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Nancy Searby

Personal Essay

I have worked at NASA for over 23 years and have been an engineer developing spaceflight hardware for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, a scientist seeking to understand how gravity influences the cells that form our bones, an analyst of NASA Agency-wide questions and issues, and a program manager helping people in the United States and developing countries use our NASA Earth science applications to improve their lives. How did I get here and what are the connections between the steps in my journey? I think each step has taught me the importance and value of diversity and cross-disciplinary perspectives. And this lesson began in childhood.

I was raised by a dad in the Air Force and a mom who stayed home to take care of her four daughters. One of my worst school memories, and yet one that was oh so formative, was when I attended elementary school in Bossier City, Louisiana in the 1960’s. I attended school on the first day of desegregation, black and white students coming together. I was so happy to be going to school but when a teacher said that I, who was a little white girl, would have to change classes during the day so I wouldn’t have to be taught all day by a black teacher, I couldn’t understand. A few years later, our family was stationed on the island of Guam where white skin was definitely in the minority. I was a young child and happy to have friends of every skin color. It was sort of a humbling experience to not be the dominant hue. Working together in school with my Guamanian best friend taught me how important it was to appreciate people for who they are rather than their skin color.

As I made my way through school, I learned that I liked science and math. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with them. While I was in high school, I considered studying in college to be an engineer, a brain surgeon, an archeologist, a geologist, or a psychologist. I had always loved collecting rocks and have a great memory of walking along the Potomac River and finding both an arrowhead and a small perfect egg-shaped rock with a hole drilled through the center – an Indian bead. My father was at school at the Pentagon and we lived in Maryland at the time. I discovered that I loved learning about how the brain worked in high school physiology and psychology classes as well as making things with my hands and figuring out how things worked.

I remember my mom calling me in from playing in the neighborhood to watch the Apollo launches, moon landing, and the Viking landing on Mars. Boy, it sure seemed like it would be fun to be an astronaut and go explore! I thought about the practical aspect of getting a job, how many years I would have to go to school and made the decision to study aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado. There I was, another kind of minority – a woman studying engineering. About 15% of our class was women, yet that didn’t bother me. My best friends were guys and I had already learned that it’s important to appreciate every person for who they are.

After working at Lockheed developing early designs for the Space Station, I got a job at NASA Ames in California developing Space Shuttle hardware for biology experiments. One of the first experiments I worked on was to study how tiny baby jellyfish, or ephyrae, swim in microgravity. They looked like swimming snowflakes! Soon, I felt drawn to learning to conduct science experiments myself. I went back to school to pursue my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in bioengineering, while working full time. It was a long but rewarding journey. I finished my degree and had my first child, all while working to both develop spaceflight hardware and conduct science experiments. I was an engineer working in a biology lab, and you know what? Engineers and scientists approach problems differently! To understand how bone-forming cells respond to changing forces, e.g. microgravity, I designed and built hardware to apply different types of loads to cells. My biology colleagues were looking a how cells signal to each other. Together, we used our cross-disciplinary perspectives to answer science questions in a novel way. The power of science and engineering diversity working together.

Life as a scientist, project manager, mother and wife has been busy and fun. My family and work life took some twists and turns including moving from one coast to another. I moved away from life sciences at Ames to working at Headquarters on Agency-level studies. One of my favorite studies was to examine how NASA partners with folks from the private sector and different US and international agencies to get our work done. I had the privilege of working with great people from all parts of NASA – passionate about human spaceflight, science, aeronautics, technology, managing our people and facilities – from both Headquarters and Centers. I saw the power of cross-disciplinary perspectives and our diversity at NASA, and I felt proud of the job we did together.

In my current job, I help people from the US and developing countries strengthen their abilities to use NASA’s Earth science applications to make better environmental management decisions. This responsibility seems like a dream come true and a culmination of all I’ve learned about the power of diversity. In August of 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream Speech, I was not in Washington DC, enjoying the many celebrations. Instead, I was in Naivasha, Kenya planning our next year’s set of activities with our SERVIR program team. We worked as a collaborative, open, honest team that had lots of fun striving to develop applications of Earth observations to address important problems such as flooding and protecting tea plants from frost. We are a group of people from the US, Eastern & Southern Africa, the Hindu Kush Himalayas, Central America – people of every color, different cultures, different perspectives, social scientists, Earth scientists – and we all share a passion to make a difference. That celebration of MLK Day is one of my best memories during my time at NASA, and the power of that diversity applied to important problems for our planet and our people drives me every day.

We do some pretty exciting stuff here at NASA, and some of it is even here on Earth.


A photograph of Nancy Searby

Nancy Searby serves as the Capacity Building Program Manager for NASA’s Applied Sciences Program in the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. The Applied Sciences Program discovers and demonstrates innovative and practical uses of Earth observations in organizations’ policy, business, and management decisions. She is leading the Program’s efforts to build skills in use of Earth observations to make decisions in the US and developing countries. Nancy oversees four NASA Center-based projects – DEVELOP, SERVIR, Gulf of Mexico Initiative, and Applied Remote Sensing Training – that aim to improve the ability of local, regional, state, national, and multi-national stakeholders to make decisions informed by Earth science observations and models. She participates in related interagency, international, and public-private partnership activities to help stakeholders make decisions in nine areas of societal benefit identified by the Group on Earth Observations, including disasters, ecosystems, biodiversity, weather, water, climate, health, energy, and agriculture. Nancy is also leading efforts to develop alliances with non-traditional partners. Dr. Searby began working at NASA Ames Research Center managing space flight hardware development onboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. In parallel, she pursued and completed her Ph.D. to investigate the effects of mechanical loading on bone forming cells, and carried out related research projects. She left Ames for a one-year detail at NASA Headquarters where she led Agency-level studies and analyses, and decided to take a full-time position there. Following several years of Agency studies, she moved to the Earth Sciences Division. Nancy has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and bachelors and masters degrees in aerospace engineering sciences from the University of Colorado-Boulder.