Dr. Bonnie Dunbar encourages students to do two things – dream big and fail. A former NASA astronaut and now the M.D. Anderson Professor and Director of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Houston’s science, technology, engineering, and math center and professor in the College of Engineering, Dunbar spoke with the senior class at The Episcopal School of Dallas about not only pursuing their dreams, but also taking risks and developing the persistence required to succeed in college and beyond.
Dunbar was invited to speak to the Class of 2016 as part of the annual Robert H. Dedman Lecture Series for Leadership. “There are few people as accomplished in as many areas as Dr. Dunbar,” Dr. Donna Hull, Head of Upper School said. “As she pointed out in her presentation, no one ever told her that she ‘couldn't’ achieve her dreams. Look at what she has done with her life and she's still going strong! It was truly inspiring for all of us to listen to her and to her story.”
“I had parents who not only believed in education but also gave me the opportunity to explore the world and take risks,” Dunbar said. “My father taught my siblings and me how to dream. Our parents taught us that it didn’t matter what we did as long as we tried, picked ourselves up from failure, and were good citizens.”
Dunbar recalls laying on a haystack at her family’s ranch in Washington and looking up at the stars, dreaming of the day she could travel to Mars or help build a spaceship. Her first attempt to join the organization’s astronaut program, however, was denied because she lacked the education credentials of her peers. After earning her Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Houston, her childhood dream became a reality in 1980 when she was accepted to NASA’s Astronaut Program. As a NASA mission specialist astronaut, Dunbar recorded more than 50 days in space.
“Many students haven’t learned how to fail, but it’s really important for everyone to learn how to fail before their first job. In any experiment, there are failures all the time. The important thing is how you recover from these failures and that you maintain persistence,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar’s persistence continues to pay off. As one of the leaders for the University of Houston’s STEM Center, Dunbar is setting the standards for how colleges and universities recruit students to join STEM programs. She believes that generating more interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will stimulate the U.S. economy, and also help keep the country on a trajectory of success.
“A great nation’s health and prosperity depend upon its technological innovation, solutions to the problems of supporting life, and inspiration of its youth,” Dunbar explained. “It will depend upon the production and development of its scientists, mathematics, engineers, chemists, and physicists.”
Dunbar hopes to continue to inspire students to pursue degrees and careers in math and science, and even return to space one day to join John Glenn as one of the oldest people to orbit in outer space. She hopes her adventures, as well as those of her peers, will motivate young boys and girls to learn more about STEM programs.
“I have the same advice for young women as I do for young men. If you want to create the modern world, if you want to solve real problems, whether it’s in medicine, engineering, or communications, an engineering degree gives you tools to do that,” Dunbar explained. “It’s no harder for a young woman than it for a young man, but many young women have already put that wall up and said ‘I can’t do it.’ They just need to say “I can do it.’”
Reagan Loftus '16 and Michael Patterson '16 had the opportunity to sit down and learn more about Dr. Dunbar's experiences. Click here to watch their interview.