Embracing the Diversity of Our Journey: Aspirations for Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations

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NASA continues to work hard to diversify our workforce and help to inspire the leaders of tomorrow. We’ve had numerous events at NASA Headquarters and our centers in the past few months to showcase the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and Design (STEAMD) disciplines and how they relate to our Journey to Mars and all of our exploration and scientific missions. We have to take bold steps to ensure that we significantly increase the number of women and people of color in NASA’s STEM workforce because we need their perspectives and excellence. In order to be the best we can be,we cannot leave any untapped resources on the sidelines. I’m happy that this month, two more events, the Women of Color STEM conference, and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), gave us more opportunities to recognize leaders in these fields and to continue our efforts to expand inclusion.

At the Women of Color STEM conference (WOC) in Detroit Oct. 13-15, coordinated by Nola Bland at the Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland, we held a pre-college event for middle and high school girls that included a Living on Mars Habitat Design Challenge, and a Solar Arrays for the ISS Space Station Design Challenge. Dozens of girls participated and interacted with NASA women who are doing this work today. WOC builds the STEM pipeline and expands our reach into the pre-college student community for those who might not otherwise aspire toward a career in science, technology, engineering, or math due to social and economic barriers. We have to ensure that these young superstars are welcomed and ‘see’ themselves and also know that they ‘belong’ in STEM careers.

NASA’s workshops were facilitated by Tiffany Williams, who received a Technology Rising Star Award, and Rochelle May and Terrian Nowden — all three are engineers at NASA GRC.  The students shared in hands-on, competitive activities that engaged and challenged them to consider STEM careers as real options. The interactive workshops were very well attended, with over 160 middle school and high school students in the two one-hour sessions. Another panel we hosted was Women to Women: Up Close and Personal, a roundtable discussion led by Robyn Gordon (GRC) and Michelle Ferebee (LaRC) that was very well attended.

I also want to give a shout-out to all the women awardees we recognized at a Technology Awards Recognition Luncheon. Recognized as Technology Rising Stars were Erica Alston (Langley); Dr. Diana Santiago-DeJesus (Glenn); Devin Pugh-Thomas (Langley); Yolanda Shea (Langley); and Tiffany Williams. We also held a panel discussion to give attendees a perspective from NASA executives and trailblazers, with moderator Michelle Ferebee (Langley) and panelists Dr. Marla Perez-Davis (Glenn), Julie Williams-Byrd (Langley), Robyn Gordon (Glenn), and Dr. Dionne Hernandez-Lugo (Glenn). NASA’s Panel Discussion was packed, with all seats filled and many standing! At the Gala Peer Awards we recognized leaders Darlene Baxter and Victoria Chung, both of Langley.

Last week, at the Society of Women Engineers conference in Philadelphia that was coordinated by Elizabeth Walker, Tania Davis, and Courtney Myers of NASA Headquarters and Janie Nall of Goddard, we hosted a panel session on How NASA is Empowering Women in Engineering.  It was moderated by Dr. Danielle Wood of Headquarters. It featured women who are contributing to cutting-edge NASA missions discussing how they handle challenges on the job, including mentoring, leadership roles and career advancement. We also held a recruitment fair.

Congratulations to Tracy Van Houten of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who received an award.

All of this work lives on beyond these conferences. We’re creating forums for communicating information on NASA’s workforce needs of the future, and at the same time, sharing promising and emerging practices to help increase underrepresented and underserved populations at NASA and in STEM education and professions.

Throughout my career, I have worked alongside many colleagues to look for ways to welcome women and underrepresented superstars into academia. Now that I am serving in government, I see many common challenges across government, academia and industry as we strive to increase diversity and inclusion. But this challenge is not rocket science! There are promising solutions we must act on and implement at once.

We know that diversity is key to achieving excellence, and excellence is required for the bold missions we are pursuing at NASA and in all of our institutions. Our Journey to Mars, to succeed, demands excellence, and excellence demands diversity and inclusion! We know the numbers are not what we want them to be. For example in 2013 in the United States, women accounted for only 25% of all earned doctorate degrees in engineering, and just 16% of those in aerospace engineering. In Physics, women account for 19% of all earned doctorates. African Americans and Hispanics account for less than 5% each of all doctorates in engineering.

This is our pipeline to NASA’s doors, and if that pipeline is not diverse, we are not diverse. Our Journey to Mars – boots on Mars in the 2030s! – relies on the strength of our diversity and excellence.

If we are looking to truly be more inclusive, we need to invite participation by all, including those who may not see themselves as scientists and engineers, but who connect with the arts, design and the Makers Movement.

Art and science are very complementary and go hand-in-hand. There’s also an intersection of design and engineering that goes hand-in-hand, and we have so much to learn from each other. Through expanding who we reach out to, who we recruit, and also how we are teaching — by changing the conversation to filter everyone ‘in’, rather than filtering anyone ‘out’ — we can truly make a difference in creating not just more diverse student populations in STEM, but more excellence in our professional work environments.

Please join me in recognizing the participants and award recipients at these conferences and help the NASA Family continue its work to make the Journey to Mars truly represent the excellence that is America. In the words of Gene Roddenberry writing Star Trek, we seek, “infinite diversity and infinite combinations.”