For Anaelle Roc PO ’24, physics isn’t just rocket science — it’s a way to create a more equitable future in the aerospace industry. Roc’s efforts and vision earned her the prestigious Patti Grace Smith Memorial Fund Scholarship last month, enabling her to delve deeper into the industry.
Roc, a physics major on the astrophysics track and an Asian studies minor, was one of three women to receive this year’s award.
The scholarship is a joint partnership between the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, the latter of which was created to memorialize the legacy of the late Patti Grace Smith. Roc was a recipient of the fellowship last year and became eligible to receive the memorial fund scholarship this year.
Smith was a trailblazer in the aerospace industry and racial justice advocacy, overcoming adversity in many aspects of her life. After growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era, she worked her way to top levels of the Federal Aviation Administration. Smith is remembered for her pivotal involvement with the early days of commercial spaceflight.
To honor Smith’s legacy, the scholarship supports young women of color pursuing careers in STEM or aerospace fields. To commemorate the annual recipients, those awarded the scholarship were flown to Washington D.C. Feb. 16 to attend the 24th Commercial Space Transportation Conference.
Earning the scholarship is a prestigious feat, and for Roc and the two other scholarship recipients, it also meant some high-profile recognition from the likes of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper at the conference.
“I didn’t quite understand the impact that we would be having at this conference until that moment,” Roc said of being recognized by Buttigieg, who attended the conference via video. “It was definitely a pinch yourself sort of moment.”
The conference included two days of presentations, networking and panels with some of the biggest names and organizations in the aerospace industry. The Patti Grace Smith Memorial Fund Reception was held at the end of the first day of the conference, where Roc was recognized onstage with astronauts from Blue Origin’s New Shepherd Mission.
“When we came off the stage, CEOs and really high profile people came up to us with business cards, saying, ‘when you graduate, call me.’” Roc said.
According to Roc, the conference signaled major ongoing and upcoming changes in the space industry. While the privatization of space has been in motion for years, NASA’s announcement earlier this year that the International Space Station will be deorbited in 2030 confirmed that aerospace will be privatized in the next decade.
“It’s really the end of an era in how space is structured,” Roc said, “because it’s no longer NASA and then everyone else. It is kind of strange, exciting and terrifying.”
In the midst of such drastic changes to the industry, Roc said she aspires to work with groups that try to fuse both the realms of technology and equity. Referencing the non-profit AstroAccess, whose groundbreaking flight simulation last year included 12 disabled passengers, Roc added that she hopes to make space travel accessible to everyone.
“How can we make sure that when we go to space, everyone can go to space? It would be really cool to work for startups thinking about space equity,” Roc said.
“How can we make sure that when we go to space, everyone can go to space?”
With a career in aerospace, Roc aims to combine both her love for engineering and policymaking.
After a summer internship with Relativity Space as a liaison between the engineering and diversity, equity and inclusion teams, Roc was encouraged to apply for the scholarship by her Pomona professors.
Only having interacted with her through virtual classes, professor and chair of physics and astronomy Dwight Whitaker encouraged Roc to apply for the scholarship. Whitaker described Roc as a natural leader who is exceptional in the classroom and the lab.
“I was ecstatic for Elle when she won this award,” Whitaker said via email. “It was fantastic to see Elle recognized with such a prestigious award and I hope that this will validate to her what a great physicist she is becoming.”
Although the Pomona physics department doesn’t have formal routes for supporting aerospace students, the physics and astronomy departments use the resources of the consortium like engineering courses and clinics at Harvey Mudd College. Roc has taken advantage of these 5C resources by joining the Harvey Mudd Advanced Rocketry Club, which has been an essential aspect of her aerospace endeavors in college.
Roc and her peer mentor Christina Dong PO ’22 bonded over their shared interest in creating space for more diversity and inclusivity in a traditionally exclusive field.
“Because I am also going into aerospace, I know how difficult it is to break into the aerospace industry as a student from a non-engineering, liberal-arts college, without an engineering degree and as a minority in a white male dominated field,” Dong told TSL via email.
Herself a recent recipient of a competitive fellowship, Dong added that seeing Roc’s success is an inspiration for other students striving to reach similar heights.
Dong was recently awarded the Brooke Owens Fellowship in its most competitive year, which pairs 51 women and minority undergraduate students with aerospace positions and executive-level mentorship.
“I think to say that I’m proud of Elle is an understatement,” Dong said. “Being able to accomplish such high achievements regardless is a testament to the stellar student, scientist and person Elle is.”