six things: Kimberly Ennico Smith

Kimberly Ennico Smith

Image by Cindy Conrad

About Kimberly

Kimberly Ennico Smith is a scientist ever in awe of being married to a very cool scientist Robert James Smith, with never-dull dinner conversations about quasars, Nikon cameras, life on other planets, new ways to dehydrate strawberries, or the chemistry of gluten. She works for the US space agency, NASA, in one of their field centers in northern California. Always a student and in awe of this planet and universe, Kimberly boasts an insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge. “A life of learning is so rich.”

• One thing that’s always worth getting out of bed for

A good cup of tea. Yorkshire, hard-water blend, brewed strong, with good amounts of milk, no sugar. Served very hot. Seriously. Although I am from the USA, I never enjoyed coffee. Tea has been my drink of choice. I grew up with black tea and milk (not cream!), which is also not traditional in the USA, where locals like their tea with lemon. I’m embarrassed to admit I was woefully ignorant of tea, enjoying my Lipton cups, until I lived in the UK for four years during graduate school, and let’s say, there was no going back. I really enjoy a good cup of full-bodied tea first thing in the morning. It sets the mood for the day, warms the innards, sooths my morning dry throat, and brightens my outlook.

• One thing about myself that often obstructs me

Not asking for help often enough. Or even, deeper than that, not asking directly with clear guidance for help, and securing a path to get the answers I seek. I had no idea that I behaviorally tend not to ask for help. This has only been recently pointed out to me, discovered through conversations and exercises in a leadership development program I have been in this past year. Although the program is soon to come to an end, the learning continues. One significant nugget I gleaned is the reason why I have tended to have “spread myself too thin” or “taken on too much” is linked to “not knowing how to say no, enough times,” but equally so, created and enhanced by my not asking for help when I need it.

As a problem solver in my day job, being a NASA scientist, I do take pride in my accomplishments by researching problems, looking at them from different angles, and finding unique solutions to keep projects on track and full of meaningful science. But there are times when realistically I should be asking for help, not just to help me when I am stuck, but also to be open to other approaches to problems, since mine is definitely not the only solution (and probably not the most elegant either). I love working in teams, but ironically, my unconscious behavioral tendency not to ask for help has hampered my ultimate potential in teamwork. It’s been a fascinating discovery and I am working towards being more conscious of this self-created obstacle.

• One thing I’ve learned the hard way

A strong sense of self, appreciation of what I uniquely bring to the table. An individual with a PhD in astrophysics from Cambridge University, scholarships and awards aplenty, who works for NASA, must be full of this already. But I’ve had to duke it out with some pretty tough crowds. And, my boxing days are far from over. Scientists, especially those with PhDs, are a tough crowd to please. I graduated the only woman in my physics undergraduate class (and did it in style-I graduated at the top!). I never really saw myself as a statistic: all I knew is that the professors always knew when I was late or missing in class, and I could never be caught napping. So many times I wish I were just “one of those guys who got away with such things.” One professor always made sure to “call on me” every class. I had hoped he wanted me to learn more, but there was a nagging thought I was somehow being “tested.” Was I good enough? Did I have what it takes to be a physicist?

Building space instrumentation in a male-dominated world has had its share of “apparently helpful” greybeards wanting to “take this little bird under their wing.” Standing up to a crowd of 100 of them at a design review once was indeed a challenge, but I believe I mastered it pretty well and stood my ground (chocolate cake afterwards helped). All these “confrontational” situations where one is left with an impression of not earning a place at the table can wear a person down. They did to me. So off and on I went on all sorts of self-confidence, self-esteem seminars, webinars, support groups, etc. And to the amusement of myself, I found I was pretty self-confident compared to my companions in these programs.

I finally am finding my voice and confidence again, not due to any special magical cure, but really taking time to talk with my colleagues and friends, getting feedback from them on my strengths and what I could work on etc, and seeing common themes that my inputs are thoughtful, well-researched, and valuable and I should speak up more! So I am. It’s not been an easy journey to get to this place where I am at now.

• One thing that gets under my skin

Misinformation. I love this age of the internet. I love having information at my fingertips, literally. Growing up before the internet, the library and books were my resources for information. Learning, distilling information, checking facts, was a fun, but long process. Patience was needed. When information got put into the world for others to learn from, for example, in written print, you knew it went though a rigorous process.

These days when I have a library at my own beck and call, to seek “the answers” to nagging questions that kept me up the night before, I am totally amazed by the wealth of information I can find and absorb within minutes. When I have researched a topic that I generally know, like many physical science topics, I’ve found how much “misinformation” is out there and it’s frustrating to see this.

I am a natural skeptic, as I view the world through my scientist’s eyes, so I sift through the misinformation and find the correct information, but I can easily see how confusing it can be. When I get the opportunity to remove misinformation I take it on, but it can be quite daunting, almost like “removing invasive non-native plants.”

At the end of the day, we all have a responsibility to check facts if we are reiterating them to our families, friends, colleagues, journalists, etc. Knowledge is a gift, and sharing knowledge is one of the greatest gifts of the human species. Knowing how to best process the information to weed out the misinformation is a skill learned over time with lots of practice, patience, and a caring, questioning nature.

• One thing I’d love to change

Just one? Besides wanting to be a red head. Actually, my mom is a red head, so it “was” in my genes, just not expressed I guess. I know one cannot change people, one can only change oneself and influence others by one’s own actions. As a problem solver I have been trained to ask first “what’s wrong” when tackling a question, since it hits hard at the objectives I need to solve. However, I’ve realized that this is not necessarily the approach for all problems. I’m changing my tactic and now I first ask “what’s working” to find the bright spots to hone in and build on them to work on the problems that need solving. Problems get solved and you feel good about embracing your strengths along the journey. It’s pretty powerful. I’d love to change such approaches to solving problems that I have observed in others, with this tactic.

• One thing I hope for

I would hope for a world where a good education is provided to every single human on this planet. In the 21st century, “the information age,” ignorance is not an excuse. Knowledge is a gift of the most profound kind. Curiosity in humans is what enabled our species to evolve, improve, and expand our horizons. To be even better humans, we need to harness that curiosity, nurture it, grow it, and share it. Education is the solution.

Education is a gift that really does keep giving. To be prevented from obtaining knowledge, willfully keeping individuals in ignorance, due to prejudice, out of date customs, historical issues, or even money is one of the greatest and most shameful crimes against our species. With knowledge, we can learn to take better care of ourselves, our families, our homes, and our communities. With education, we learn to find our voice to speak up against evil, suggest new solutions to solving problems in town, country, or even the planet, and share this gift with others. With education, we learn how to communicate more broadly, more deeply, and more lastingly. With education, we can build a better-interconnected world, drawing from the strengths in all our differences and points of view, not a world based on fear, ignorance, power, and unfairness.

I am grateful every day for having been raised in a country where education is available. I am deeply respectful of our teachers who carry the lion’s share of tasks as educators, parents, and counselors with little recognition for the amazing service they bring to our species. I am in awe of volunteers who teach abroad in other communities where the need is the greatest and the environment is far from supportive. I hope for a world someday where we all can read, write, communicate to each other, and share our knowledge in an open fashion for the betterment of us and our planet.

About six things

‘six things’ is a series of micro-interviews with interesting and creative people, in which they’re asked to respond to a standard set of six prompts. A new ‘six things’ is published on the site each Saturday.