Sarah Dewitt

From a very early age, I loved two things: drawing and being outside. I doodled and colored all the time. I would re-create scenes from Disney movies using colored pencils, spending hours blending the colors to look exactly like the original. My parents bought me Disney animation software, and I vowed I would work there some day. I drew still lifes of everyday objects – flowers, shoes, food – anything that looked interesting. People applauded my ability to recreate reality with just pencils. I had similar success with portraits and figures. I showed my artwork in galleries and student competitions.

Meanwhile, I was always looking for excuses to be outdoors – playing games, sledding, choreographing neighborhood dance recitals in my backyard. My mother has pointed out that in every place I’ve lived, I’ve put my bed next to a window. Junior year of high school I was selected to attend an advanced summer art program at Colorado College. I took college-level courses and fell in love with the campus at the base of Pikes Peak. I had already spent eight summers attending a nearby camp on the other side of the mountain, where I had fallen in love with the natural world. I was convinced that I needed to go to Colorado College.

My parents were not so convinced. The private liberal arts school was not exactly affordable. So I looked at financial aid options. The college offered a private scholarship for various science majors – four years, full tuition. I had recently done well in high school math and chemistry, so I decided to give it a shot. I applied for the geology scholarship and – much to my surprise – I got it! My friends all thought I was crazy. “But you’re an artist,” they’d say. “You can’t major in science!”

I spent the next four years falling even more in love with the natural world. As a geology major, I spent the bulk of my college career exploring national parks, volcanoes, and canyons all over the western United States. I slept outside under the stars 84 nights during my junior year. But when it came time to graduate, I faced a tough realization. I didn’t want to pursue a career in science. I didn’t have the burning desire to get a PhD, or be a professor. I just wanted to be outside.

So I applied for a masters program in science documentary filmmaking. I moved to Montana and spent the next year filming wildlife in Yellowstone, and learning the art of creative nonfiction and video editing. It was tremendous fun, but again I faced a tough realization: I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. I loved the creative part of it, but the business of filmmaking wasn’t for me.

That’s when my graduate advisor got a call from NASA. They were looking for a student filmmaker to create short Earth science videos for NASA-TV. Knowing my background in geology, my advisor recommended me for the one-year fellowship. I packed everything into my Subaru and drove from Montana to Maryland to start a job at the Goddard Space Flight Center. My dad actually flew out to D.C. and accompanied me on a site visit before I started the job. I realize now how young I was, and how silly I must have looked showing up for a job interview with my father. But I think he was just as thrilled as I was to be visiting NASA! It was my first real job, and I can’t imagine how nervous I would have felt without him there.

I did not grow up dreaming about working for NASA someday. I knew very little about the agency and its programs. I learned it on the job. As a professional communicator, my whole purpose was to listen closely and tell stories. Over twelve years I have become a total NASA devotee… and I have great stories to tell! I flew over the South Pole in a DC-8. I watched Apollo 13 in the Apollo control room at the Johnson Space Center with Gene Kranz! I watched a team of grown men and women cry when their satellite crashed into the ocean. I cried and hugged strangers in front of the countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center as we watched the final Space Shuttle launch. My rejection letter from the astronaut office is one of my most prized possessions.

But my favorite part of the job has always been working with scientists and drawing out their stories. After dreaming about it for almost eight years, I’m finally in a position where I can devote nearly 100% of my time to doing that. Not only that – I’m now literally drawing stories. I’m using my artistic skills to illustrate the work I do with science communicators at NASA. Practicing graphic facilitation has completely opened up a new world for me, and is adding value to NASA in ways I never could have imagined at the start of my career.

In 2008, I participated in a year-long agency leadership program. On the first day of the program, a coach made me cry in front of the group. She put me on the spot and asked me why I cared so much about how NASA communicates its work to the public. I couldn’t articulate an answer then, and it took me years to understand what that conversation meant. If I care enough about my work to cry in front of colleagues, I’m doing something right. I’m in the right place. The closer I get to that scary vulnerable place, the better I’ll be at my job. There have been times when I didn’t feel that way, and I knew it was time to move on. When I see people get excited and emotional about their work, I surround myself with those people. And somehow, in all the various jobs I’ve had at NASA, I’ve almost always had my desk near a window.

photo of Sarah Dewitt

Biography

Sarah DeWitt has worked in science communication at NASA since 2002. She started her career at Goddard as a video producer, and is now supporting the agency’s chief scientist with communication to a global audience. She loves being outdoors and relishes her daily bike commute through DC. Her other passion is working with scientists and helping to draw out their stories of inspiration and discovery. In 2013 she developed NASA’s first agency-wide science communication leadership program. Sarah is deeply committed to personal and professional development, and is constantly seeking ways to stretch herself. She has practiced a variety of communication methods including storytelling, public speaking, improvisation, acting, design thinking, graphic facilitation and scribing – all in the service of improving her own communication practice and to serve the development of other communicators. Sarah is interested in applying these unique skills to support increased diversity in STEM career fields.