NASA Engineer Chases Her Dream, Achieves Career Success
Born in Juarez, Mexico, Imelda Terrazas-Salinas spent many of her formative years in the small town of Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. When she and her family moved to California, she didn't speak English, to feel less isolated, she started reading a lot. As a child, some of her fondest memories were sitting with her grandparents late at night, and listening to their wonderful stories as they gazed at the stars.
"By high school, I thought I wanted to be a pilot, but I later discovered I got sick on airplanes," said Terrazas- Salinas.
As it happened, she was very good at math. A teacher recognized her potential and suggested that she could be an astronomer. She didn't experience a turning point in her life until later in high school, when a career guidance counselor and a Spanish teacher encouraged her to study and continue her education. After high school graduation, she was accepted into Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.
She soon declared engineering as her major, but remembers that many of her male relatives didn’t think that engineering was suitable for a woman. She also admits many of her female relatives seemed to agree. But not her parents.
"They’re really the ones who made it all possible, especially my mother’s endless 'aliento,' a word that conveys more than support. She really was the wind beneath my wings," recalled Terrazas- Salinas.
With her parents' support, she defied her culture's traditional values and stubbornly continued her education until she completed her bachelor and master degrees, earning both in just four years. Once again, a college advisor was instrumental to her success by giving her words of encouragement and guidance.
"It makes a difference when people in positions of authority show confidence in you," she said.
Today, she is the proud leader of the test engineering group at the NASA Ames Thermophysics Facilities Branch. As the group leader, she coordinates and conducts much of the testing done in the facilities. These tests focus primarily on evaluating the thermal protection materials used for spacecraft's re-entry into the atmosphere. While working with NASA and industry investigators, she and her group test and "qualify" materials for upcoming flights.
"This is the best job in the world. Working as a team, my group contributes to test missions and gets to see the results get launched," she said jubilantly.
She attributes her career success to her mentors, all seasoned veterans in the field. Each one had a very different approach to his work, which gave her a very balanced view of the research world, she said.
"The best advice I can give to others is to follow your instincts. Don’t let others pressure you into or out of a career choice."
Ruth Dasso Marlaire
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.