A Tribute to Our Planetary Star, Susan Niebur, Hot Mommas Project 2011 STEM Winner

By Kathy Korman Frey, Founder of the Hot Mommas Project

Updated 10.18.19 for Breast Cancer Month

Today we received news that Susan Niebur – the Winner of our Global Hot Mommas Project Case Competition, 2011 STEM Category (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) – passed away yesterday. There are many important things that you should know about Susan, some of which you can learn just by Googling her as she is accomplished, well-known, and well-liked in professional, social media, and personal realms. But there are two things I am compelled to share with you here:

 

1. Susan was an astrophysicist at NASA, among other accomplishments.

This was prior to her career as a blogger extraordinaire and cancer evangelist on

Susan NieberToddler Planet. I remember reading the Hot Mommas Project case she authored during the final judging phases of the Hot Mommas Project 2011 competition.
As the world’s largest women’s case study (aka teachable story) library, competition can be pretty stiff in the final phases. I was surrounded by a blanket of papers all over my bed, reviewing judges‘ feedback, when I happened upon Susan’s case. My jaw literally dropped. I brushed all the papers aside, hopped off the bed, and came out of the bedroom and yelled, “We have a bonafide STEM girl here people! We have a freaking astrophysicist from NASA! Is anyone home? Is anyone hearing me? This is amazing!” I was so proud of her already. I didn’t even know her. But, I did. She let me know her through her story. She let all of us know her. Below are pasted highlights from her winning 2011 Hot Mommas Project case study for you.

2. Susan had inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), and wanted people to know it.

From CNN to the Today Show blog, Susan and her family were tough-as-nails ambassadors and educators to the world. In reading through the announcements about her passing, one thing has become abundantly clear as she says on her Toddler Planet blog:  ” Oops. It turns out that you don’t have to have a lump to have breast cancer.”  Susan has saved countless lives with her advocacy in the field of IBC. I now count myself among the educated because of Susan. I actually did think you needed to have a lump to have breast cancer, and have two breast cancer survivors in my family so considered myself pretty in-the-know. I stand corrected. Thank you, Susan.

 

Susan Niebur’s Case Study

(excerpts)

Susan Niebur is the 2011 Winner of the  Hot Mommas Project Global Case Study, competition,  STEM Category. The  awards ceremony was globally webcast in May of 2011 and watched all over the world from Brazil to Poland to Egypt.

Trained as an astrophysicist, Susan Niebur had expected to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a professor, perhaps a dean at a university.  But her experiences during graduate school were not anything like her father’s…. Instead of being asked what her career plans were after graduation, she was repeatedly asked, “When are you going to get married/have children and quit?””   Trying to ignore this bias, Susan compensated by working even harder. …An early job at NASA Headquarters was the opportunity she needed to learn both the ins and outs of a successful career in space science and the difference that a good mentor can make in professional life.

As a child, Susan loved coming up with new ideas and figuring out how to put them into action.  She designed and built wood projects in her father’s shop, and she used graph paper, thread, and scraps of fabric at the kitchen table to create other little things she loved for her wooden dollhouse.  There was always something new to make, and her mother and grandmother sat with her for hours as she figured out how to design a four-inch sleeping bag, a new bedroom for the attic, and tiny flowers to scale.  The only rule was that any creations would start with a plan.  Once the flowers, the blankets, or the wood project was designed on graph paper, only then could the design be taken out to the shop, or the scrap basket brought out, and Susan encouraged to take whatever she needed and make beautiful and useful things.

There was a certain thrill in making something out of nothing, and Susan was hooked.  Throughout her youth, Susan applied this time and time again, looking at the way things were and figuring out just how she could make things a little better.  She learned to make a project plan at Leadership Camp at the University of Southern Mississippi one summer, and this process of laying out sequential tasks appealed to her so much that she would make project plans on her own, on graph paper, well into college….

Her own plan proceeded just as she laid it out that summer at Leadership Camp.  High school, college, honor societies, graduate school, marriage, Ph.D.  She met the boy a little early, and they became college sweethearts instead of graduate school colleagues, but the boy was worth it, and together they dreamed big dreams of working for NASA.  Each adjusted their career plans, brushing off dusty goals from childhood, and they set off for graduate school with big dreams, firm plans, and a certainty that they would succeed.

It came as a bit of a shock when Susan’s graduate career did not go according to plan.  When she realized that she would not be supported and mentored as her male colleagues were, she was shaken.  She reached out to her community, as she had in the past, eventually serving as president of Graduate Student Senate, the Graduate-Professional Council, and the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.  While serving others, she realized that she could write a new plan, and that she could use these leadership skills and the science that she loved to forge a career in science policy.  After graduation, she went to work at NASA Headquarters, where she could help others understand government requirements and opportunities, and encourage those who still had the dream of exploring the stars themselves.

Nearly five years after she arrived at NASA Headquarters, Susan was leading a program of $350M spaceflight missions to study comets, asteroids, and the inner planets.  She met frequently with scientists, engineers, and managers working on missions as varied as blasting a hole in a comet, and capturing micron-sized pieces of the solar system…

More on Susan

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