MAKERS' Exclusive Q&A With Children's Book Author, Cofounder and CEO of Sally Ride Science, Tam O'Shaughnessy
Tam O'Shaughnessy is an American children's science writer with an upcoming book, a photo biography about Sally Ride, set to release soon. Before the astronaut's death in 2012, they were life partners for over two decades. She played professional tennis and was coached by iconic athlete Billie Jean King before she developed her interests in writing and science. She's also the CEO and co-founder of the science education company Sally Ride Science.
Get to know more about O'Shaughnessy's story, thoughts and more in an exclusive Q&A below:
Q: Tell us about your journey toward becoming a writer after your tennis career. What inspired you to become a published author?
A: I started playing junior tennis when I was 11, and I played as a professional on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour from 19 to 22. It was an exciting time to be on the WTA Tour — it was brand new, and the players formed a tight-knit community. We felt like rebels — we were proud to take a stand with Billie Jean King and be part of the movement for equality.
During my tennis career, I competed at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. I was ranked as high as No. 52 in the world in women's singles by the WTA and as high as No. 3 in the U.S. in women's doubles (with Ann Lebedeff) by the USTA. Then I went to work for Billie Jean King and Larry King, her husband at the time, at their company, King Enterprises, in San Mateo, Calif. It was my first "real" job.
I was very lucky — I got to try different areas of the business (from mass marketing mailings to magazine production to writing) and find my strengths. Billie Jean and I each raised $10,000 to start the WTA newsletter, and I became founding publisher of the newsletter and several tennis magazines.
A few years later, while I was studying biology in grad school and teaching college biology lab courses, I discovered that I was good at synthesizing complex science concepts and presenting them in ways that helped students learn. The other instructors would save the science drawings and explanations that I sketched out on the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard!) and use them in their classes. These experiences gave me confidence when Sally and I decided to start writing children's science books together.
In 2000, Sally and I and three friends started a science education company — Sally Ride Science. I was the chief creative officer, so part of my job was to come up with ideas for book series and guide the writing, editing, photo, and design teams through to publication. I also wrote some of these books. Our company established a reputation for science books that were well written, engaging, interesting, accurate, and fun.
Q: And what sparked your interest in science?
A: When I was growing up we lived outside of the small town of Jackson in Northern California on several acres, with a forest behind our backyard. Our next-door neighbors lived on a ranch with cows and geese and a lake on their property. By the time I was 5, I knew how to catch and clean rainbow trout, shoot a BB gun (never at living creatures), and spot poison ivy on hikes with my sisters. My mom and dad loved the outdoors, and they taught me these things. Living things fascinated me. One of my favorite childhood memories is of watching plump purple tadpoles in a creek gradually sprout legs, go green, and turn into frogs.
Q: Who are your favorite children's authors, and what were your favorite children's books growing up?
A: When I was in third grade, my teacher read "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White aloud to the class. I couldn't wait to get to school each day to hear the next part of the story. I devoured Hardy Boys mysteries. My parents bought a used set of leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica. By middle school, I was into biographies — Australian tennis champion Lew Hoad, missionary physician Albert Schweitzer, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. I wanted to know about real people and the exciting work they did. By high school, I was reading all sorts of books, but I particularly loved science fiction — Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" truly transported me to Mars.
Q: What do you think is the secret to a successful and influential children's book?
A: Since I write nonfiction, I'll speak to that genre. I’m not sure there is a secret — good writing is a lot of hard work! Researching, note-taking, thinking, writing, editing, reworking, rewriting — and then a zillion more iterations. If there is one basic tenet, it is that as a nonfiction writer, you must have deep knowledge of the subject you are writing about. You must know it so well that you have a real feel for the subject. You can't fake it!
Q: Do you have any advice for young people who are unsure what their career path might be when they grow up?
A: Yes. Follow your interests and they will lead to your career. People are usually good at things that truly interest them. When you really like doing something, you spend time doing it and you naturally get better at it. This is fun — and inherently rewarding — so it creates a positive feedback loop.
Q: We can't wait to check out your photobiography on Sally Ride to come out Tuesday. Why did you write this book?
A: I wrote this book because I wanted young people — girls and boys — to know who Sally really was — what she was like, what she cared about, and some of the cool things she accomplished. There are very few biographies about high-profile gay people — especially American heroes. I want young people to come away after reading my book and think, "Wow, what a fun and full life." And, "Um, love is love, no matter a couple’s gender."
Q: Here at MAKERS, we love celebrating women in STEM. Are there any other influential women in STEM who you look up to?
A: Yes, too many to count! Maria Zuber — a geophysicist who led the GRAIL Mission that mapped the moon’s gravity. Margaret Leinen — an oceanographer and first female director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. Rita Colwell — a microbiologist who came up with the idea of using satellites to monitor ocean temperatures to figure out the life cycle of deadly cholera bacteria. Deborah Prothrow-Stith — a physician who originated the field of public health practice, which focuses on encouraging people to adopt healthful habits and to prevent illness.
Q: What do you think is the best way to encourage young girls to pursue STEM careers?
A: First things first! The first thing we need to do is to encourage girls to stick with STEM as they go through school. This is critical because far too many young people, especially girls and underrepresented minority students, drift away from STEM starting in elementary school. The key is making sure all students are scientifically and technically literate. This will enable them to make informed decisions about their lives, their communities, and their world. And most jobs today depend on a solid foundation in math and science.
Now the question is, how do we encourage girls to become scientifically and technically literate?
There are still lingering stereotypes in our society that suggest scientists, and especially engineers, ought to be male. By middle school, girls have started to internalize those messages — and it's important to many of them to do what they think their peers expect them to do. It may not be cool to be the best student in math class. A 12-year-old girl who says she wants to be an electrical engineer may still get a different reaction from friends and family than a 12 year-old-boy who says exactly the same thing. Elementary and middle school grades are critical. The good news is that research points to strategies that work to engage girls. I’ll mention just a couple: Involve girls in out-of-school activities. Events and programs that offer good collaborative, hands-on activities for girls can be effective in engaging them. These programs show girls that science is creative, collaborative, and relevant to their world. Give girls more information about science and engineering and the people who work in these fields. Let girls see the range of cool things that scientists and engineers do. Introduce role models to put a female face on those careers.
Q: What is the most rewarding part about being the CEO of Sally Ride Science?
A: Creating, creating, creating! a collaborative, innovative culture in the company; opportunities for students and teachers to participate in great science programs; excellent content to engage, educate, and inspire on our website and in our books and teacher guides, teacher training curriculum, and events; opportunities for corporate America to get involved with us and help make a difference in the lives of students and teachers.