Celebrating Women in STEM

NASA women are not just part of history. We are making history in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To mark Women’s History Month this year, several of us spent the day with about 100 students from high schools in Washington, Baltimore and suburban Maryland. We met up at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and talked to them about our jobs – what we do, what we love most about what we do, how we prepared to do our work, and where we find our inspiration. This is the story I shared with them.

When I started college, I expected to become a lawyer. I enjoyed basketball and many sports agents were lawyers, so combining a law degree with athletics seemed like a sure way to succeed. I dreamed I would be the world’s best sports lawyer and I would represent one of the legendary names in my favorite game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My older brother, who already was a lawyer, reminded me I also was a whiz at science, math and loved art. He urged me to build a career on those talents instead. Great advice!

Later in my freshman year at Notre Dame, U.S. space policy ignited my passion for the peaceful exploration of outer space and changed my mind about my future. I ended up being one of two female aerospace engineering majors in my graduating class. I went on to earn advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, technology and policy, and aerospace biomedical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I became a university professor and have loved teaching students and performing space research. I’ve flown four spaceflight experiments. I designed a spacesuit for Mars. I wrote a textbook to introduce college freshman to the field of engineering. I also taught leadership development at MIT. The proudest moment of my career was in 2014, when President Obama asked me to serve as deputy administrator of NASA.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my life, and I even used my scientific know-how to save it. Another dream of mine had been to sail around the world. My husband and I were making that dream come true in 2003 when our sailboat lost hydraulic steering. We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from any land. We tried everything to steer the boat, but fluid it needed had drained away. Nothing was working, until I remembered the gallon of extra virgin olive oil we bought for the Pacific crossing. Maybe we could substitute it. I did a mixing experiment or two to prove olive oil has the same viscosity as hydraulic fluid, and we rigged up an IV-like system to feed the autopilot that enabled us to steer and sail the remaining 1,000 miles to safety in the Marquesas islands. Eureka! I couldn’t have done that with a law degree!

It was a fantastic day at Goddard, but it’s not all about me. I was among my women heroes all day and honored to hear a keynote from Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as eight NASA colleagues who are brilliant examples of what women can accomplish in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (and I also include art and design – STEAMD) careers. They are Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station; Sandra Cauffman, deputy system program director for the GOES-R satellite program; Aprille Ericsson, manager of the SBIR/STTR Program; Lori Perkins, a scientific data visualizer; Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and a former astronaut; Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist; and Lesa Roe, NASA deputy associate administrator.

My message to the students was simple and I shared my motto: Love – Act – Discover – Innovate (LADI). Be open to possibilities. Know your talents. Rely on your strengths. Follow your passion. You will succeed!