Center Snapshot: Caryn Long
Image above: Caryn Long has been at NASA Langley for more than three years now, but her relationship with the center began when she was an educator in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. She was one of the thousands of teachers trained to use NASA education products through a summer workshop, then called NEW (NASA Educator Workshops). Her mother's love of science and her father's work ethic laid the foundation for her future. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Denise Lineberry
Caryn Long is an educator, a mother of two, a math and science scholar, a creative mind, a Katrina survivor, a dancer, a sister, a daughter, a widow and a manager for NASA Langley's Digital Learning Network (DLN).
One might say that she is strong, graceful, dedicated, intelligent, creative and loving.
Her experience helps to define her.
Long was born and raised in Ohio, but she considers North Carolina her home state, because she spent most of her time there.
"My parents will tell you that I was like the Energizer Bunny as a child," she said. "I got into all sorts of trouble, from knocking myself out falling from my crib into my laundry basket, to picking up spiders and scaring my mom so badly she grabbed my ankles and shook me until I let them go, to making mud pies, having a 'slice' and then telling my mom and sister I didn't eat dirt when the evidence was all over my face."
Her nickname was "Turt," short for turtle. "As a young child in nursery school I became fascinated with our sea life lessons -- so much so that I renamed everyone in my family," Long said. Her sister became "fish," her dad "lobster" and her mom was "crab." "Not necessarily the most flattering name, but it was meant with love," she added.
During her childhood, she made an important connection with NASA. "As a fourth grade student, I fell in love with NASA when I was assigned an extra credit project to write my senator, John Glenn. He, or likely an assistant, was kind enough to send me a packet of materials and a letter hand signed by him," Long said. "In that packet were the standard NASA education publication materials, but they were all so special and wonderful that I retained that excitement and followed the space agency closely throughout my adult life."
While following NASA in 1986, Long decided to change directions with her career. "I have always had an interest in television as a medium and actually believed I was destined to be a TV broadcast journalist. I attended TV journalism courses in high school and declared Radio Television and Motion Pictures as my major in college," she said. "However, the Challenger accident caused me to focus more on education after seeing how the media treated the surviving members of the astronauts' families, in particular Christa McAuliffe's family. I knew I couldn't be that 'cut throat,' so I changed my major to elementary education."
Long educates students and teachers. "I used to tell novice teachers that if they could connect everything to space and dinosaurs they would be 'in' with their students," she said.
She was excited at the opportunity to combine her passions of space and education when she worked for NASA headquarters as an Einstein Fellow, helping to establish the NASA Explorer Schools Program.
Before coming to Langley, Long worked at Stennis Space Center. During that time her family's home was submerged by 18-1/2 feet (5.6 m) of storm surge when Katrina hit. "We were 4-1/2 miles (7.2 km) inland and lost nearly every possession that we owned," she said.
Her family looked forward to new beginnings in Hampton Roads and to a continuation of Long's successful career.
Through the DLN, she sees her education opportunities as endless. "As a fourth grade student, I had access to NASA by letter," she said. "Now, any student can have access to NASA's personnel and studies through their computer lines on their desktop computers through our webcasts and through interactive programming with the DLN. My job couldn’t get much cooler than that."
"I am so thankful to be working amongst some of the finest educators in the country right here on center," Long said.
Her sister, Cathy, who is 11 years older, acted as a role model. "She, too, has accomplished a great deal in her education career including being a finalist for Ohio's Teacher of the Year," Long said.
Long's own work has not gone unnoticed. In 2000, she won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation's highest honor for science and math teachers.
She received the honor at the White House with her parents and her husband, Steve, by her side. For Long, their presence was an additional honor.
On Feb. 1, 2008, she lost her husband to liver failure caused by Hepatitis C that he received from a blood transfusion during a dialysis treatment.
"I learned as much from him as I ever did in school, and my time with him shaped my life in ways that are unimaginable," Long said. "He showed me what it was like to have someone love me unconditionally, something every woman hopes to attain when they meet a man."
Steve was a romantic. He secretly took dance lessons for six months to surprise her on their anniversary. Long is a tap, jazz and ballroom dancer who has placed in national dance competitions. And her husband was prepared to impress her then, and always.
"He would leave little notes and do small things that would show his love and remind me constantly of his dedication to me and our family," she said. "When he was dying, he even arranged to have 19 roses (one for each year that we were together) delivered to our house after his death with a note that he dictated to one of our friends from our church on Valentine's Day so I would know that he was okay.
"He was the most amazing man I have ever known, and I fell in love with his resiliency and strength."
Her extension of friends and family has helped her through her loss.
"My church, Hilton Christian Church, formed a fundraiser for my family when my husband was losing his battle with liver failure and put the word out to the folks here at NASA Langley when and where they were going to sponsor the event," she said. "There were people from my building as well as virtually the entire staff of the Langley Child Development Center (LCDC) -- where my children, then 3 and 1 -- were attending, who came to work that event. It is truly in the worst of circumstances that you see the basic goodness of people. That night showed me how truly fortunate I am to be here."
Forest, 5, and Randolph, 3, keep her on her toes. They play Nintendo Wii together, read and go to the park to play. They participate in swimming, soccer and baseball. And they continue to grow friendships at the LCDC and at Dutrow Elementary School.
Long recently started her doctorate at Nova Southeastern University through the distance program. "This is something that I have wanted to accomplish since I received my undergraduate and was never able to get it done due to my husband's health issues and then the births of my sons," she said. "Before my husband died, he insisted that I insure that I would obtain my doctorate. I am doing it now to honor both my desire to earn it and his desire for me to see it through."
Experience could be considered Long's greatest teacher, all the while she awakens the student in others.