Drunk Austen admin applies wicked wit to Regency Era, Star Wars

We’re starting 2018 with a bang and an interview straight off my wishlist.

After Robin Epley started a little Facebook page known as Drunk Austen, she asked her friend, Bianca Hernandez, to join her as co-admin, and the rest is history.

Drunk Austen, the social media community built on a love of novelist Jane Austen, hilarious, Regency Era-themed memes, and pics of hot guys from the Austen film adaptations, with a healthy dollop of pop culture, social commentary, feminism, and inclusiveness, recently celebrated 50,000 likes on Facebook.

The Drunk Austen community hit a fever pitch of Austen-worshipping goofiness over the holidays with clever seasonal memes, Star Wars mashups, and a challenge in which followers were urged to whisper the phrase “What excellent boiled potatoes.” — a la Mr. Collins — in the midst of awkward family gatherings.

Known as “Admin b,” Bianca isn’t just a devoted Janeite with a sly sense of humor, she’s also a self-proclaimed “grade A nerd” with a passion for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, including badass Jedi Mara Jade; a skilled seamstress who crafts everything from cosplay outfits to Regency ballgowns; a bibliophile who includes “everything” on her to-read list; and a connoisseur of Star Wars-themed cocktails.

Let’s follow her to Austenland, shall we?

Bianca Hernandez, in costume as the Drunk Austen logo.

Tell me about the origins of the Drunk Austen social media phenomenon. How did it begin and how did you become involved?

Admin R started Drunk Austen after seeing a viral video. She started with a couple of memes, and then I sent her some of my own since I was deep in escaping adult responsibilities (like reading theory for class, looking for jobs, etc.). She added me as an admin and it’s been a journey ever since.

You’re known as “Admin b,” alongside Robin Epley, who is “Admin R.” Explain your dynamic as co-admins.

We went to j-school together, that’s how we knew each other before Drunk Austen. We’ve just tried to have fun, but learned a lot along the way. As we’ve gotten older and our followers have increased, we’ve learned a lot about how to handle a social media community. We both have our soft spots (Admin R is a “Little Women” fan, while I inundate followers with Star Wars), but in the end it always has an Austen-vibe of some kind.

Do you remember your introduction to the novels of Jane Austen?

A used book at a library book sale. The cover was awful, but it called to me. I read it when I was maybe 12 or 13, but a lot of the sharp wit went over my head. I just didn’t know a lot about the era or literature of her time.

What prompted you to become a full-fledged Janeite?

I read more of her work as I got older, but I think re-reading certain novels at certain times solidified my love. Emma, a painful character, was someone I could really relate to as I was starting college. After college I related more to Fanny at times. I think my love of the novels really peaked beyond casual interest when I was in Los Angeles for grad school and found a local Jane Austen book club. They were welcoming and made the experience of reading her works richer through discussion.

Which of her novels is your favorite and why?

Oh man, it changes. I think right now I’m really intrigued by “Persuasion.” I don’t relate to Anne, but I’m working (slowly) on a modern retelling of it because I think certain themes really translate well to today.

Why do you think her novels have endured and, indeed, flourished to the point that there’s an entire Facebook page devoted to her with thousands of followers?

Again, each time you reread her, you get something new. Besides that? I think the community can be a wonderful experience. So many people bond through this shared love, whether it’s the purists who love her work, the people who adore the hunky men in movie adaptations or the fanfiction writers, they all like a different flavor of Jane and that’s totally ok. I think Drunk Austen has tried to be really welcoming to all flavors, and there are communities that focus on one aspect, which allows people to find micro-communities that suit them.

Drunk Austen is, of course, famous for its Austen-themed memes. I feel like the memes are extremely on point lately. Thanksgiving was epic! And I love your recent Star Wars/Jane mashups. How do you come up with the perfect meme? Where do you draw your meme-spiration from?

I spend a lot of time on the internet (literally, my career involves working on social media). I see a good meme in another place and think, “Add some Darcy or a potato and we’ve got gold,” or something similar. Honestly, all of my memes are made because they make me laugh. If someone along the way is also amused then I’ve done a decent job.

The “boiled potatoes” challenge was the best thing ever. What did you think of the reaction to that?

I was shocked. I mean, I knew we had a great community, but I was so gratified to know there were other people who were down to be as goofy as I am.

Drunk Austen is more than just a social media community. It’s a public service, helping Janeites cope with awkward family gatherings or pepping depressed followers up with threads of hot guys. And there’s a hefty dose of feminism, too. Is this intentional?

Yes. At first it wasn’t, and I know we kind of grappled with stepping anywhere outside of Austen. Jane wrote about awkward families and would definitely have been a feminist. So I think we felt like if it was in the vein of her work it was still good.

I know I posted whole lot of hot man photos on a certain election night because I was in need of something, anything, to make me feel anything other than devastated. The response we got was amazing. Knowing that seeing a man with overgrown sideburns and a wet shirt brought joy to someone across the globe made me feel a little less like everything was crap.

Drunk Austen regularly navigates many Janeite controversies, such as who is the best movie Mr. Darcy or which is the best adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”? How do you handle these hot-button issues?

We tell out followers to keep it civil when we do bring up those topics, but if we didn’t bring it up for discussion we have zero-tolerance for bashing other people’s favorites. We’re all here to love Austen, why divide ourselves over who is a more perfect Darcy?

Aside from your admin duties, you’re also involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America. Tell me about your participation in that group.

I was the Regional Co-Coordinator for my region, but recently stepped into the Secretary role. I volunteer a lot of time in making sure we have meetings that run smoothly and appeal to our members. It’s honestly just a fun way to get the local community socializing and learning together. I also started two Jane Austen book clubs that are still running (without me!) today.

You’re a self-described “book hoarder.” Were you into books as a child? How did your love of reading begin?

I was a late-reader. I was really, really shy and had undiagnosed vision issues in first and second grade, but I was too scared to speak up about not being able to see the whiteboard. My teacher at the time didn’t notice or try to intervene, just kept doling out my bad grades. My grandma was a teacher and finally realized there was something wrong. After I got glasses and a more understanding teacher, it was a love affair. I dominated library summer reading programs and always have a book or two somewhere on my person.

What are some of your all-time favorite books?

I have a book for every mood. If I need to be angry it’s Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a Woman.” If I want to feel the magic of being young I go to Harry Potter or “Sabriel” by Garth Nix. I cannot say enough good things about Gail Carriger’s “Prudence.” Then, of course, there’s Jane Austen’s works, with “Persuasion” whisking me away every time I open it.

What are you reading now?

Tamora Pierce. I’ve put off reading her works and recently took a swordfighting class that reminded me I needed badass ladies to look up to.

What’s on your to-read pile?

Everything. I actually want to reread some classic Star Wars books in 2018, then tackle the Shakespeare plays I never got to.

Bianca in Wonder Woman cosplay.

On your website, you describe yourself as a “grade A nerd” who once made a reference to “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” on your business card. What was the reference?

It’s a phrase I need daily. “Don’t panic.”

Tell me your nerd origin story. When did you embrace the “geek lifestyle”?

Picture this: Junior High. Library. I was in braces AND glasses. I think those were the years where I just knew I wasn’t going to be athletic or really into punk-rock. I was just going to read all the Expanded Universe books I could get my hands on.

Drunk Austen followers can’t help but notice that you are very into Star Wars. What’s your personal Star Wars saga?

My story isn’t worthy of a crawl across the screen. A substitute teacher showed one of the films in class and I was so intrigued I bought the movies as soon as I could. The prequels were my first intro, but it was the original trilogy AND the EU books that got me hooked. I was totally in it for the badass women (lightsaber wielding ones at that!).

Tell me about your discovery of the Star Wars Expanded Universe in junior high.

Another library book sale. I stumbled on the Thrawn trilogy and was excited for more Star Wars in my life. It was the beginning of a beautiful journey into EU.

You once created your own Mara Jade Jedi costume for Star Wars Celebration. It passed approval for both Rebel Legion and Saber Guild. That’s quite an accomplishment. Please elaborate about that experience.

I always like Mara because she was a badass lady with a purple lightsaber. I’d never been to Celebration, so I threw together a cheap costume for the con. I was so thrilled by how many people recognized the character. I got back and decided to make an accurate costume that I could get approved for costume groups. I’m not thrilled with wearing a catsuit, but I do feel kind of like a badass when I wear it.

You’ve sewn many costumes for yourself, including a Hamilton-themed ball gown and other historical outfits. What do you enjoy about that? 

I like sewing for fun and for my Etsy store. It’s fun to learn to make full gowns and teach yourself new skills related to that. It’s a challenge, but in the end I can feel empowered dancing in my newest creation.

Bianca, at right, in a gown she created for a Hamilton-themed costume ball.

What’s challenging about it?

Teaching yourself new skills and being patient about it. I look at the first projects I ever took on and then the ones I have done over the last year and see a huge difference. It takes time to get good at something.

Have you done other geeky cosplays besides Mara Jade?

Ilana from “Broad City.” Prudence from Gail Carriger’s books. Agent Carter. Doctor Aphra. Probably many, many more.

Bianca as Agent Carter.

Is it my imagination or did you attend the “Last Jedi” premiere?

I did!

What are your thoughts about “The Last Jedi”?

It was like an EU book come to the big screen. It’s not my favorite movie, but I really enjoyed it and can admit it was great.

Why do you think fans are having a collective meltdown over the film?

Because tons of folks have made followings based on their theories out of “Force Awakens,” and this movie ties up so many loose ends. What do they have to talk about now? I guess just their annoyance with the movie? I’m pretty tired of the kind of weak arguments for why this movie is bad. It’s just different, and that’s fine.

You recently called out the Star Wars community for its lack of support for women. I applaud you for that. Why did you decide to say something?

When I was first really into Star Wars as a teen I had a gender-neutral screen-name because even back then it was pretty hard to be a lady-fan in that community. Now, though things have gotten a bit better, I’m just really fed up with seeing blatant sexism. The post I called out was trying to act like it wasn’t a sexist argument, but it was, period. I was on the fence about doing anything, but I can’t sit back and watch this keep happening. I can’t let another generation of lady-fans feel like they’re being attacked.

And now for a serious question: Porgs. Yes or no?

Yes. All the porgs. Especially the giant Target exclusive porg that I technically won, but never received!

You seem to be pretty into Star Wars-themed cocktails. What’s your favorite?

There’s a blue milk cocktail made by one bartender in San Francisco. I’ve had others, but his is legit because he garnishes it with peach rings.

Can you draw any parallels between Star Wars and Jane Austen?

I think we’ve done a couple Star Wars/Austen mashups before, and I think it works because Jane Austen wrote about real people and Star Wars has characters that are pretty relatable too. Luke is really naive and gets thrown into adulthood with no guidance, something a lot of Austen heroines have to face. C-3PO bears a striking resemblance to the awkward properness of Mr. Collins.

What other fandoms are you into?

I love Agent Carter, Harry Potter and Doctor Who.

What’s the next big release you’re looking foward to  (movies, books, TV, etc.)?

Oh man, I feel so behind in major media right now. I think the one thing I’m actually stoked for is the new adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” just because I have no idea what they’ll do with it. Besides that I think “Black Panther” and the Han Solo movie are the only things I’ll be dragging myself to the theater to see.

What’s left on your Jane Austen bucket list?

I haven’t visited Chawton or her resting place, so I guess that’s what I’d still need to do.

One of the questions I’ve been pondering lately is why do so many geeks also happen to be anglophiles? If anyone can help me answer this, it must be you. Thoughts?

I think the UK has a rich history, a literary legacy and some powerhouse nerd communities (like Whovians). That helps.

I think a lot of it is exposure too. If you’re raised knowing only English, and there’s a whole country that has content in English, it’s easy to get into. If there’s some cool content in French, but you don’t know French, you aren’t as likely to take time to learn it or find translations if they aren’t readily available. I have a limited understanding of Spanish, so I enjoy some shows and authors, but don’t participate in communities because I’m just not fluent enough.

I think access is also a factor. Masterpiece distributes a lot of UK shows to the US and a lot of people have BBC America now.

‘The Last Jedi’: A Conversation (SPOILER ALERT!)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” steer clear of this review!

Two years ago, in a galaxy not so far away … two lifelong Star Wars fans — Lavender, of nomansland.blog, and Shawna, of earthtoshawna.com — decided to search their feelings and work out their issues after seeing “The Force Awakens.” It was so much fun, we decided to do it again with “The Last Jedi,” the second installment of Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy. 

Here’s the conversation …

SPOILER ALERT: Seriously. If you’re planning to see “The Last Jedi” at all, do not read any further. We’ll be discussing the movie in full. Do yourself a favor and go watch porg videos instead.

Lavender: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has a 93% “fresh” rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but only scored a 56% approval rating with audiences. Do you side more with critics or moviegoers?

Shawna of earthtoshawna.com

Shawna: What? Really? That’s pretty shocking! I didn’t know that. I’m with the critics – I loved it! What about you, did you love it?

Lavender: I’m going to have to say I agree with the critics here. I think “The Last Jedi” is fantastic, with a few caveats. It’s a weirder, wilier beast than “The Force Awakens,” but while it generally follows the formula of “The Empire Strikes Back” in terms of plot and tone — in the same way “Force Awakens” follows the formula of “A New Hope” — writer-director Rian Johnson is very comfortable telling a more original, more surprising story here than the first chapter of this new trilogy.

There are so many breathtaking moments here for die-hard Star Wars fans. There’s a childlike playfulness at work (almost too much at times), but also a darker, deeper exploration of the balance of the Force that is extremely satisfying to a longtime fan like me.

Shawna: I totally agree with everything you just said. I found some of it a little bit cartoony and contrived, but overall I loved the unpredictability and suspense, and I enjoyed the nods to “Empire” too. The on-the-edge-of-my-seat moments and the goosebump moments more than made up for the give-me-a-break stuff.

Lavender of nomansland.blog

Lavender: For me, the heart of the film was the connection and counterpoint between Daisy Ridley, as Resistance fighter and maybe the most bad-ass Jedi ever, Rey, and Adam Driver, as conflicted and angsty wayward son Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren.

I had forgotten how good Driver is as Kylo Ren, all pent-up fury and raging teenage hormones. (Is he a teenager? Well, he acts like one, anyway.) It’s astonishing how much sympathy you feel for this character and yet he’s just so vile at the same time. And, of course, Ridley is perfect once again as the lonely, pure-hearted Rey, who journeys to the secluded island hideaway of Luke Skywalker seeking guidance in the ways of the Force and, for the first time, feels a pull to the Dark Side. Her vulnerability is heartbreaking.

Johnson has cooked up this mysterious connection between Rey and Kylo, who communicate throughout the film in these electrifying psychic dialogues that are intimate, chilling, and melancholy all at once. And, of course, there’s the scene in which they together confront Snoke. I would like to rewatch that scene about 50 times. I had goosebumps all over!

Shawna: I loved the scenes in which Rey and Kylo connected through the Force. I wanted more of Kylo’s character after seeing “The Force Awakens,” and I wasn’t disappointed. How awesome was it when Kylo killed Snoke and they fought the guards together? It was so powerful, and then how fitting for him to say “join me.”

Lavender: Yes! That was epic. And there were many, many epic moments, from that opening with Poe Dameron taking out the cannons on the New Order star destroyer with his aerial acrobatics to that final face-off between Kylo and Luke Skywalker. What else did you love about the film?

Shawna: The porgs! You predicted the lovable-ness of these little critters the same way you knew BB-8 was going to steal the show in “The Force Awakens.”

I loved the crystal foxes and the space horses too. When they set the herd free – that was my favorite Rose and Finn scene. And we got a little of Rose’s back story there, which was interesting. Mostly though, I felt there was untapped potential with their storyline.

I also loved Luke’s astral projection – that moment when you see he is still on the island, how cool was that? In hindsight I guess that was foreshadowed with Kylo appearing to Rey without really being there, but I didn’t see it coming at all.

I was really happy to see Luke in general, considering he was virtually absent from “Force Awakens.” But I’m still sorting out my feelings for how his character has developed. It seemed so out of character for him to consider murdering his nephew in his sleep. And I don’t think I can ever look at him the same way after watching him drink that milk.

Lavender: The milking scene. Ewww. So weird. I’m still not sure what that was about. One of several goofy, but perplexing moments in “The Last Jedi.” Johnson seemed to be trying to bring back some of the eccentricity of George Lucas’ original trilogy. Maybe? I’m not quite sure?

Otherwise, I loved most of the scenes with Luke. Hamill is a bit weathered, but that suits the character, a perfect blend of crotchety hermit and disillusioned Jedi master. Yes, that unexpected reveal in the finale is something! Wow!

I’m glad you brought up the porgs because I’ve just been waiting this whole time to talk about them. It’s a relief that they are not the next Jar Jar Binks, but are featured in many adorable and funny moments and sparingly so they don’t become unwelcome pests.

You mention the scene with Finn and Rose — who I think are a great team — and the horse-like Farthiers. I think that was actually my least favorite scene. It was just so over-the-top and full of CGI. Actually, the entire sequence on Canto Bight — the Monte Carlo of the Star Wars galaxy — reminded me too much of Lucas’ prequels, and I don’t like to be reminded of those.

What were some of your complaints about this film?

Shawna: I guess it’s the animal lover in me that likes any scene where animals are set free! And as a bookworm, I didn’t like the book burning. Really, Yoda? You’re going to destroy these ancient books and laugh about it? Not cool.

I don’t like that Luke died. I’m sad that this likely means the next film won’t have any of the three original characters.

Lavender: It was kinda funny that Yoda was like, “Ancient Jedi texts, whatever.” I’m so glad Yoda made an appearance though. That was quite a treat.

I think the filmmakers are phasing out the trifecta of the original trilogy so they can focus on the younger heroes of this trilogy, although it seems they may have had more plans for Carrie Fisher in the next and final film, prior to her death.

Speaking of Carrie Fisher, “The Last Jedi” is dedicated to her. What did you think of her role in this film?

I found it to be a lovely and emotional tribute. I love that we got to see Leia in action as a general, her strategizing and camaraderie with her troops, her sorrow over Resistance losses, and we also caught a huge and unexpected glimpse of her Force power. That was insane. I still don’t know what to make of it. She looked so beautiful and all her lines were clever and sassy and completely Carrie. The eventual and long-awaited reunion between Leia and Luke was so touching and fitting. I was bawling. For me, this was probably the highlight of the movie.

Shawna: Almost every Carrie scene was emotionally wrenching, knowing she’s gone. It was hard for me to be objective. I love her.  I need to watch again and try not to think of her being gone so I can actually absorb what she’s saying! And you’re right of course, about the filmmakers focusing on the younger heroes. I know it’s time for them to pass the torch, but I’m not ready to let go yet!

Lavender: It will be interesting to see how the next film does without the heavy lifting of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. I remember when I was skeptical about the three of them returning to the franchise, but it has paid off in rewarding ways for fans and resulted in some excellent storytelling.

While I think “The Last Jedi” has its flaws — there’s an unevenness to it, especially in the first half of the film, that’s a bit disorienting — I’m pleased with where it takes the trilogy. Hopefully, the final chapter will take everything full circle and bring balance to the Force.

Shawna: “The Last Jedi” did take a while to hit its stride, but once it did, it was a great ride! I want to see what happens with Kylo Ren. Will he get to be a good guy at the last minute, like Darth Vader? And is Rey really a “nobody,” as in not related to any of the original characters? Is that what Luke was trying to tell her, that the Force is in all of us? That sort of flies in the face of the genetic component of the Force, but the Midichlorian thing was sort of stupid anyway.

I am excited for the next film!

JPL’s PlanetaryKeri finds the droid she was looking for

I hereby mandate that, from now on, the role of the cool female scientist in every science-fiction movie be played by Keri Bean.

Keri, aka Twitter’s @PlanetaryKeri, has more nerd cred than anyone I’ve met.

I can’t even begin to describe the awesomeness of her educational background (studying the weather on Mars),  job (at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and hobbies, which involve everyone’s favorite droid, R2-D2, and everyone’s new favorite Star Wars heroine, Rey.

At JPL in Pasadena, Keri works on Mars rovers; the Dawn, which is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres; and other fascinating space missions. She’s also part of the lab’s outreach team, making the science accessible to the general public.

In her downtime, Keri has quite the obsession with a certain sassy, blue-and-white Astromech droid. As a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club, she and her husband built their own functioning R2 unit, which goes well with Keri’s other hobby, cosplaying as Resistance Rey with the Rebel Legion club. 

And though we didn’t discuss it because it occurred after this interview, Keri was recently at the premiere of “The Last Jedi,” where she met Daisy Ridley, who signed Keri’s Porg.

Perfection!

You work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It sounds like the best job ever. What do you most enjoy about it?

It absolutely is the best job ever! From the moment I was exposed to what JPL does when in high school, I knew I wanted to work there. I’ve now been working at JPL for over four years, and I still get excited to come into work every morning. I often can’t believe I work here. I think my favorite aspect is that I get to work with some of the best, brightest, and most passionate people in the world. Where else can you work on Mars rovers??

For the sake of laypeople like me, I’m going to ask you to explain some things — or maybe everything — about what you do. You’re a missions operations engineer. What does that entail?

My job is to operate spacecraft and tell them what to do. Since I have a scientific background, I focus a lot more on what’s called science operations. That means I spend a lot of time making sure as much data is taken as possible so scientists can use it to make amazing discoveries.

Currently, you’re working as a science planning and sequencing engineer for the Dawn mission. The Dawn is orbiting and exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. Could you explain your role in the mission?

So we use bits of code we call sequences to control each spacecraft. On Dawn, my prime responsibility was to work with the instrument teams to develop the sequences that would fulfill the science objectives safely. I am part of a small, four-people team that designs and executes all of the science data acquisition.

What information about Ceres has the mission yielded so far?

So, so much! Before Dawn arrived, all we had were these small fuzzy pictures of a round object. We found a large amount of evidence towards water ice, organic molecules on the surface, a transient atmosphere, and so much more! You can find out more at https://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov.

You are the tactical uplink lead and mobility/instrument deployment device engineer for the Mars Explorer Rovers. What do those titles mean? 

The Tactical Uplink Lead means you are in charge of the team planning the activities on Mars that particular shift. It’s a very mentally intense job because you have to remember a lot, make tough decisions, and more under a time crunch. I find it really satisfying. I get to tell a Mars rover what to do!

The latter role (we often shorten to Mob/IDD) is a downlink analysis role. After the rover drives or uses its arm, I’m one of the people that looks at the data and figures out what actually happened, did the activities complete safely, etc. It’s one of the first steps towards becoming a Mars rover driver!

That must be an exciting mission to work on! Tell me about that experience.

Opportunity, and her past twin, Spirit, were actually the first missions I worked on when I was an undergrad. I’ve been on and off the team since 2007! Both my undergrad and master’s thesis were based on data from Spirit. And now I’m a part of the Integrated Sequencing Team, and one of my responsibilities is also training people new to the mission on how to operate it. It’s a dream!

Keri Bean, dressed as Rey from “The Force Awakens,” with the Opportunity rover.

I read that you were interested in weather as a child and watched the Weather Channel a lot. What was it about the weather that fascinated you?

I wish I knew! It was an innate draw.

I also read it was the 2003 Columbia disaster that sparked your interest in space exploration. Tell me about that. 

I remember being at a Texas statewide academic competition called UIL, and they brought all the students into the auditorium. They announced the space shuttle had broken up over Texas and we had a minute of silence. I remember being angry. Not at what had happened, but why didn’t I know we had a space shuttle around Earth at the moment? I knew of the ISS, but what were they doing up there?

As soon as I got home I started reading as much as I could about space. My interested really got locked in a few years later when I got to witness in person the STS-114 launch, the return to flight mission post-Columbia. I went to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, the following two years. Between all of that, I got the space bug hard.

You attended Texas A&M University because it enabled you to combine your love of weather and space. You studied with Dr. Mark Lemmon whose focus is weather on Mars. Please tells us, are all the movies about Mars terribly accurate?

Mostly not. But you know, they’re movies and for entertainment! I’m willing to separate fact from fiction. “The Martian” is the closest I’ve seen to accurate, although even that has flaws.

If you could tell us only one fact about the weather on Mars, what would it be?

It snows!!!

You were able to work on several NASA missions as a student. What did you discover about yourself during this experience?

I found a couple of things. One thing was that I enjoyed astronomy as a hobby and not as a profession. I also found that I really like working with a team. A lot of my school experience was sitting in a cubicle by myself coding, and I just didn’t like the social isolation. I’m glad I got to experience spacecraft operations, as that was the balance between having a cool technical job while requiring social skills and interacting with people on a daily basis.

Are there many women working in your field?

A lot, actually! On Dawn, my manager, in the Science Operations Support Team, is a woman. Our deputy principal investigator and project scientist are women. On my JPL management side, almost all the managers up the chain are women. On MER, women rule! Up until very recently, all Tactical Uplink Leads were women for many, many years.

Right now, our lead systems engineer, lead Rover Planner (aka Mars rover driver/arm operators), and lead Mobility/IDD are all women as well. We also have more women Rover Planners than men. It’s quite often that mostly women staff the tactical team on Opportunity. I’ve seen quite a few shifts where there has only been one guy! But I also know that my experience is an anomaly, and I know many other women who tell me they’re the only women working on the team or in their job type. So while things aren’t perfect, I think there’s tremendous progress at JPL.

You’re a member of JPL’s Advisory Council for Women. How did you become involved with that? What does the council do?

So I try and help out with events that the Advisory Council for Women puts on. They have a yearly banquet (and this past year I nominated my best friend and STEM outreach extraordinaire Dr. Nicole Sharp to be the guest of honor, and she was!) and also do other events on lab.

Keri does some outreach for JPL.

You also do a lot of public speaking and outreach. And you’re an Internet celebrity with a big Twitter following @PlanetaryKeri. How did you get started in outreach? Why does it appeal to you?

I like people! A lot of my job is “translating” between the scientists and engineers, and that skill allows me to translate for the general public as well. I know there are so many people that want to do what I do, so I feel being public about it on social media is the best way to get people to experience what I do.

I could probably ask you about your job all day long, but I’d like to move on to another very important topic: Star Wars. You’re a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club. For those who are unfamiliar with the group, what is the purpose of the club?

The club is for those who want to build their very own Astromech!

How did you become involved with the group? Are there many female members?

I met a member who had built his own R2. I don’t know what it was, but when I saw R2 in person, I just knew I had to have my own. Luckily my husband was immediately on board, saying it looked like a fun engineering project. I wanted to wait a bit until I had a house, but then I saw all the droids in the droid builder’s room at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim and I just couldn’t wait anymore. I went home and ordered my first part that night. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many women in the club, but there are some! There’s now a group called Stardust Builders Initiative that spans over all the builder clubs (so BB-8, Mouse droids, etc.) and there’s close to 100 women or female-identifying people in the group.

Keri works on the dome of her R2 unit.

You built your own R2 unit. Tell me about that process. 

Oh gosh, where to begin?

It’s a long process. Most people take two to three years to build their droid. Mine was two years and a month. I had joined the forum and been reading for a good six months before I bought my first part, and that time isn’t included in that two years and one month duration.

My husband’s skills and mine complemented each other well. I took care of figuring out ordering parts, making sure they were cut/sanded/painted appropriately, etc. My husband has a background in electrical and computer engineering, so he did pretty much all of that. We still had a lot of help from friends! In fact, I have been having anyone that contributed sign the back panel of my droid.

It took a lot of nights and weekends to build. Honestly, over a year of that time was just waiting to get enough parts to actually assemble the droid. The first part we got was the dome, so we actually had our dome nearly complete in the first month of our building process. Then we had to wait a long time to get a frame, legs, and feet so we could actually assemble and stand R2 up. Once we could stand R2 up, things went pretty quickly. The last three months or so of building were pretty constant.

Once the droid is built, what do you do with him? Does the club do events? I’ve seen them at conventions and the droids are always a big hit.

I’ve only had my droid done for about six months now, so he hasn’t done a lot. We actually had a big, big push to finish because I had signed us up to troop at Legoland for their Star Wars weekend!

So we finished very late on Monday night on Memorial Day weekend, did a “soft opening” troop that Friday at a local school, then on Sunday was Legoland! It was super stressful but absolutely worth it since I got to troop as Rey with my droid there. I’ve brought my droid to JPL a few times and he is well-loved there. My husband and I want to make some more refinements before we really take him out and about more. Droids are never really done!

Tell me your personal Star Wars saga. How did you become a fan?

My first memory of watching Star Wars was in a car on a tiny 8-inch TV screen with an attached VHS tape player as my mother drove me across the country. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was in elementary school. The copies I watched were ones my parents had recorded from on air in the ‘80s, so commercials and everything.

So I liked Star Wars, but it wasn’t my main obsession until recently. I mean, I always gravitated towards the droids and had a small collection of R2-D2 things and I went to the midnight premiere of the prequels. But it wasn’t until I met the R2 builder that my love really expanded. “The Force Awakens” compounded that. I connected with Rey long before the movie came out. Now I’m hooked!

You’re a member of Rebel Legion, specifically the SoCal Sunrider Base. How did you discover the Legion?

I don’t remember exactly, but I have been going to comic cons for quite some time and probably first heard of them at one. I knew about them for years, but never had a strong desire to join since I didn’t have costumes that were up to requirements. I had a lot more fun costumes, like a feminine Han Solo, R2-D2 themed Jedi outfit, etc., that aren’t what the Rebel Legion is for. I finally decided that I would get a Rey costume up to snuff and join not only to enjoy being Rey, but also to find events to take R2-D2 to as well. The R2 builders aren’t organized in that regard like the Rebel Legion and 501st are.

What requirements did you have to meet to join the group?

Since I knew I wanted to be Rey, I had to pick which Rey costume to focus on. I really like her Resistance Rey (gray vest outfit), so I focused on that one first. I read the requirements listed on the Rebel Legion website and went from there.

Resistance Rey is an amazing character. Why did you choose her?

I just really connected with Rey in a way I have never connected with a fictional character before. She has so much of my personality and we share a lot of common traits. I eventually want all of Rey’s costumes, but I started with Resistance Rey because I loved the vest!

Was it a challenge to put the costume together?

Yes, especially since I don’t sew! I’ve tried to learn many times but I just can’t seem to do it. So I had to wait for the movie to come out then find someone willing to make it to RL standards on Etsy. I picked pieces from a few different vendors, and luckily it all worked out.

A large part of Rebel Legion’s mission centers around charity and volunteer work. What are some of the events you’ve participated in? 

I joined in January of this year and I’ve already done 18 events! I tried to pick more STEM-focused events since that’s what I’m passionate about. The highest profile events I’ve done were Legoland and Star Wars night at Angel Stadium. My first two troops were back to back for a STEM workshop for Girl Scouts. Another fun one was the El Centro Airshow since there were a lot of fun planes to take pictures in.

What kind of reactions do you get when you show up as Rey?

Rey is so popular, so I get a big response! I was a little worried that since this version of Rey is in so little footage in “The Force Awakens,” I wouldn’t be recognized. Luckily, I haven’t had that issue. Maybe it’s her distinctive hair that helps. Either way, I’m well received! It’s especially fun if I get to troop with a Kylo Ren and we play off of each other.

The little kids always think I actually am Rey, so I get to act a little bit and act like Rey for these kids. At my first troop, a young girl approached me asking me what my favorite food was. I said I had only ever eaten Unkar Plott’s portions, so I asked what her favorite food is. She said spaghetti. I said I had never heard of it, so what was it like? She said it was a plate of noodles. I asked what noodles were since I had never heard of them. At that point I could see the gears turning in her eyes and her blanking out so I said, “Ok, ok, I’ll look it up in the Resistance database. So cute!

When I was at Angel Stadium, I locked eyes from a distance with a small boy, maybe 3 years old? Anyway, he started sobbing and I had no idea what to do. His parents comforted him, and after a minute he bolted straight to me and wrapped himself tightly around my leg and through his sobs I heard something like, “Don’t let Kylo hurt you. I love you too much,” so I comforted him and told him the Force is strong with me and I’ll be ok. It was super touching.

Are there other characters you’d like to portray in the future?

I’m working on a few other costumes, but no other named characters besides Rey yet. I’ve got a Jedi and a Rebel Fleet Trooper costume in the works. I might do one of Jyn Erso’s because I really like her style.

Are you excited about “The Last Jedi”? It’s almost here!

I’m super excited! I’m excited to see where Rian Johnson takes us, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where Rey goes on her journey.

You once gave a talk about the Dawn mission to Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. Please tell me about that!

Through the R2 builders, I ended up meeting someone who works at ILM and he invited me for a tour any time I was in San Francisco. So, of course, I had to go visit as soon as possible! My husband and I took a mini vacation up there. When coordinating my visit, I asked if he thought there would be any interest in me giving a talk about Dawn while I was there, and the rest is history! I’ve now visited a couple of times and it’s really fun every time. Once I even visited Skywalker Ranch … and when checking out at their store I met Dave Filoni!

What other fandoms are you interested in?

I think it’s obvious Star Wars is my main thing now, but I also like Star Trek, “Doctor Who,” “Battlestar Galactica,” Harry Potter, “Lord of the Rings,” and probably more I can’t remember right now. I’m not a huge comic book person, but I did like the Christian Bale “Batman” trilogy and the “Wonder Woman” movie. I used to really be into anime in high school but that faded when I went to college.

As a kid you were into Disney movies. Are you still a Disney nerd?

I’d say so. I go to Disneyland once or twice a year. I have watched a lot of the recent movies (for example, I just saw “Moana” over Thanksgiving break).

You once gave talks about Star Wars science and Dawn at Gallifrey One, the Doctor Who convention. Are you a Whovian?

A little bit! One of the things my husband and I want to do is have our R2 cosplay as a Dalek at the next Gallifrey One. Last year, I attended as Jakku/Scavenger Rey but used 4th Doctor scarf-patterned arm sleeves. That was well received.

I have to point out that there is a YouTube video in which you talk to Morgan Freeman about science. Morgan Freeman! How did that happen? Did you ever recover from it or do you still hear that magnificent voice in your head?

So the JPL media office contacted me that he would be doing an event at JPL and I had been picked to ask him a question in advance, since he wanted all questions pre-screened. So I asked him about how to do more casual outreach to reach the general audience without formal events like talks. It led to a bit of an interesting discussion. It was pretty neat. And the voice in person is just as awesome as you’d expect!

You’ve done so much professionally and personally. What is still on your career bucket list?

Well one thing I never expected to get to do is become a Rover Planner, as I thought that was mostly for robotics/computer science people. But I’ve now begun down that path, and over the next few years I’m working towards becoming one for Opportunity. So I guess there’s only crazy things left. Director of JPL? Astronaut? I don’t know! All I know is whatever I do, I’m going to have fun along the way.

What is on your geek bucket list?

I want to head to Ireland and hike Skellig Michael in my Resistance Rey outfit!

Let’s close with a few key Star Wars questions:

Is R2 the droid you were looking for?

Absolutely!

Besides R2, obviously, who is your favorite droid?

I think next I’d pick Chopper. I love the snark. K-2SO is almost tied on that front.

If you could visit any Star Wars planet, which would it be?

Definitely Ach-To. So pretty! And Porgs!

The Han Solo spin-off. Terrible idea or should we give it a chance?

I think we should give it a chance. I trust the people working on it to make it great!

And finally … Porgs. Yes or no?

Yes!!!!

 

The Porgs Were Calling to Me: Taking Stock of Force Friday II

I don’t know how it went down where you live, but Force Friday II was a rather subdued event in my town.

There didn’t seem to be any midnight previews or parties scheduled at local shops. Though a couple of stores put on a good show with displays and row upon row of merchandise, there was a general air of disinterest amongst the early Labor Day shoppers Friday morning.

From what I’ve read online and seen on Facebook, other cities made more effort, but I suppose it was inevitable that enthusiasm would have waned a bit after 2015’s inaugural Force Friday, which heralded the arrival of the first Star Wars film in a decade, “The Force Awakens.”

For the uninitiated, or those who have a life that doesn’t involve obsessing over Star Wars, Force Friday II kicked off early this morning. A stroke of marketing genius and hype, it’s the day Disney designates to release all the new merchandise relating to an upcoming Star Wars film — in this case, “The Last Jedi,” which won’t hit theaters until Dec. 15.

I’m not one of those die-hard collectors who shows up at 10 p.m. the night before to line up to buy Sphero’s R2-D2 App-Enabled Droids, exclusive Funko Pops, or six-inch Star Wars Black Series action figures, all sold-out before 8 a.m.

Ever the slacker, I meandered over to my local Target around 10:30 a.m. This is where the party — if you can call me wandering around by myself, clad head to toe in Star Wars attire and generally looking like a nerd, a party — was definitely at.

Target’s toy aisles featured a Rey display with a lightsaber that glows on command, complete with cuddly Porgs.
This is me, interacting with the light-up Rey display at Target.

Target and Toys ‘R’ Us definitely made the best show of things in my town with plentiful stock, fun decor, interactive displays, and lots of images to scan with your phone if you happened to be playing the Find the Force augmented reality scavenger hunt.

A Target display for “The Last Jedi” beckons shoppers to scan and take selfies with.
Kylo Ren was seen skulking around Target, looking very emo.

As you can see above, many of the action figures had been picked over at this point, but in general there was still a plentiful array of merchandise to choose from. There was no sign at all of the much coveted interactive Sphero R2-D2. If you’ve seen video of this sassy little R2 unit, you’ll understand why he was one of the most popular Force Friday II scores, even at the price of $180. (He’s still in stock on Sphero’s website.)

Look at this Porg’s adorable face. How could you not buy him immediately?

In 2015, everyone fell in love with the orange-and-white, spherical droid BB-8, despite the fact that we as yet had no idea if he’d annoy us Jar Jar-style in “The Force Awakens.”

This year, it’s the cute and cuddly Porgs — a cross between a hamster and a penguin — that are stealing hearts even though we’ve yet to see them on-screen. I am not immune to the Porg’s buggy-eyed charms. I had to work mightily to restrain myself from buying a plush version of the little critter, I’ll admit.

I restrained myself from taking a plush Porg home, but I did pose with one in JC Penney.

Aside from Target and Toys ‘R’ Us, the remainder of my Force Friday adventuring was a bust. You know something weird is going on when JC Penney has a better display and selection of merch than Hot Topic. And it was business as usual at GameStop, aka nerd central.

This was pretty much the extent of the Force Friday II festivities at Hot Topic.
JC Penney at least made an effort with a fun display at the front of the store.
My hubby, Nick, dropped by on his lunch break to cavort with BB-8 and the new BB-9E droid.

It was in JC Penney that I noticed the generous assortment of T-shirts on display at the store’s entrance were largely, if not all, designed for men. This brings us to an important question.

How gender inclusive is “The Last Jedi” merchandise looking at this point?

Judging by what I saw at JC Penney and Hot Topic, maybe not so good. With businesses like Her Universe and even Disney itself selling Star Wars fashions to women at a frenzied pace, it makes no sense to me that the managers of these stores would assume only men would be hunting for Star Wars bargain tees on Force Friday.

Target, on the other hand, featured a decent range of Star Wars clothing for girls and women, including the vibrant Rebels tee below.

And when it comes to toys, there seems to be a lot less cause for a repeat of the “where’s Rey?” controversy that arose in 2015 with the scarcity of merch featuring Daisy Ridley’s character, even though she was the star of “The Force Awakens.”

So far, I’m pleased with the amount of Rey products I’m seeing and I spotted a good selection of Star Wars toys geared toward girls.

I think there’s still room for improvement when it comes to gender equality in the Star Wars universe, but it looks like Disney has taken some  positive steps forward.

This Forces of Destiny doll — Sabine Wren from Star Wars Rebels — came home with me. She’s not a Porg, but she’s pretty bad-ass.

If you didn’t get to do all the Force Friday II shopping you wanted today, there’s still time. The following online retailers might be worth checking out for discounted Star Wars items and new merch:

Disney Store

Lego

Her Universe

ThinkGeek

Tell me about your Force Friday II experience. Did you score some epic merchandise? Did you take any awesome selfies? Share in the comments.