Shooting for the stars: BCSD alumna Renata Cumbee now works for NASA
Published on Monday, March 29, 2021
Photo courtesy of the UGA Graduate School
When she was growing up in Cordesville, Renata Cumbee was fascinated whenever she saw the night sky lit up with stars.
Seeing that star-speckled sky made her want to learn more about the universe.
“It was so beautiful and there were so many stars,” Cumbee said. “I just really wanted to understand how they were there and what they meant.
“Just looking over the Milky Way is an amazing experience, and I did that every day of my life,” she said.
With that, Cumbee wanted to grow up to be a scientist. When she was 12 years old, she decided she was either going to study something really big or really small.
In astronomy, one studies both.
“There’s so much in the universe we don’t understand, and I’ve always been drawn to it,” she said.
Cumbee is now an astrophysicist, and a product a Berkeley County School District. She is a contractor for NASA, working for the University of Maryland as a research faculty member.
March is National Women’s History Month. Cumbee recently shared her story of growing up in BCSD, and recalled the teachers who supported her on her journey to break into the science field, and the challenges she overcame to get to where she is now.
A product of BCSD
Photos courtesy of Renata Cumbee. On left: Cumbee is in the center wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt. On right: Cumbee is seated, swearing a NASA shirt.
Cumbee grew up as a Berkeley "Fawn", "L’il Buck", "Buck" and "Stag"; she graduated from Berkeley High in 2006.
She remembers a few teachers from BCSD who supported her in her learning: she had a female science teacher in fifth grade who knew Cumbee enjoyed science.
“She gave me a little bit more leeway during experiments and testing experiments during class,” Cumbee said. “She was very encouraging to help me learn more about science, even if it was a little bit more work for her.”
She also remembers Laddie Jones, who she had for eighth-grade social studies at Berkeley Middle – where he is still teaching.
Jones can remember exactly where Cumbee sat in his class: right in the front row, where Jones liked to keep her, because Cumbee was often his go-to student for someone to contribute on a higher level.
“I remember one thing that impressed me about her was, even in the eighth grade, she could think in the abstract,” he said, adding, “She could take lots of pieces of information and analyze them, and come up with her own take on things…that’s hard for a lot of eighth-graders – that’s a skill that they’re just starting to develop.”
Jones said Cumbee always “walked to the beat of her own drummer”, which is also not easy in middle school.
“I just always encouraged her to be herself, and to not be ashamed of being smart,” he said.
Cumbee did not expect to go to college when she was younger, but she knew Jones saw things differently.
“I know that he had high expectations of me and I felt that he was the first person who had those high expectations of me,” Cumbee said, adding Jones envisioned her going to college and graduate school and fulfilling her wishes to become a scientist.
Cumbee ran into Jones while she was visiting home during college; she laughingly recalled he was disappointed that she did not graduate Valedictorian from high school.
Photos courtesy of Renata Cumbee / Photos of Cumbee in high school.
In addition to her fifth-grade teacher and Laddie Jones, Cumbee also received support from a ninth-grade physical science teacher during an experiment in class. She could not remember exactly what the experiment was, but said she and another girl in the class were elbowed out of the way by the boys, who were confident they had the right answer (but didn’t).
“I kind of noticed that…sometimes guys just don’t think I have the answer,” she said.
However, her teacher could tell that the two girls knew the answer and needed to step out of their comfort zone, and thus went over the right answer with the girls and encouraged them to speak up.
Cumbee described herself as a very shy person, and that this teacher’s influence left a major impact on her, particularly when she went to graduate school, when she saw similar traits with her male classmates.
She took biology in addition to physics, and she noticed that biology classes had more female students while physics classes were more male-dominant; sometimes Cumbee would be the only girl (or one of two girls) in a larger class.
During class it was not so much an issue – and she enjoyed her professors – but sometimes if she was struggling in lab or had questions, she felt like she was treated differently by her male classmates.
“People would just treat me as though I’m an idiot…and then a male peer would ask the same question to the same person and they would treat him very differently,” she said.
However, it hasn’t been an issue since coming to NASA, and Cumbee said she has a lot of female peers in her field.
Photos courtesy of Renata Cumbee. On left: Cumbee's senior yearbook photo. On right: A recent headshot from NASA.
Working for NASA
Cumbee had a physics teacher that told her about a program at Francis Marion College that showed how fun physics can be – instead of it just being a hard subject.
Cumbee said those prying questions about college – such as where she wanted to apply, when she was taking the SATs, whether or not she was hearing back from colleges yet – showed her that her teachers really did expect her to make it into college.
"They had no doubt as to whether I would be accepted into at least one of the schools I wanted to go to, and it made me feel just a tiny bit more confident," she said.
Cumbee studied physics at Francis Marion College. She later obtained a doctorate from the University of Georgia (UGA) – she studied physics for her undergraduate degree but her research was in astrophysics.
UGA profiled her life and work in its graduate school magazine in 2016. Laddie Jones actually has a hardcopy of this magazine; another UGA graduate Jones knows happened to come across it, read the article about Cumbee, saw Jones’s name in the story, and then mailed the magazine to him.
“When I saw it, I smiled from ear to ear, and I was just thinking… ‘no surprise at all’,” he said. “I was glad to see that she had taken opportunities that her mind has given her, and is able to climb as high as she has.”
He now keeps the copy of the magazine in his classroom and shows it to his students, sharing the story of how he knows her.
Cumbee got her first position at NASA through the NASA Postdoctoral Program. She had to write a 15-page proposal to earn a spot with NASA.
“I was very lucky to have been accepted. …The work here, I wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else,” she said. “I wanted to stay, and I started to work at NASA through the University of Maryland following the fellowship.”
Cumbee knew she wanted to do research in astrophysics. She is currently studying x-ray radiation produced in the galaxy. She does laboratory astrophysics, and works on physics experiments that can be used to better understand x-rays in the universe.
With help from a satellite, Cumbee can observe x-rays within the solar system, and x-rays in other galaxies.
She is part of a team helping to build a satellite with Japan called XRISM, which is going to be used to look at x-rays in greater detail. Part of it was built in America but a bigger portion was constructed in Japan. It is slated to launch in January 2022.
“I’m mostly working to make sure it’s operating properly,” she said.
With the ongoing pandemic, Cumbee is working from home, doing everything via computer.
“It’s a little bit more difficult to get stuff done, especially when you’re working with teams in other locations – you’re not able to travel as easy,” she said. “But I’m lucky I have the ability to work from home.”
Cumbee has lived in Washington, D.C. since 2016 but still comes back to South Carolina to visit family.
"I like to relax and have a bonfire," she said. "I love to go the beach...the beaches are so much better in South Carolina."
Cumbee defines success as someone following their dreams.
“I feel that I’m successful because I followed my dreams, and I got as far as I could while following my dreams,” she said.
Cumbee said she was afraid to go to a large university, and was apprehensive about leaving home. However, she felt prepared to work as hard as she needed because of the direction she received in grade school.
While there may have been time when she did not think she would get the degrees or job she worked hard for, she did not want to let herself down.
"I never gave up even when I felt that I wasn’t smart enough or good enough to be successful, and that lead me to where I am today, and I will continue to work my hardest so that I continue to be successful," she said.
Her advice for students: “Do the best that you can do and be as successful as you can possibly be. Don’t compare yourself to other people.”
Her overall message, particularly to female students, is to do what’s in your heart; she said she knows she is much happier doing what she is doing than she would have been doing something else.
“If you’re a scientist in your heart, don’t try to change that so you fit in better with what people think you should be,” she said.
Hearing a former student’s success story can be very meaningful to a teacher.
Jones said Berkeley Middle offers training to instruct teachers on how to build relationships with students to support their education.
Jones has had lots of other success stories too; it is easy to reference a local orthodontist or pediatrician who Jones taught years ago, and point to them as examples of what students can achieve – “but you don’t always see astrophysicists in your everyday life.”
“Berkeley prepares you for whatever you want to be, from a rocket scientist, to an NFL star, to an actor or dancer who appears on TV,” he said. “Whatever you want to be, you can achieve it here in Berkeley County School District.”
Cumbee said she is glad she had the support from Berkeley County School District’s teachers to do what she wanted to do.
“I think it’s super important for girls to know they can become an engineer, a physicist, a scientist, even if people think that they shouldn’t want to do that,” she said. “I’m so glad that people felt that I could do this. It’s so important to have the support of your teachers to follow your dreams.”
Cumbee has a niece in BCSD who works hard to get good grades, and Cumbee said she is proud that her niece knows she has opportunities to go to college and graduate school if she wants.
"While she's smart and hardworking on her own, I think Berkeley has helped to set her up for success," she said.
Photo courtesy of the UGA Graduate School