Meet Yi So-yeon, the first person to fly in space from Korea and a recent Haas School of Business graduate. We sat down with her to learn more about her background, her experience as an astronaut and her time here at UC Berkeley.
DC: Can you tell us about your background and how it led you to become an astronaut?
So-yeon: When I was a kid, I dreamed of being an astronaut, like every single kid who loves science. I watched all the sci-fi movies. When I got older and went to college, I thought I couldn’t be an astronaut because Korea does not have a space program. We don’t even have any rockets. So I totally forgot about it. One day I saw the astronaut program — it was only a one-time project for the government with one astronaut. I remembered my dream and had to apply, because even if I didn’t make it, at least I tried. Well, I got it. I got to be the female scientist in space, as I dreamed when I was (a) kid. It’s amazing.
DC: What did space feel like?
So-yeon: It felt so free — not only physically but also mentally. Being free can be good, but it can also be hard. Like, when you are away from your parents, you feel absolute liberty, but you also feel insecure at the same time. Whatever you want to do, you can do, but that’s frightening. It’s the same in space. Physically, you don’t have gravity, so you’re just floating around free. Back on Earth, everything is pulled down — even your own weight — it pulls you down. And mentally, too. You always have your boss, your professor, people who determine your grades, parents who tell you what you should do … but in space, you are completely free. There were six of us, and we didn’t have an executive member, no government officer, no taxpayer — so we were free mentally, too. You could look through the window and realize that you were not on Earth. You felt so free but so fragile. It was wonderful but scary.
DC: What made you go from engineering to business?
So-yeon: Actually, it is very important to know how humans think and how they work. Now, after being an astronaut, I am realizing that engineers and scientists sometimes find it very difficult to communicate with businessmen, to communicate with policy makers, to communicate with the government officers to get a grant or investment to develop a product. Also, a lot of investors don’t know much about science, so when an investor sees something fascinating, they will put their money into it, but they will often lose. I realized that engineers and business people should make the effort to understand each other, to have some common sense and to see if the idea is feasible or not. Maybe as an engineer and businesswoman, I can help my friends. While pursuing my PhD, I realized that although I am not a crazy genius, I have better communications skills and presentational skills than others. Even people from other fields can understand my presentations. Even some scientists have come to me and asked me for advice. Maybe that is my talent. Sometimes it is boring to be in a laboratory. Ninety-nine percent of engineering school students wouldn’t be able to be in the lab. I need to be around people. With all of those things combined together, I think that I should study about something that I have not done before to make the linkage between the two groups.
DC: Were you able to do this?
So-yeon: When I was pursuing my PhD, we made a lot of connections to UC Berkeley’s microengineering department because it was the No. 1 school in the entire world for making micromachines. I was already familiarized with this field, and then when comparing it with other business schools, (the) Haas business school was not biased against the geeky and nerdy engineer. Business people often feel weird around scientists. But (the) Haas business school professors understand what it means to be an engineer.
DC: What were your favorite parts of the UC Berkeley experience, inside or outside of the classroom?
So-yeon: UC Berkeley was comforting, special and global. I think that Berkeley quite felt like home as an international student — that I was not a stranger. I felt that I was not looked down upon because I was a woman. I really liked being a part of the diverse environment. Culturally, I really loved Cal because the people here are open-minded. At first, it was hard to work with the Western students and to have to understand the culture, but after a while I realized that diversity is always healthy. If you are always working and living with the same kind of people, you don’t know what you don’t know because no one can teach you.
DC: What is your favorite place in Berkeley?
So-yeon: You can not miss Caffe Strada. My first visit to UC Berkeley was in 2003, 11 years ago. At that time, my Korean advisor teaching me in South Korea who went to UC Berkeley told me, “You should go to Strada first. It is a signature place near the UC Berkeley campus.” I was so shocked when I came back to UC Berkeley 11 years later — Strada was exactly the same. In Korea, if you even miss two years, you cannot find your home because everything is changing every day. Strada was still there in the same place, with the same people sitting outside and talking. I ate mostly at the Haas Cafe and Bongo Burger. I loved all of the different international cuisines all around the UC Berkeley campus.
DC: Where do you live now?
So-yeon: Now, I live with my husband in Seattle. Some Californians really hate Seattle because it rains all the time, but compared to the rain in Korea, it is nothing.
DC: What have you been doing since you moved to Seattle?
So-yeon: I have been looking for a job. Many people told me, I don’t know why, that it would not be hard, because I have this cool background, and everything can be a positive. Having a PhD and an MBA and having flown in a space station are all really good things, but sometimes having all of them is conflicting and makes it harder to find a position for me. Maybe if I only have one of them, it would be easier, because sometimes I’m overqualified or underqualified or they think I’m not a good fit for them, even though I think I can do a good job. I don’t exactly know what career or position is right for me, but I’m hopeful that in the next few months or year I will find something. It’s easier to just be an astronaut!
DC: What advice do you have for UC Berkeley students?
So-yeon: The special thing that I have learned is that you need to make sure to appreciate everything on the earth. We flew so fast (in the space shuttle) — over Korea is less than a minute and China and Russia in 10 minutes. I realized what a blessing life is. We are living in a really good place. But looking at the world from the International Space Station, you see how much of the world is struggling with starvation, with education, with government and with human liberty. There are plenty of places where people are born without anything. I really regret complaining about my childhood or government policy. What if I were born in North Korea or China? I might not have gotten any schooling. But because I wasn’t, I could get my PhD and come to the space station. I should appreciate it. Even if we feel like we don’t have power or money, one day, when we do, we can help them. We must help. I want to help everyone in the world.