Sandra Miarecki’s military career began thanks to her lifelong dream of being an astronaut. While in college, where she majored in astrophysics, she heard that the best way to jumpstart a NASA resume was to join the military, so she signed up with the Air Force ROTC.
Commissioned in 1986, Miarecki was selected to become a pilot. Although 10 years had passed since women were permitted to enter the Air Force, she found herself in an environment that still held “very old-fashioned attitudes towards women,” as she puts it.
“I was the only woman in a class of 50 in pilot training,” Miarecki recalls. “That really toughened me; I learned that I had to just ‘give it back’ in order to earn respect.”
While health issues prevented Miarecki from fulfilling her dream of becoming an astronaut, she realized she enjoyed being a pilot and decided to stay in the Air Force. During her career, Miarecki learned to fly a variety of Air Force jets, advanced to become a flight instructor, and became a test pilot. Over the years, she flew T-37, C-141, B-52, C-5, T-38, F-15, F-16, A-10, F-18, F-4, Mig-15, T-33, and C-23 jets; helicopters; and the GoodYear Blimp.
“In my 20 years of service, attitudes toward women definitely changed, but even so, for much of my career I was the only woman in the room,” she says. “It wasn’t much of a problem until I became a test pilot, which was even more of a male-dominated, chauvinistic environment.”
Miarecki says she encouraged herself to get through that phase with memories of all the women who’d come before her, those who had fought for the right to become pilots. “What I was going through couldn’t be as hard as it was for them,” she adds.
After 20 years of training and teaching with the Air Force, Miarecki decided it was time to retire and looked around for what to do next. “I realized that the reason I wanted to become an astronaut was to do ‘science in space,’ and I decided that doing science on Earth would be just as rewarding,” she says.
Miarecki decided to combine her military experience with teaching, something she’d also always enjoyed, and teach physics at the Air Force Academy. But first she needed to complete her Ph.D., which she started working on at UC Berkeley.
It was on a flight to the Bay Area that helped launch another stage in her career. Miarecki sat next to Berkeley Lab scientist Bob Stokstad, and they got to talking about his involvement in IceCube, an international collaboration to search for a nearly massless subatomic particle called the neutrino. The project uses thousands of optical detectors buried more than half a mile below ground at the South Pole.
She joined the Berkeley Lab team for a research project in the summer of 2008. “I liked everything about the project, so I joined them formally when I finished the Masters degree in 2010,” she says.
Her doctoral research involved measuring the size of the muon neutrino. “No one has done this measurement before because accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) can’t reach that high of energy,” she says. “I used cosmic rays as the source, which are much higher in energy than the LHC can make.”
Last year, a rare teaching position opened at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and Miarecki jumped at the chance to fulfill that goal in her career. She has now been an instructor at the Academy for almost a year while remaining a Berkeley Lab affiliate with the IceCube project. She plans to file her dissertation and complete her Ph.D. this month.