We can describe Roberta Bondar in many ways – astronaut, hero, neurologist, leader, scientist, role model, photographer, author, advocate for the environment, but what stands out is her enthusiasm, work ethic, optimism and commitment to lifelong learning.
“Your life is a book that no one else can write by you”
As part of the Leaders Pushing Boundaries series, for the current students and alumni of the MA Leadership program, Roberta Bondar impressed the audience with her experiences growing up, years of education, travels to space and her beautiful photography. A graduate of the University of Guelph, attaining degrees in agriculture and zoology before becoming a neurologist, she spent 18 years in university before applying to the Canadian space program in 1983 and traveling to space in the Discovery in 1992.
Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, she set her sites on the impossible, competing against thousands of others for the opportunity to spend 8 years training with NASA and later spending 8 days in space. Her parents were very supportive, giving her opportunities the be curious, explore and innovate. She loved participating in science fairs and her father built a lab in their basement for experiments.
She spoke of the importance of connections, inspiration, creative thought and strategy. She shared that is is essential to be alert to new information, of opportunity and opportunities lost. She used an analogy of finding a $50 bill – this is a lucky find… if you pick it up.
For Bondar, coming back from space was about moving forward. She looked for new opportunities, mortgaged her home in Toronto and headed across Canada to photograph all the Canadian national parks. This project to 2.5 years and some of her photos are currently displayed at the Guelph Art Gallery in the Light in the Land: The Nature of Canada exhibit.
While taking pictures, she considered how she could engage the public in thinking about the environment. She thought about her mother, a teacher, who was passionate and shared enthusiasm with her students. She considered the curiosity and support system that her mother inspired when she formed the Roberta Bondar Foundation which takes students into wilderness settings equipped with cameras. These kids hike, talk about and photograph the environment.
The question and answer period started off slow. Her sense of humour was evident as she shared how children often ask her how astronauts use the bathroom in space – she did not elaborate for the leadership crowd!
I wish that my daughter had been able to join me and hear this inspiring talk. I did ask Roberta what her parents had done that had influenced her and she spoke of the support from her mother. At age 10, she had built model rockets, at age 14, she threw them all away not wanting other kids to think that she was “weird”. Years later, after being admitted to the space program, her mother presented her with a large box for Christmas. Inside were all the rockets she had thrown out at age 14! She also shared an example of how her parents supported her to do a science project on the impact of DDT on flies by sending her to a local insect lab. This experience led to a summer job which paid for her U of G tuition! She encouraged parents to ask “what are you interested in, what do you have passion in, what are you reading and whatever it is they are doing is what they are interested in”. She reinforced that everyone needs a support system that supports the need for curiosity, to be loved and to be encouraged. I love that she shared that even at her age, turning 72 this year, she still has a support system in place.
When asked what was next? Bondar shared that she will continue with her writing as she “likes writing, always have” and hopes to “connect people with the natural world”. She has “time for creative space so that she can think” and believes that there is more that she can do to share her passion for the environment and “try to get people to pay attention”.
She ended with noting that she feels that her success has been related to a combination of both opportunity and luck and a Mark Twain’s quote: “The harder I work, the luckier I get” which is an inspiring message for all.
The University of Guelph provides a wonderful opportunity to hear amazing speakers, to reconnect with fellow alumni and to be inspired by accomplished leaders. Roberta Bondar IS a hero who continues to inspire others to keep learning, think of the environment and be curious!