Space, Stars, and Success: Meet Samantha O’Sullivan

Posted on Tue, July 10, 2018
  • by: Gabrielle Barone, Digital Experiences intern

Samantha O’Sullivan grew up in Washington DC, so close to the National Air and Space Museum that she could walk to it. When she was younger, she visited How Things Fly, a gallery where young Museum visitors are taught the principles of flight by high school and college students called “Explainers.”

Now, O’Sullivan, a STEM advocate and aspiring astronaut, is one of the Explainers—that is, until she starts her first year at Harvard University in the fall.

Harvard was O’Sullivan’s first college acceptance, but in a “crazy” chain of events, it turned out to be only her first Ivy League acceptance, too. By the time she’d received all the decisions, O’Sullivan had been offered a place at all eight elite schools.

Before O’Sullivan starts at Harvard, however, you can find her working at the National Air and Space Museum.

"I love the idea that there’s so much out there, in the unknown. Being a scientist or astronaut, you can help understand it."

During high school, O’Sullivan applied to the Smithsonian’s Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) program. Once accepted, she was placed in a position within the National Air and Space Museum. O’Sullivan, who has spent over 400 hours volunteering and working at the Museum, became an Explainer in 2016. She particularly enjoys talking to visitors from around the world and credits the Explainers program with making her more outgoing.

 “When I started, I was super nervous about talking to strangers and walking up to people,” O’Sullivan said. “Over time I think I’ve kind of broken out of my shell a little bit.” Now she’s comfortable explaining topics like thrust or velocity to anyone, she said, from a five-year-old to an engineer.

This speaking practice came in handy when she was chosen as the 2018 keynote speaker at the Dr. Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner (or, as O’Sullivan calls it, “space prom”).

O’Sullivan’s own love of science began in her STEM-focused middle school and flourished in high school (thanks in part to her favorite science teacher, Cristal Piper).

When she wanted a bigger challenge, O’Sullivan took calculus and linear algebra courses at George Washington University and completed an internship as a research assistant at the university’s astrophysics lab.

Samantha O'Sullivan, an Explainer in the Museum's How Things Fly gallery. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

How does she get it all done?

A typical school day involved activities before classes even began. Some days, O’Sullivan would practice for the Science Bowl (which she co-founded), then attend her regular classes before heading to the GW campus. Afterward, she worked with “STEM Up!” a science club for middle-schoolers that she founded for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Finally, it was time for homework before bed and then getting up the next day to do it again. When she wasn’t busy with those activities, O’Sullivan co-captained the varsity softball team and was named a National Merit Commended Scholar. Like any teenager, she also made time to hang out with friends and go to DC sporting events with her family.

Tired yet? She wasn’t.

When it came time to take the SAT’s, O’Sullivan wasn’t satisfied with the results she’d gotten in earlier practice tests, so she spent extra time studying. On her second SAT attempt, O’Sullivan got a near-perfect score. What’s next for O’Sullivan? In planning for her future, she always finds herself aiming to “think big.”

Inspired by her time at the Museum, as well as pioneers like Ellen Ochoa, Mae Jemison, and Katherine Johnson, O’Sullivan wants to be an astronaut.

 “I love the idea that there’s so much out there, in the unknown. Being a scientist or astronaut, you can help understand it,” O’Sullivan said.

For O’Sullivan, the stars are the limit.

Are you a high school or college student interested in STEM? Join our Explainers Program and help inspire life-long learners through hands-on programming! The Explainers Program is made possible through the generous support of GE Aviation.