NASA’s Women Researchers Talk Career Development
Four accomplished women from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., agreed to participate in a panel discussion Oct 4, 2012 at Presentation High School, San Jose, Calif. There, they talked to approximately 50 girls about their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career paths, including their career choices, experiences and, yes, even their failures.
NASA researchers included Pamela Marcum (bio)
, project scientist and astronomer for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
; Jennifer Heldmann (bio)
, astronomer and planetary scientist for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS)
; Misty Davies (bio)
, a research computer engineer and Huy Tran (bio)
, Ames’ deputy director of aeronautics
All of you have impressive NASA jobs and STEM careers. Was your career path a straight shot to the top?
I’ll be the first to jump in. My career path meandered. Most people don't have a linear career path that takes them from point A to B. Trial and experiment factor along the way; you don't know what something is like until you do it. It’s time to make a move, when you get too comfortable. Step outside your comfort zone. College is important, because it helps you understand yourself.
When I was in graduate school, I took every opportunity to take internships. I worked at other colleges in the summer, and I went to the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. I tried to do a bunch of different things. Seek out opportunities to try different things; try different experiences to sort out what's important to you.
I worked at a number of different jobs before I became a serious student in college. I moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., and worked at the Grand Canyon National Park. I pumped gas at the Grand Canyon, and had a variety of menial jobs. One day, I was working on my old Volkswagen, and someone told me I was a mechanical engineer. When I went back to college, I studied mechanical engineering.
When I was considering doctorate programs, I applied to Stanford University for a one-year fellowship. I was surprised when I received it. During this time, I also worked at Ames, doing computational fluid dynamics. I became a computer research developer, but I fell into the profession. It wasn't planned on my part.
I grew up in Vietnam. I knew at eight years old that I wanted to be an engineer. A chemistry teacher helped me pursue my dreams. When I was in college, I applied for an internship at Ames, and continued to work there after I graduated. I worked in the thermal protection system as a test engineer, where I later was the technical lead for the invention of a new heat shield material, called Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA). It later won NASA’s Innovation of the Year award.
High school seniors interested in a STEM career may want to go into industry. How do careers in industry compare to those in academia?
It depends upon what you want to do. As a NASA research scientist, I get to craft my own research projects. In industry, you work on their projects. At NASA, we have peer-reviewed publications to transfer knowledge to the public. Because NASA’s projects are government-funded, we have to publish our findings.
Industry will not give you the publications that are needed in an academic career. In industry, you make a product. Without publications, you won't have the resume for a career in academia. Don't worry about publishing a paper; if you go to graduate school, you will learn to write papers.
Love what you do. It is hard to go to work every day if you don't like what you are doing.
What is the coolest thing about your job? What is the most difficult thing?
Part of my job is going to conferences around the world to talk about a paper I’ve written. It's so cool to be able to go to so many places in the world.
To get your research funded, you have to receive grant money. The process is competitive and you have to be able to write a compelling proposal. This type of writing is a skill. You have to be at the top of your game to write a competitive proposal to support a research project; the majority of proposals do not get awarded, meaning funded.
We are told failure is an important part of growth. Can we hear about your failures? How have they helped you?
I dropped out of college; I wasn't focused, so I worked for a while. When I went back to school, I was studying pretty hard, but I knew I was going to fail one of my first physics exams. I was really trying, but I knew I was going to fail. I was crying when I told my mom this, and she said, "This is what you are going to do in life." I said, “Mom, I'm failing.” She told me “yes, but this is the first time you care about what you are doing.” You don't get to be good without messing up. Graduate school is where you'll get thick skin. It takes a long time to get to creativity in engineering. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
Don't let others tell you what you can, or can't do. Remember, a majority of grants don't get funded. A degree of failure is part of the research process.
As a recent high school graduate, I thought that memorization is how you passed a test. When I went to graduate school, I failed my first chemistry exam. I learned that science is about application. It isn't enough that you learn constants, you have to know how to apply them, and understand their assumptions. Nevertheless, always have a Plan B. Don't stay isolated. I groomed a connection with a research professor who later asked me to work for him.
Girls don't have as many visible role models as boys do. Look at the Wright brothers. How many boys were inspired to fly by what they did? Girls don't have similar role models in STEM fields yet. I am hoping you can be the next Wright brothers.
The support system you make for yourself is really important. Will you marry a person who will watch your children while you stay up to 3 a.m. to finish a publication? Traditionally, men receive greater support from their spouses and families, than women do. Your family and friends are important to your success.
ANSWERS HAVE BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.
For more information about NASA’s Ames Research Center, visit:
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.