I was mingling with astronauts, graduating with my family there, parents proudly holding up a computer-printed banner that read ‘Congrats Space Girl!’”

From Brown to infinity and beyond

Despite her continued success as she established her career as a scientist, Meir said she couldn’t stop diminishing her own accomplishments, attributing them to sheer luck or the simple ability to execute the task at hand.

“I felt that I would be exposed as someone who didn’t have what it takes to be a scientist,” she said. “At some point, surely I’d be viewed as a fraud.”

That feeling, known as “impostor syndrome,” almost prevented Meir from pursuing her ultimate dream.

After not being chosen for the 2009 class of NASA astronauts, Meir said she considered not applying again to protect herself from the mental anguish that comes with rejection. But with dogged determination and support from others, Meir learned that the second time was the charm: Since being selected to the 21st NASA astronaut class in 2013, she has spent more than half a year in space while serving as a flight engineer onboard the International Space Station; contributed to experiments in biology, Earth science, human research, physical sciences and technology development; and made history when she conducted the first three all-woman spacewalks.

In 2018, Meir was named one of the first astronauts for Artemis, NASA’s exploration program that will return humans to the Moon.

2024 Baccalaureate Address


Brown Class of 1999 alumna Jessica Meir addressed the Class of 2024 during the Baccalaureate service, held at the First Baptist Church of America.

“It is always worth making the leap that scares you,” she said. “It’s always worth following your passion and committing to all the hard work along the way... The possibilities are truly endless when we allow our authentic selves to shine through and fortify our dreams with determination.”

As Meir told the soon-to-be Brown graduates in the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church, their education has prepared them to go incredible places. The shared Brown experience of the Class of 2024 will keep them connected forever, wherever they go, whether it’s right in Providence, or 238,900 miles away on the surface of the Moon.

Speaking about the view of Earth from space, Meir said it was clear to her that everything on the planet is absolutely and fundamentally connected — an apropos reminder in moments of global unrest.

“From above, we simply appear as one — one human species together here on this one fragile planet that we call home,” she said. “For any challenge that we face here on Earth, we must embrace that we are all in this together.”

That’s especially true for the Class of 2024, who may not have realized until Saturday afternoon, that they, in a way, were keeping Meir company through the duration of her 205 days orbiting Earth.

“These three items from Brown accompanied me on my journey, and now they have made their way back to Brown,” Meir said, gesturing to a Brown pennant, embroidered patch and banner. “This adventure, this exploration, is not mine alone — it is for all of us, and for all of humanity.”