Jennifer W. Lopez was reaching for the stars long before she became a space scientist.

Her love for technology, science, and exploration began as early as middle school, through computer courses and participation in the Young Astronaut Program. It didn’t hurt that just about everything in her San Antonio, Texas, middle school was space-themed.

Since then, the long arc of her career has seen her don everything from a lab coat as a molecular biology research associate to a business coat as the CEO of Wisenn & Co., an international agency finding solutions to complex social issues. Now, the founding member of NASA’s Datanaut Corps and the National Geographic 2017 Emerging Explorer is coming to the Philadelphia area to inspire the next generation of stargazers and galactic trailblazers.

To celebrate both 60 years of Barbie and a new doll line created in partnership with National Geographic, Lopez will be appearing as the role model and special guest for the South Jersey stop of the yearlong Barbie “Be Anything” tour.

During the free two-day Barbie extravaganza, you can take photos inside a life-size Barbie doll box, try on different careers in the “You Can Be Anything” dress-up zone, view original Barbie career dolls, and learn more about some of the iconic professions Barbie has pursued over the past six decades. Kids can also enter for a chance to win up to $20,000 to further their dreams both big and small.

Before Lopez’s appearance, The Inquirer spoke with the scientist about the role Barbie played in her life and how the doll’s messages can inspire the future of women in STEM.

Did you have a Barbie growing up, and if you did, what impact did it have on you?

I did have actually quite a few Barbies growing up. Among other toys, Barbie was one of my favorites just because of the opportunity to dress her up, have her serve as different characters, and various role models. I think one of the interesting things about that, at least being exposed to that as a young girl, is the imaginative play aspect. … Having that ability to delve into a world and imagine myself being in these roles definitely inspired me to dream big and inspired me to look at different types of jobs and certain career fields.

What ways does the imaginative play element come into the work that you do now?

Early on, it was about being able to dream of being in different roles, whether that was wanting to be an astronaut, scientist, teacher, or entrepreneur. … Now with my work, from a creative or technical aspect, it’s helpful in how I look at types of problems and think outside the box from more traditional approaches. Especially in the space industry, you are part of these communities where you’re doing something that might not necessarily have been done before. So you’re in unchartered territory, so to speak, from a technology perspective and from a business perspective. Imagination, creativity, curiosity, and exploration really have played a big part in approaching all that I do.

Mattel released astronaut Barbie four years before Neil Armstrong went into space and 18 years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, went to space. Barbie has long been a toy that imagines people being and doing things they may face hurdles to in real life, so how vital is that to inspiring those interested in STEM fields?

This reminds me of a quote, and it’s a quote that I like to bring up, especially when I’m giving presentations and talking about women in STEM or to particular communities where it’s important for them to have that reminder. The first American woman in space was of course, as you said, astronaut Sally Ride, and the quote that she always used to mention was, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” She was the first American woman in space, she’s a physicist, and she broke barriers and worked to ensure that girls and women were encouraged and had the confidence to do the same. It’s a quote I firmly believe. … I think we’re already seeing this in some of the other professional representations of Barbie.

Sometimes people make jokes about how seemingly unrealistic it is that Barbie “does everything,” but that can be its own kind of message about personal potential.

I, myself, did not have a linear career path. I was in a laboratory or lab coat, was an associate or research scientist for four years. Then I chose to segue into business and started my own company. I went to New York to work with science, technology, international relations, and philanthropy start-ups. All, of course, while working in the space industry off and on throughout my career. I think a lot of those different skill sets and exposures to various industries have all intersected and culminated into the work that I do today. I bring to the table multiple facets, other areas of expertise that somebody might not have had without working in different industries. Being able to provide those different types of representation for boys and girls is essential. And it’s going to continue to be more and more so as we see that we can have different types of career paths.

The Barbie and National Geographic product line features career dolls and playsets for wildlife conservationist, astrophysicist, polar marine biologist, wildlife photojournalist, and entomologist.
Mattel, Inc.
The Barbie and National Geographic product line features career dolls and playsets for wildlife conservationist, astrophysicist, polar marine biologist, wildlife photojournalist, and entomologist.
Barbie is introducing a whole new set of careers with the help of National Geographic. But is there a profession you’d still really like to see Barbie take on?

There’s a great representation already in terms of tech scientists or computer scientists, including the new astrophysicist Barbie that’s being introduced. That’s one of the areas that I thought would be interesting to see. If I had to be maybe more specific while looking at something along the lines of the space industry, I’d say space engineer or more of other professions within the space industry. Not just the traditional or well-known roles within the space-related professions that we’ve seen in the past.