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Maria So - Happy to Be at Goddard Where All Things Are Possible
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Maria So arrived at Goddard as a one-year exchange student from Hong Kong. Today she is the Deputy Director for the Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate and a mentor for and member of the Senior Executive Service.

Name: Maria So
Title: Deputy Director, Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate
Formal Job Classification: Supervisory Engineer
Organization She Works For: Code 300, Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

For the past three years, I have been the Deputy Director of the Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Directorate which has almost 300 people – and what great people! Our group performs assurance related to quality, safety, and workmanship for the Goddard-managed missions and facilities. We ensure the safety of Goddard’s work environment including over 400 labs, several clean rooms, industrial spaces, various cafeterias, and our large outdoor campus. Through expert consultations, inspections and reviews, we ensure that our in-house instruments and satellites are built up to NASA’s quality and safety standards so that they are safe to launch. We work closely with scientists and engineers building flight hardware. We are always most concerned about the safety of our people working in the labs. For
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Maria So in her office. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk
example, we are responsible for making sure that the chemicals, radiation sources, cryogenic materials, and nano-materials are used safely. Also, since flight hardware is very expensive to build and test, we have procedures in place to avoid accidently damaging the hardware. We routinely visit our suppliers to ensure their quality and safety compliance with NASA and government-wide standards.

I am a “people person.” My typical day starts with speaking with people, either in actual meetings or through teleconferences. As a leader, one of the most important things that I do is to get people committed and excited about their work. The biggest challenge is not knowing what to do, but finding the right group of people to do it. I create teams, open up team roadblocks, and act as a team advocate to our customers and stakeholders. I work with my management team to find the right assignment for each employee so that each of them can best use their talent to produce the desired outcomes for Goddard’s missions.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done as part of your job at Goddard?

The coolest thing I have ever done was working on mission launches. As a representative of Goddard’s safety and mission assurance technical authority, I worked in the mission control rooms for five launches over the past three years. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission was my first mission working on console. My most memorable experience was walking in the movable launch tower prior to launch. It was cool because I got to see our final product actually disappear into the clouds and launch into space. I would not trade this experience for a million dollars! I was so very proud of what our Goddard team had accomplished for our Nation. It was extremely rewarding!

What makes Goddard a great place to work?

At Goddard, all things are possible! Take me as an example. I came to the United States as an exchange student from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After graduation, my first job was at Goddard as a contractor. I later became a civil servant and, after a series of diverse positions, the Deputy Director for SMA.

Goddard’s career opportunities are incredibly diverse and allow many ways to grow and contribute if you take advantage of them. It was beyond my wildest dreams to ever work here. But here I am! When I drive through the gates in the morning, I always have a big smile on my face.

What lessons or words of wisdom would you pass along to somebody just starting their career at Goddard?

Change your job often, challenge yourself, take on unfamiliar assignments, have fun, and serve as a mentor along the way. I am Goddard’s first Asian-American woman in the Senior Executive Service. This year I am also proud to be a mentor for the first Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Senior Executive Service (SES) Development Program of the Asian American Government Executives Network (AAGEN), a volunteer organization serving the Asian community. AAGEN launched this SES Development Program to prepare 20 selected candidates, out of 119 applicants, for the highest levels in federal service. This program is organized by AAGEN with support from the White House Initiative on AAPI. The link to AAGEN is:

Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests, activities outside of work that people do not generally know?

When I first came to the United States, I arrived in Philadelphia with a suitcase in one hand and $85 in the other. I put myself through college by working part time as a cook in the college snack bar. Philly cheese steak subs was my favorite food to cook. Now, cooking is my hobby and remedy for stress reduction. I especially enjoy trying out new recipes when I entertain. I don’t first try the recipe on my family because I get bored making the same thing twice. Admittedly, sometimes it can be a disaster. I have to be safer than safe on my job, so in my spare time I like to throw caution to the wind with my cooking.

Is there someplace in the world that you want to visit or someplace you have been and want to go back?

I travel a lot for fun and have been to many places around the world. My favorite place to visit is Spain and I’ve been there three times. I especially like to stay in paradores or castle hotels. I enjoy dining in a paradore’s courtyard under the moonlight with a glass of temperanillo wine. My next trip will be to stay in castles in Germany.

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