Aaron Persad remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to be an astronaut.
He was seven-years-old and watching the news one day when he learned that astronauts grow two inches in space. “At the time I wanted to be taller than my older sister so that was my earliest motivation,” Persad laughs.
As he got older, Persad’s motivation may have changed but his dream never wavered. “I realized becoming an astronaut would take a lot of hard work. It’s a high-risk job, where anything can go wrong, but the payoff is huge in terms of excitement and the experience,” he says.
Hard work may be an understatement. When Persad applied to the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Astronaut Recruitment Program in 2016, he was one of 3,772 applicants. Everything Persad achieved in his life could count in the selection process, including his volunteer work with Let’s Talk Science.
“I think my volunteer work was helpful in the recruitment process. The CSA recognizes the Let’s Talk Science name and knows what it takes to run an activity for them,” says Persad. “It helped to say I volunteer for an organization that brings science to youth and the general public.”
Persad began volunteering with Let’s Talk Science in 2013, while working on his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering (MIE) at the University of Toronto. In collaboration with Let’s Talk Science, the university was hosting a science fair for high school students and Persad volunteered to run a hands-on activity using robotics. “Students came to our booth and we taught them how to program robots to do different tasks,” recalls Persad. “They really enjoyed it.”
Persad enjoyed the experience too. Over the next couple of years, he continued to volunteer for Let’s Talk Science. In 2015, Persad ran his robotics activity on campus during an astronomy workshop for kids of all ages. “The kids are always so inquisitive, asking all kinds of questions,” Persad says. “I saw how capable they are in doing things we would consider complex in engineering and science.”
There’s no question that Persad has taught hundreds of children and youth about the joys of science. “I’ve always seen the importance of mentoring,” Persad explains. “By teaching others it shows you how well you know the subject matter; it also gives you the opportunity to share your passion.”
That’s a huge benefit for the dedicated volunteer who loves sharing his knowledge with young people. After applying to CSA’s Astronaut Recruitment Program, he also came to realize the many other ways his volunteer work would help him in the selection process.
“The skills needed to be an astronaut include the ability to work with and motivate others, also multi-disciplinary skills, resourcefulness and being able to communicate why the science is important and how it benefits everyone,” says Persad. “These are all skills I’ve developed as a Let’s Talk Science volunteer.”
Persad had the chance to put those skills into practice as he navigated his way through an intense and gruelling recruitment process. He made it to the final 72 candidates but was ultimately not selected for the program this time around. “It feels amazing to have gotten so far,” Persad says. “The other candidates are fully qualified and it’s humbling to have been among such highly accomplished peers.”
Persad says he now knows where to improve for the next time he applies for the program. In the meantime, he’ll keep working on his post-doctoral research in the Sinton Lab at the university and will continue to volunteer with Let’s Talk Science.
“Let’s Talk Science gives children the opportunity to learn about science outside the classroom. The hands-on activities have more impact than reading about science in a book – helping to cement the experience in their memory,” Persad says. “Let’s Talk Science makes science accessible to kids of all ages.”
Of course, Let’s Talk Science doesn’t do it alone. The organization depends on funding from supporters to bring real, hands-on science into the hearts and lives of young people. As Persad says, “When you invest in promoting access to science, what you get in return is incredible. Kids are sure to benefit from it. I hope people will keep investing to make science accessible and let kids continue to enjoy and be inspired by the activities.”