Jancy McPhee – Ph.D, the SciArt Exchange and Humans in Space

OWC RADiO Host, Cirina Catania interviews Jancy McPhee,  a neuroscientist, and former manager of domestic and international space life sciences research programs for NASA via the Universities Space Research Association and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. She currently continues her space science work with The Aerospace Corporation.  

Since 2010, she has developed motivating and novel ways to enhance space education and communication, foster science and technology innovation, and promote global collaboration to solve hard challenges.

Dr. McPhee created the international Humans in Space Art Program to encourage people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds to communicate their visions of the future of human space exploration and development through visual, literary, musical, and video art. Now run under the nonprofit SciArt Exchange, the Program has engaged over 9000 participants as artists, and over 2.9 million have viewed multi-media artwork displays and performances in person worldwide.   

Other World Computing (OWC) was a major sponsor, along with Vortex Immersion Media, Honeybee Robotics, the Mayfair Hotel, and others, of the recent “Humans in Space Art Celebration” in Los Angeles. We caught up with Dr. McPhee via Skype in between her travels and encourage all young people considering a career in science to listen in.

In addition to international contests and artwork tours, SciArt Exchange offers global science-integrated-with-art activities and training to inspire and prepare the world for the future. It also provides consulting for corporations and educational organizations interested in the power of bringing the arts together with science and technology.

Dr. McPhee believes that both her training in neuroscience and her hobbies, music, and theater, have greatly influenced her work and the nonprofit. 

Larry O’ Connor, Founder and CEO of OWC, is a proud supporter of education initiatives and says, “We at OWC pride ourselves on supporting educational initiatives and our mission to allow creative minds to get the most from their technology, to push their work to the very limits.”

In This Episode

  • 00:35 – Cirina introduces Jancy Mcphee, a neuroscientist, creator and executive director of the SciArt Exchange. Mcphee is former manager of domestic and international space life sciences research programs for NASA via the Universities Space Research Association and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.
  • 05:30 – Jancy shares how she had a shakeup in her career and decided to recreate herself, finding a job at NASA.
  • 09:53 – Jancy tells an inspiring story on how she started the Humans in Space Art Program.
  • 14:12 – Jancy described what happened on the night of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing and the Humans in Space Art Celebration.
  • 21:15 – Jancy explains the concept of STEAM Education, where Arts is added back to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics for a more evolved form of education.
  • 29:48 – Visit SciArt Exchange’s website at sciartex.net to check out their contests, events, consulting, training, and etc.

Jump to Links and Resources


This is Cirina Catania with OWC Radio. I’m speaking with Jancy McPhee, who was introduced to me by Larry O’Connor, the owner of OWC, Jancy was in charge of the Humans in Space Art Celebration, and OWC was one of their sponsors. We’ve also been talking with the Vortex team, which was another sponsor of the event, and I just had to meet you, Jancy. You are the creator and executive director of the SciArt Exchange, and you’re also the director of the Humans in Space Art Program. You have an amazing background as a neuroscientist and the former manager of the domestic and international Space Life Sciences Research programs for both NASA via the Universities Space Research Association and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. So you are also doing space science work with the Aerospace Corporation. So I would probably be pretty right on if I would say you are both left and right brain oriented. Is that not true?

That is actually probably the truth, and even if I am more one side than the other, I am totally in favor of everybody doing their best to use their whole brain. I’ve never understood why anybody only ever wanted to use half of it. So I’m in favor of exercising all parts, it’s not a muscle, but it’s kind of like if you think of it that way. So that’s my goal.

Absolutely. So tell me a little bit about you before we actually get into the Space Art Celebration, because there’s so much to talk about there. It was an amazing event. Let’s take it back to the early days of Jancy McPhee, even before you became a Ph.D. in what got you involved in science and space, where did you come from?

Yes, well, I think that possibly some of your listeners can relate to this, I was that kid who didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. So I think there are a lot of us out there, and life forces us to choose a pathway to go down. And I was always very interested in science, and I had fabulous teachers in the sciences, but I also grew up in a humanities home. My mother was very interested in writing and also in visual arts, and all of my hobbies for music and theater. So when I got to college, I had to decide which direction to go in. And I decided that the best way to combine all of my interests was to actually be a neuroscientist because that is a biologist interested in how people think and move and create and behave. And therefore, I thought that that was the best way to combine all my interests. And I was also very motivated to also have a career that I thought would most likely put food on the table. So I went the science direction, but I always kept in mind where my hobbies are. And as it’s natural, when you’re a scientist, I got more and more detailed and specific in what I was doing. So I’m actually a cellular and molecular scientist by training, and I was going all the way down to not just molecules but parts of your molecules and the DNA that encoded them and trying to understand how they worked. And at some point, I sort of missed the big picture.

I am totally in favor of everybody doing their best to use their entire brain. I've never understood why anybody would ever want  to only  use half of it. Click To Tweet

Now, wait a minute, what do you mean by the big picture?

So there are good scientists, and they’re great scientists. 


And I was struggling with what is the difference. And I have some data on that, that we can talk about in a little bit. But I was looking at very, very small parts of how your nervous system works because that’s what a molecular neuroscientist does. And it was very interesting, and I kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. But every now and then, I wanted to go back and think about a thought, or an organism, and so part of me was missing the bigger picture. Also, I do think that perhaps because of my hobbies, I also had a lot of people skills and I wasn’t really using them, and I was asking myself, how can I use this great science training and these people’s skills in perhaps another way that I might be even more effective at helping us advance our knowledge or whatever it was, that was the goal of the organization. And you have to realize I’m doing a little bit of hindsight here, because, of course, I was on my journey, but I wasn’t really paying attention to my journey.

Isn’t that the truth, though? When you’re at that age, you don’t know, and you don’t really know where you’re going, you’re just sort of moving forward.

Well, I would argue that some of us, even in our multi decades, are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. So I’m definitely one of those, I think I’m arguably on my third career at this point. But they are all interrelated, and the experiences in the prior ones have definitely informed what I bring to the current career at any given time, so here I am, a laboratory scientist. And I did also have a little bit of a shakeup in my career because my husband got a job in Houston. And so I left my position at the time, which was at Caltech, and needed to sort of recreate myself. And one of the really big industries in the Houston area is space, and we are working very hard to figure out how to move humanity further into space and to live and work for longer periods of time in space. And so there are a lot of very interesting biological questions related to how do we keep humans safe and healthy in space? And those seemed like interesting questions. So I found a job at NASA, and I wasn’t actually at the benchtop at that point. I was helping to manage scientific research that would help us understand what happens to the human body in space and how we can keep humans healthy. And therefore it was sort of one step back, remember I mentioned that thing about the big picture? And I managed a large group of people from many different countries and different backgrounds of training and helped them work together and be coordinated. And it was very, very interesting to me the whole process of getting people who are trained differently to work collaboratively. People come from different cultures to work collaboratively. Simple things like the priorities and the words that people use mean different things to people who were trained differently. 

So it was a very interesting period, where I was thinking a lot about collaboration and what prepares people to be good collaborators. Then also NASA put me through some innovation training, which I also thought was very interesting, but it’s very hard to get good training in innovation. But one of the outstanding things that happened during that process is that I realized that we are frequently locked in a box when we’re trying to solve a problem, and we don’t even realize that we’re in a box. And those boxes are created by our experience and our training, and you have to actively pay attention when you’re trying to solve a problem in a novel way to see whether you’re really applying new ways of thinking. So I was trained as a scientist, and I had these hobbies in music and theater, and I’m becoming more and more interested in how people collaborate and how people are creative. And then I walked into our local space center, which is our visitor center. And the place is surrounded by data about space and what we’ve done in space and international space stations, all of that. I think Larry will also say something like this. And I was floored to know that even in this space environment, they still didn’t realize that we had an international space station that was circling the globe. So for me, that was like, wow, what are we doing wrong? We are not even communicating about space effectively to people. So these three things are swimming in my head, communication, creativity, and collaboration. So then I was on the scientific planning committee for an international conference that was going to be held in Houston. It was 2009, and it’s a very difficult time for NASA, because the space shuttle is going away, and a lot of people have lost their jobs for other changes in the program. And so the head of the planning committee said, “Well, let’s call this the next golden age of human spaceflight.” And for some reason, everything that I had experienced, came together in sort of a cartoon-like lightbulb moment. And I thought, here we are, we’re having a technical meeting, about the future of space exploration, but that future is going to be carried out by people who are currently children because we’ll make plans, but they’re actually going to execute it. How do we have an adult scientific meeting but include people who are currently children in the planning of the future, so that they feel invested in it and a part of it and contribute to it and realize that they have a future role in that vision? 

We’re in a new era of space exploration, and we need everybody’s help to solve all the challenges we must face to move us further into the future.

So that was when I began this program that you mentioned, called the Humans in Space Art Program. So I thought we needed to really engage the current children of today in the discussions that we’re having about the future of space exploration, and we needed a common language. And so I thought, well, these young people are super smart, they’re not in a mental box, but they also don’t have all of our technical jargon yet, they just haven’t learned it all. So let’s use multimedia art, music and literature and film and visual art. And then we’ll also make it international so that we can get a lot of different cultural viewpoints. And that was the beginning of something called the Human in Space Youth Art Competition, where we have this contest about what will we do to the future in this golden age of human spaceflight. We collected multimedia and engaged young people, and then we actually didn’t stop with the contest. The first phase was to have the contest, and the second phase was to use that multimedia in as many displays and live performances as we could around the world, so that the artwork then engaged listeners and viewers. So we touch the lives of the contest participants, but then we use their artwork to engage listeners and viewers. So we start this snowball downhill of discussions about the future of space exploration using storytelling and media and getting people interested in the why and the how of space exploration. And then making them feel that even if they weren’t scientists and engineers, they could also contribute to the future. So it was really meant to generate a dialogue, and it started with the kids, and then we use the same model with professional scientists and professional artists, and college and early career professionals. So this whole Humans in Space Art Program seems to be an effective way to engage many different kinds of people. So that’s about the program, and that’s how the program kind of happened. And I’m sure that my exposure as a young person, and me as an amateur through my adult life, really influenced my choice of using the arts as our tool and also to foster thinking out of the box about the future space exploration. I think the arts allow you to have a lot of different perspectives. And by inviting not just scientists and engineers, but also people who self identify as visual artists or composers to talk about future space exploration, where we’re also trying to foster collaboration. So I was able to play around with communicating, creating, and collaborating for the future of space exploration using these art integration techniques.

This is wonderful, basically, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing, which was very exciting. And then you have Humans in Space Art Celebration for children that are between 10 and 18 years old. And because this is radio, people aren’t able to see what this is about. Can you describe what happened that evening? And who was there and what was it?

Yes, I would be happy to do that. So the nonprofit SciArt Exchange took over the Humans in Space Art Program. I had originally started it as I mentioned, while I was a scientist at NASA, so the nonprofit really wanted to continue that 10 to 18-year-old age group, because it’s a very important formative time for young people to be thinking about what do they care about and what do they want to contribute to and understanding what impacts them. So the 50th anniversary was a lot of discussion about what we did 50 years ago and celebrating that. But of course, that was all wrapped into the context of the fact that the human race is returning to the moon. It’s an exciting time in space exploration as many countries are returning to the moon to live and work and do more science on the moon. We will come to understand more about how the moon was formed, our solar system, more about our universe. But we will also learn to live and work on the moon, which is fairly close to home, to prepare us to live in work further from home on places like Mars, sort of the next chapter of human space exploration. So a very exciting time. And we were thinking about the Apollo era, so I wanted to specifically draw attention to this new era in space exploration, where we’re going back to the moon and onto Mars, with our young people, and also to talk about what we’re going to do in the future. So instead of having a retrospective focus, I wanted a prospective focus. 

So I asked the young people to create multimedia artwork about what we will do on the moon and why is it important. And we got some fabulous artwork from 36 countries, and then we had, I think it was something like 80 Judges evaluate who the winners would be. And they came from the space industry, science, the entertainment industry, we had quite a lot of judges right there from the local Los Angeles area, which was really really nice when we then later planned to have our kickoff tour event for the artwork tour in Los Angeles at this fabulous Vortex Dome venue. And big thank you to Larry and Satori from OWC to set up the relationship kinship between SciArt Exchange and the Vortex Domes so that we could all work collaboratively to put together this nice celebration of the artwork, and the artists. Because we were able to invite seven artists to actually come in and attend the Los Angeles Humans in Space Art Celebration at the Vortex Dome, and so we were able to applaud them and award them and include in our show, a seven-minute montage of little bits of all the different media of art that we collected from as many children and countries as we could. 

We need to engage the children of today about the discussions we're having about the future. They are the future. Click To Tweet

So basically, it was a reception, and it was a show, and we had the visiting artists, and we celebrated them, but we also celebrated the power of what happens when you bring the arts together with science and technology. So we had a lot of different kinds of people there. We had quite a number of people there from JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is local to Los Angeles because I have connections with people there. And a lot of STEM organizations, so education organizations interested in science and technology, engineering and math, as well as lots of musicians and visual artists, and actors, film producers. Just a wonderful, fabulous mix of exactly what SciArt Exchange and the Humans in Space Art are all about is to bring all these different kinds of people together and rally them around some interesting topics, like space and everything that needs to evolve in science and technology to enable that future. Plus, it was cross-generational, so we had the adults meeting these young people who had contributed to the Humans in Space Art Competition. And it was really, really lovely, and then the show itself was also really, really fun. We had as our emcee Blake Lewis, and he was fabulous, he did some beatboxing initially to break the ice for us, and he brought Larry O’Connor from OWC up, but he also brought some of the artists and did a little beatboxing.

By the way, for those of you listening who don’t know, Blake Lewis was runner up on American Idol season six. Anyway, keep going, so Larry did beatboxing?

Larry did beatboxing, and so did some of the kids, and Blake wove it all together. So it was really, really fun, that broke the ice and got everybody in a good mood. And then I took five minutes just to let everybody know, why are we here, which was what I said earlier. We’re in a new era of space exploration, and we need everybody’s help to solve all the challenges that we have to face to move us further into the future. And then, we got to show a nice sprinkling of the children’s artwork and then have a short award ceremony. The entire thing was closed by a fabulous guitarist and singer named [Eric De], who we were fortunate to have the ability to perform the show’s closeout. And in between their Vortex also did a fabulous sort of representation of all the amazing capability that the Vortex Dome can do by showing these really interesting fractal patterns on the ceiling of the dome. And then, at my request, they also included a ton of imagery related to space and space exploration and Hubble telescope images. So it really was this wonderful tech art and space combo, which was exactly what we really wanted the evening to be. So It was great.

It sounds amazing. I wish I could have been there. Everybody was raving about it, and they had a wonderful time. And I personally am so grateful to you for bringing this into these young people’s lives. I think they need more of this. We certainly don’t teach enough of it in school,

I think there is a growing movement. For those who are not familiar with it, it’s called STEAM Education. It’s adding the arts back to science and technology and engineering and math. And I like to think of it as really back to the Renaissance, where we really encourage people to learn as much as they can about as many different things and have a balance between the practical things that everybody needs to learn and understand, but also to give a little bit more room for people to follow their passions, as well, while still keeping in mind that a roof over one’s head and food on the table is important.

Of course. 

Well, it is, but it’s a balancing act, and it’s not an easy balancing act that I think there’s more respect for people trying to find that good sweet balance than there used to be 30 years or so ago and I was trying to decide what I wanted to be. Everybody was much more interested in the practical and less about what you’re really passionate about, and now I think people are trying to find both. And education is trying to evolve to reflect that. And I think that’s all good, but I think teachers are a little confused on how to do it. And so we end up working our nonprofit and working with a lot of educators because the things we do make some suggestions for them are things that they can move into their classroom. Like they can even take these international contests and use them as a practical application that they can add for their students. They can do it as a class project or encourage their students to do it at home. And I think that teachers are looking for really interesting ways to have more hands-on things to teach students in many different ways, because not everybody learns in the same way, right? 

That’s true. 

I know I’m very impacted by music, other people are impacted by words. It’s a little bit of personalized learning, so it’s a very interesting time in many different ways.

Yeah. Can I ask you a question? It’s a little bit off the subject, I’ve always been told, and I believe instinctively, I’m not a neuroscientist, and I’m not trained in neurology or neuroscience in any way. That there’s a direct correlation to the parts of the brain that are able to be very successful in music and also very successful in math. That music and math are somehow the synapses somehow meet in there somewhere. But I’m very curious about this, this is totally off the subject, but I’m just really curious, can you talk to me about that for just a second?

Well, it’s not totally off the subject, and you’ve opened the door for me. I actually do a lot of lecturing in science communication, how to be more creative, and how to encourage scientists and engineers to think creatively and work with people who are different from them. So one of the things I like to say, it’s not going to directly answer what you said. And yes, there is a correlation between math and music, and there is also a correlation with these new STEAM education programs of young people performing better on standardized tests. So they’re getting better math scores and doing better in general. So there is a growing body of data that is substantiating, as you said. But one of my most interesting facts that I like to pull out, especially when I’m speaking to science and engineering students, is that a lot of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, actually something like 95% of them have had some in-depth training or current practice in some form of art. I use art as a catch-all term, which not everybody does. And when I say art, I mean creative arts, music, theater, visual art, sculpture, creative media, film production. And so there’s an amazing correlation with not just our good scientists, but our best scientists have some of this training or current practice, even if it’s just an amateur level. The data is accumulating just from the perspective of being a better scientist or engineer, with the power of having exposure to the arts can bring. Also a lot of the astronauts in space, a lot of them are musicians. If you go to YouTube, you’ll find a lot of performances done in space by astronauts who brought their flutes or their guitars and sung along, and there’s a lot of interesting evidence out there. So it was not a tangent, it was a good setup actually,

Art is everywhere. You can find it in music, theater, visual art, digital media, film production, even in science and math.

Oh, good. There you go. I really believe that we need both. I think the marriage of both sides of the brain is so incredibly important. Allow people to do what they’re best at, but introduce them to things they may not know. The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is that in the layman world, many believe that the space program is not as active as it used to be and that the fundings were removed. So I think that what’s really exciting about this is and this is a very naive opinion because I’m just basing it on what the media tells us to hear that it’s as active as it is and to hear scientists like you were saying, We are going back to the moon, we are going to Mars, we are learning more about this every day. I think it’s really exciting. 

Well, and I think that part of the confusion is related to the fact that we’re in a global transition. So even 20 years ago, when I began working with NASA, you really only knew about the sort of like the top four or five space agencies. Now, it’s amazing how many countries have a space agency. So a lot more players are getting involved in space exploration, even from the government world, but there are also a tremendous number of commercial space organizations that are developing and moving into everything from helping with launching to taking tourists to specialized communication satellites. We will have people helping us mine on the moon. There’s an incredible space economy. There wasn’t a space economy, but that space economy is growing, the opportunities are growing. But along with the injection of more governments and more commercial entities and the fact that they come from different kinds of governments and countries, it’s just making how we all work together more and more confusing and more and more important to work out. And so it’s not a surprise to me that there is a lot of confusion out there. And that’s one of the reasons we really like to try to help get the word out and invite people to feel like this is their future. And that, again, we hope that we will have lots of scientists and engineers contributing, but that there’s also a lot of other ways that people can contribute to that future. We’re going to need colonists and some of the important questions, and how do you have people live for a long time in space include things, like how do we keep people happy and healthy and emotionally happy. And when we have colonies, they’re not just all going to be engineers, and we’re going to have newscasters, artists, architects, and many other kinds of people. It’s going to take everybody.

Okay, I’m going to space with you, and I’m going to shoot the behind the scenes, and I’m going to take the still photography of you guys when you land on the moon.

That would be totally awesome. Just remember to bring your Photoshop software. You can remove out any wrinkles that would come up on those pictures as long as you’re planning to do that I’ll be thrilled.

We love ourselves just the way we are. I earned every single wrinkle I have. Now I’m looking at your list of sponsors. I think we’re gonna want to thank them for what they did to help this Humans in Space Art Celebration be successful. I’m looking at Honeybee Robotics, obviously Vortex Immersion Media, The Mayfair Hotel, The Rock & Roll Coffee Company, and the Mars Academy USA. This is a great group of organizations. Where can people learn more about you and what you do, so they can hopefully become more proactive? Because this is wonderful. I’m so glad to have met you. 

It would be great if they could start at the SciArt Exchange website, which the direct URL is actually www.sciartex.net, and there will be a lot of information about some of our past contests and samples of the artwork. And people can also subscribe if they want to hear about open international contests. And as I mentioned, we have lots of contests for children, but we also help other people like just next month, NASA will be holding a calendar contest about space exploration for very young children. And we’ll be helping them with that. So if you get on our mailing list, you can hear about new opportunities. And we are always looking for judges, and sponsors, and anybody who just wants to be a part of this community that we’re forming between the sciences and the arts.

This is amazing. I was driving home last night, and I looked up at that beautiful sky, and that beautiful moon and those stars and a part of me that used to want to be an astronomer when I was just a little tiny girl were wondering. So I just have to thank you for this, this is great. It’s very inspiring, and I’m so glad that Larry O’Connor, who has one of the biggest hearts and biggest brains I’ve ever met, is going to be involved. Thank you for taking the time to talk to the listeners and to us. Is there anything I forgot to ask you that we should talk about before let you go?

Let’s think about that. Well, yes, actually, all of our artwork after the contests, as I mentioned, goes on an artwork tour. So if anyone is interested in using any of the children’s moon multimedia in their community in some way to engage or dress up something that they’re doing, we are happy to work with anyone who wants to become an event host. And we are also currently touring a collection of films and posters about going to Mars that was actually done by early-career professionals. So we have lots of things that people can use in their local environments if they want to start engaging everybody and thinking about space and the power of bringing science and engineering and the arts together.

It's very important for young people to be thinking about what they care about and what they want to contribute to. The earlier they’re exposed to this type of mindset, the better. Click To Tweet

Oh, that’s wonderful. So they can learn more about this if they go to sciartex.net.

And if they contact us, they’ll get to me.

Jancy, I know you’re a nonprofit, you haven’t said it, but I’m curious, where do people go if they want to donate to your amazing efforts here? It costs money to do this, and you need our help. Where do we go?

Thank you so much for asking because the reality is it does take sponsors like OWC to enable us to keep these contests free for the children to participate. And we would like to look for partners so that we can open the next Humans in Space Youth Art Competition. If people go to the website, there is actually a Donate button there, and also, if they prefer, they can just use the contact info there. It will eventually make its way to me, and I can personally work with them to develop whatever plan they want to help support us. 

That’s wonderful. I encourage all of you to do that. This is very important stuff. It’s fun, and it’s creative, but it’s also incredibly important. Thanks, Jancy. I don’t even know how to end with you Jancy, because you’re doing so much. Just let me say that it’s wonderful to talk to you. It’s inspiring now to look up at the sky and know that there is a possibility that we can do this, that we can visit the Moon and Mars, and we can explore space in a way that’s so inspiring. And I encourage everybody to use this artwork for your events and go on your website, join the newsletter and thank you so much. You know what I tell everyone listening, get up off your chair, and do something wonderful today. This is Cirina Catania with OWC Radio. Thanks for listening

The marriage of both sides of the brain is so incredibly important. Allow people to do what they’re best at, but introduce them to things they may not know.


  1. Cultivate art within your community. Utilize multimedia, music, literature, film, visual art, and more to teach others and bring them together. 
  2. Leverage the internet and new technologies to more widely spread your mission’s message. Be more inclusive and welcome everyone interested in joining your cause.
  3. Think big and think global. When people come together for a cause, no matter how small, any idea can expand into something massive and worthwhile.
  4. Get everyone engaged and interested. Hold events, competitions, parties, etc. and bring everyone together to bond over a common interest. 
  5. Empower children to know they can achieve anything they set their mind to. Let them feel they have the freedom to learn new things and improve their skills by providing them with educational opportunities. 
  6. Invest in educators. They are huge players in the entire world’s future. 
  7. Get children interested in STEAM education. Let them explore Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics. 
  8. Hone both sides of the brain. It’s important to train the technical and the creative side together for a more dynamic way of thinking.
  9. Support and donate to causes/ nonprofit organizations that resonate with your beliefs. Establishments like these rely heavily on charitable contributions. 
  10. Visit SciArt Exchange’s website to learn more about their advocacy.

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