Peace, Justice, Politics, and Space: Fellowship Lets Two Wellesley Students Connect Diverse Interests

Photos of Grace Wilson Jackson and Marie Villarreal
Author  Shannon O'Brien
Published on 

Most of this year’s cohort of Brooke Owens fellows, undergraduate women and gender minorities interested in all areas of space and aviation, are majoring in fields one might expect: aerospace, mechanical, and electrical engineering, space science, astrophysics, and more. But the group also includes students majoring in peace and justice studies, astronomy, international relations, and political science—Wellesley’s Grace Wilson Jackson ’22 and Marie Villarreal ’23

The fellowship is named after space industry pioneer and pilot D. Brooke Owens, who died of cancer at age 35, and Wilson Jackson and Villarreal were among the 51 students selected for the class of 2022 from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants.

Before coming to Wellesley, Wilson Jackson had liked science, but her interest in STEM fields had been tarnished by her high school experience. In her senior year, she was the only female in her physics class, and she says she found her male classmates to be hypercompetitive, approaching the class like a zero-sum game. At Wellesley, her professors have reignited her interest. The classroom style of Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Physics Katie Hall, she says, has been particularly helpful. “Professor Hall was like, ‘You have a responsibility to help when asked, and you have a right to ask for support when you need it,’” Wilson Jackson says. “So much of my physics experience has been, like, this is really hard, but we can do hard things together and with collective support. That has been sort of the embodiment of my Wellesley STEM experience. And I love that.”

Wilson Jackson describes herself as the poster child for a liberal arts education. She was considering a math major until she took an astronomy course to fulfill a distribution requirement. “Almost immediately I was like, ‘Oh, this is where I want to be,’” she says, so she decided to major in astronomy. Then a friend majoring in peace and justice studies inspired Wilson Jackson to take a course through that program, cross-listed with engineering, about the intersections between technology, social justice, and conflict, “and once again, I absolutely fell in love,” she says. The class showed her how policy affects science, and when she learned she could design a peace and justice studies major with a specific concentration, she chose to concentrate in technology and justice.

Villarreal got interested in space at a young age. Her father is a pilot, so she grew up around airplanes, and they regularly watched the space shuttle launches together. She came to Wellesley knowing she would major in political science, and added international relations as a second major, but she took Astronomy 101 and 107 with Profesor Kim McLeod for her distribution classes and loved them. “Those are probably some of my favorite classes I’ve taken at Wellesley,” she says. The fellowship program offered a chance for her to find a connection between those two fields.

Now, Villarreal’s interests have broadened to include space law. After she took a course at MIT called US Military Power and wrote a research paper on space security issues, she decided to apply for the fellowship, which she had learned about on Twitter from members of the space policy community. She was happy to be matched with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose work she had been following for a very long time.

During the application process, Villarreal worked with Nicole Park in Career Education, where she has sought assistance throughout her time at Wellesley. “It’s just always great to have those experts to bounce your ideas off of,” she says. “I can’t say enough good things about Nicole and the Career Ed office.”

Wilson Jackson wrote her essay for the fellowship application on how to bridge the engineering and policy sides of aerospace technology, with a focus on the stakeholders involved. With her double major in peace and justice studies and astronomy, she says, she’ll “have this unique ability to understand the language of engineers and people in industry, while also understanding the language of policymakers.” She hopes to help people in both areas work together to achieve common goals.

Villarreal says there will always be a need for people with a liberal arts background who can communicate with policymakers, business leaders, and lawmakers to help turn great STEM ideas into action. “Our great liberal arts education really gives Wellesley students the skills to work in intersecting areas,” she says. “I know I can write a research paper. I can speak to policymakers. I know how national and international political systems work. And then I also have a little bit of experience in astronomy, so I can kind of speak to both worlds. I think that those are traits that a lot of Wellesley students share.”