Change the System, Not Yourself: How Kim Arcand Built the First-Ever VR Representation of an Exploded Star

Kimberly Arcand ● Visualization and Emerging Technology Lead ● NASA

Kimberly Arcand ● Visualization and Emerging Technology Lead ● NASA

“If you would have told me 20 years ago what I’m doing today I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Kimberly Arcand is a successful science communicator, TED talk speaker, and the Visualization and Emerging Technology Lead at NASA, and along the way, she’s worked hard to discover her passion and strengthen her voice as a leader in the field.

From the earliest time she could remember, Kimberly Arcand loved science. She loved figuring out puzzles and thought she wanted to be a veterinarian, a nurse, a doctor, or an astronaut. Her parents encouraged and fostered this tendency; although they didn’t make much, they saved enough so they could buy her chemistry sets, space shuttles, and microscopes. Kim’s first exposure to coding wasn’t until she enrolled at the University of Rhode Island, where she participated in a work-study and learned how to use web pages.

“My first web page was hideous and had tons of gifs. For me HTML was that really important baby step into coding. I didn’t know anyone who knew how to code…HTML was a very appealing, non-scary way to just dip my toes into the world of building with code.”

When she was in college, Kim had two professors who saw something extraordinary about her and believed in her abilities enough to get her to the next level. Although she was studying molecular biology and had no formal Computer Science training, professors Dr. Mather and Dr. Fay-Wolfegave her the opportunity to lead a team building an application for Lyme disease prevention. Learning how to lead a team early in her career proved to be helpful a few decades later when Kim led the team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that created a project she lists as one of her proudest accomplishments.

“We’ve been able to do some really cutting edge technology development. We created the first-ever 3D print of an exploded star, took the 3D model and put it into a VR application. This marks the first time on earth that you can walk around a dead star.”

The project, Stepping Inside a Dead Star, is publicly accessible and makes it possible for astronomers, scientists, technologists, or anyone with a penchant for curiosity to experience what it looks like inside a dead star. Kim led a large team of designers, coders, UI experts, and virtual reality specialists to be able to create this innovative and unique project.

Despite all of Kim’s successes, she encountered her fair share of obstacles along the way. She knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room and overcome gender biases in her environment. When she first started her technology career, she loved to attend tech conferences but always felt like she “stuck out like a sore thumb” and tried to fit into the crowd.

“I did this weird thing early in my career. I am naturally very feminine as far as how I present, but early on in my career I really tried to tamp that down. I remember going to a technology conference and feeling so out of place. I was wearing what I might usually wear, a floral skirt and bright yellow top, and just felt like I stuck out too much…So I changed how I presented myself for some time after that because I felt so self-conscious.”

Only a few years later did Kim realize she was going about it all wrong. What needed to change was not the way she dressed, but the number of women in her environment. This really hit home for her while raising her two children.

“Once I had my daughter I remember looking around…and realizing I just haven’t done enough. I thought ‘is my daughter going to…have to face similar issues because she sticks out?’ I realized then it’s not about changing myself. I wanted to help change the system and change the field so that other people can feel more comfortable.”

Kim has made it her mission now to increase the representation of women in STEM in any way she can. Whether it’s promoting women in STEM organizations, doing VR demonstrations for young kids, or just leading her team through great accomplishments, Kim is clearly an amazing role model for young women in STEM.

This story was written by Rina Schiller, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on LinkedInTwitter, or Instagram.

Photo credit: Brittany Taylor