Cara Cavanaugh '16

Cara Cavanaugh; Photo credit: Eva Cavanaugh

This interview has been collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer.

Class of 2016, History of Science

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I graduated from Princeton in 2016, and I did the history of science program. For my thesis I focused on the international relations between space programs during the Cold War, specifically the interactions between the U.S., Europe, and Brazil.

I loved writing my thesis. I got to go to the historical archives of the European Union, which are in Florence, and do research there, and I also got to go to Brazil. I took the bus every day to the space center and did research in their library. That was a really fun summer before senior year.

After graduating, I got a Fulbright and went to live in Ireland for a year. I did a Master’s in Science Communication at Dublin City University. I thought I wouldn’t be able to work my interests in space into that program, but I ended up meeting a woman who worked at the European Space Agency. She worked on this space program called Rosetta, so I did my Master’s thesis analyzing the public-facing communications campaign that they did for the Rosetta mission. I got to go to her headquarters in the Netherlands and interview the scientists and the professional communicators that worked on the program.

Then I did the most Irish thing you could do, which is move to Boston. I worked at Cell Press for about nine months. I started off as their intern science writer, working in their newsroom, and then stayed on to do marketing after my internship was over. But I always knew that I wanted to go back to space, so while I was working there, I was also applying to jobs. I really loved Boston, but the more I talked to people, they said, if you want to do space, if you want to do policy things, then you have to be in DC.

After about six months of job hunting, I got a fellowship at the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI). It’s a two-year fellowship for people who want to get into policy but don’t necessarily have a policy background. I work on their space portfolio. I’m working on projects about asteroid mining, space situational awareness, and planetary protection, and I’m also looking at international aspects of that.

Why did you choose history of science? Did you know going into Princeton that you were going to do that?

No, I had no idea. I didn’t even know it was a program until I took a freshman seminar on history of science during WWII. I went in originally wanting to do the Woodrow Wilson School (WWS)1, and I think they have a science track. I loved the freshman seminar, and then I found out about the history of science program, and I was like, oh wait, this is what I want to do. I’d always liked reading and writing, but I’d also always liked science, and the great thing about the History of Science program was that I still got to take science classes. They counted towards my requirements, so my electives weren’t taken up with science.

There aren’t any faculty who do space in particular. How did you approach doing space in your independent work?

I just tried to shoehorn it into wherever I could fit it. I’ve always been interested in space. Even when I was younger, I did this Girl Scout program called the Sally Ride Science Club, and we got to do all these space workshops and send up coordinates to the International Space Station.

Wherever I got the chance, I tried to write about space, and I tried to focus my science classes within the Astrophysical Sciences department. For example, my JP Seminar was about the history of property rights, taught by Professor Pravilova. I decided to write about property rights in outer space. That actually is really helpful for the job that I do now, because outer space is regulated by this one treaty that was written in 1967, and it’s kind of outdated now, but we still use it. So I wrote about that in my JP, and for one of the projects I’m doing at work, I got to write about the treaty again: the history of it, how it was written, and how it can apply today. It was nice how everything went full circle. So being a history major was good preparation for what I do now.

It’s interesting that you thought you would do policy and WWS, and now you’re doing policy.

I know! I think it was always an idea I had in the back of my mind. I was really drawn to the History department. I’d taken some history classes freshman year and sophomore year, and I really enjoyed them, and it just worked out. It’s been a great translation. History just gives you so many skills, like reading critically, that helped me tremendously, because so much of the policy work that I do now is writing and making logical, critical arguments. It’s all stuff that I learned to do in my History classes.

What were some memorable courses and professors you had?

I took a course with Professor Thompson before I asked her to be my thesis adviser. She did this course in the history of music technology, and I really loved it. We not only looked at written documents, but we also listened to songs and asked, how is what we’re hearing related to the way they were able to record music with the technology that they had? We used music technology to look at wider history and what changes were going on in the world. She also brought in some old phonographs, and we were able to do phonograph recordings. That was a really cool class.

And then I also took History of Contemporary Science with Professor Gordin. That was a great overview of the history of science, and then the JP seminar I mentioned with Prof Pravilova.

Being a history major, I got to take all of these classes, and they weren’t all related to space or related to science. You get a broad overview of all these different topics. History made me a very good trivia player.

Did you ever feel any pressures or expectations about getting a History degree instead of a “more practical” degree, and how did you talk to that voice in your head?

Oh, yes. My dad’s a chemical engineer, and when we were growing up, he wouldn’t ask us, What do you want to be when you grow up? He would ask us, What type of chemical engineer do you want to be when you grow up?

I always thought about that, but at the end of the day, I had to go with what my gut was, and my gut was, I really want to do History. I want to read and learn about different cultures and different time periods, and honestly, I just want to be happy during my degree. I think if I had tried to force myself to do a different major, I would have been miserable.

With hindsight, I wouldn’t have gotten the job I have now without a history degree, but it was a little scary when I was still in college, and I saw all these engineers getting jobs after junior summer. I was like, Hey, what about me?

But another thing I wanted to do was travel, because Princeton is so generous with their travel funding, and the History department had an exchange with Oxford, and that was a big factor in me choosing history. I really wanted to study abroad, if not at Oxford, then somewhere else. I did the Princeton-Oxford Exchange, and that was an amazing experience. I felt like I really got immersed in Oxford culture, which is very unique. All the stuff we do ironically at Princeton, they do seriously there. That was an experience I’m never going to have again, and never thought I would be able to have. That was a big draw of the department.

What was the most surprising thing that happened to you at Princeton? What was something you weren’t expecting?

I didn’t expect Princeton to feel like home as much as it did. Even freshman fall—I remember I was lying in my bed, and thinking to myself, Oh, I’m home. I just really felt like I fit.

Cara celebrating Yuri's Night, the anniversary of the first man in space, at the National Air & Space Museum

Have you discovered any new interests or passions after graduating?

At the moment, most of my time outside of work is spent applying to law school. But another thing I’m interested in is theater. I worked at the costume shop at the Lewis Center, all four years while I was at Princeton. I got to see how the theatre and dance programs worked, the costuming and what goes into it. Sometimes it was really glamorous, like making all these beautiful costumes, and sometimes it was just doing laundry for four hours. But that’s another thing that’s carried me through.

When I was in Ireland, I got to volunteer a lot for Irish theater festivals, and just here in DC I’ve been able to go to a lot of shows at the Kennedy Center and Ford’s Theatre. So I would say that’s a passion of mine. I also do Zumba a lot now. It’s so much easier to go to the gym when I’m not a student.

Why don’t you tell me more about law school?

One of the great things about the fellowship I have now is that they really encourage you to go to grad school afterwards. I really love the work I’m doing now, but I feel that I need a higher degree to keep on doing it. The legal issues that I’ve been able to look at, even from a limited perspective, I just find so interesting, so I’m in the process of applying to law school, which is something that I had always thought about. I want to keep doing space and keep looking at these legal questions, and I want to go to law school to get the tools to do that.

What do you want your life to look like five years from now?

Five years from now, I’ll have graduated from law school; I’ll be one year out. I’d really like to keep working in DC and looking at the questions that are coming up in my projects now. There’s a lot of questions about how commercial companies are going to fit into space regulations. The laws and the regulations we have now are outdated, and they come from a time when the US and the Soviet Union were the only big players in space. We don’t even have a Soviet Union anymore. It’s similar to what I did with my thesis—how different countries can collaborate in this field. I’m looking at international law programs now because that’s kind of how space is regulated. I’m also interested in how space companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin are going to fit into this and how they’re going to be regulated. I hope I can play a part in answering some of those questions.

Do you have any advice that you would give to current History majors?

Just keep following your passion. That was something I thought about a lot when I was a history major: How do I keep doing what I want to do? But also don’t pigeonhole yourself. Keep an open mind in your classes, and listen to everything, and see how that might apply to your passions, and just enjoy Princeton.

Photo credits:

Cara Cavanaugh; Photo credit: Eva Cavanaugh
Cara celebrating Yuri's Night, the anniversary of the first man in space, at the National Air & Space Museum; Photo credit: Cara Cavanaugh

1 The Woodrow Wilson School (WWS) was renamed to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in 2020.