NASA engineer on shattering stereotypes and closing the STEM gap

One day, a few months into moving from Puerto Rico to Orlando, Joan Marie’s house shook violently. “My mother thought it was an earthquake and made us stand underneath the staircase for 30 minutes. Later, when we turned the TV on, the presenter was welcoming the shuttle astronauts back. We then realized it was a sonic boom that shook the house. That kind of sparked my curiosity about space,” NASA’s Aerospace Integration engineer tells IE in an interview.

Marie is no stranger to the internet. Under the handle YourFemaleEngineer, she keeps it real – describing her life as an Integration Systems engineer at the space agency, dispelling stereotypes, advocating for women and people of color to get into STEM, and so much more!

As a child, Marie remembers asking a lot of questions to her mother, who didn’t necessarily know the answer. “My parents didn’t go to college. To answer my questions, my mother would research, read a book, and then get back to me. I didn’t know this back then, but now I realize that she encouraged my curiosity, which in turn helped and propelled me to get a degree in the STEM fields,” Marie says. 

Originally, she had her eyes on medicine because she “really wanted to help people.” But after Marie started college and volunteered at a hospital, she fainted seeing a bunch of needles and blood. “I had to course-correct, and now, I’m helping people differently,” she says. 

Interesting Engineering sat down with Marie to listen to her talk about her multi-dimensional life.

IE: Describe yourself in three words or a line. Would you have used the same words before you joined NASA?

Joan Marie: Yes. It would be ‘Never give up.’ I know it sounds very cliche. Another one that I use a lot is ‘network to get work,’ even though that’s four words. And what I usually do on social media is just those two different things. I had applied 13 times to get a job at NASA. I never gave up. So I think it’s a really important message that I want to relate to everybody. When I was younger I looked at people who looked like me, and they didn’t have jobs in the careers that I wanted. But I kept going. So, absolutely, never giving up is the number one thing that I want to relay.

IE: Could you trace your path to NASA for us?

Marie: I started my career in aviation. When I was in college, I was lucky to get an internship with NAVAIR (Naval Air Systems Command) – they work on Navy aircraft, and so I was able to have them pay for the last two years of my college. And then, once I graduated, I had a guaranteed position. I worked on fighter jets, engines, refueling, and biofuels. The moment that I really knew I wanted to pivot from aerospace to space was in 2019 when I was lucky enough to be chosen to come down for a NASA Social in which you visit Kennedy Space Center, tour the facilities, talk to NASA engineers, and then see an actual launch. The launch that I saw was the demonstration of SpaceX sending a Dragon capsule to space. Watching a space launch that close took me back to when I was in high school – I hadn’t seen a rocket launch since then because the shuttle retired. And so that was the moment where I was like, okay, I’m going to do everything I can, and I’m going to get a job in space. Just about six months later, I was able to get a job in the space industry.

IE: I noticed that you had interned with the US House of Representatives. And that didn’t seem very fitting with the rest of the internships and your current work. How did that come about?

Marie: I have a huge love for politics and helping people. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to be a doctor because, eventually, I just want to help people. Politics is so interesting to me because it is a way to help the voiceless and give them a voice. Politicians help better the lives of everybody in their district, whether it’s through healthcare or policies. At one point in my life, I was going to school for engineering, but I still had this hope that one day I could become a politician. 

I was interning with both – NAVAIR and Capitol Hill. I was lucky enough – Senator Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Whip, had come down to NAVAIR, where I was working. I went up to him, and we talked for a very long time. By the end of that meeting, his aide came up to me and said, hey, do you want to intern for Steny Hoyer? I believe it was the questions that I had – it showed that I was really passionate about politics. So yeah, I got to intern with him for about a year. Even though I work at NASA, eventually, it would be really neat to kind of converge both. And maybe one day, I could become the NASA administrator, so I could still overlook NASA but also do the policy side and be able to get money for NASA.

IE: I was going to ask where you would see yourself in the next 10-20 years.

Marie: Yeah, I would love to be a NASA Administrator. That’s my ultimate goal. But right now, professionally, I want to become a launch director. They’re the last people who confirm if the rocket is going to go or not. 

IE: How is your role integral to NASA?

Marie: As an aerospace integration engineer, I work on uncrewed and scientific missions – I don’t work with the human element but on rovers, satellites, drones, and spacecraft that we send to other planets and other worlds. I ensure that the spacecraft or satellite – whatever we’re using as a payload – survives the launch because there are so many different elements going against the spacecraft – gravity, dynamic environments, loads. And we want to make sure that it makes it to space. If we can’t even get it off this planet, then that mission has already failed. And so, I think my role is extremely important.

Joan Marie
Joan Marie amid work. Source: Joan Marie

IE: Earlier, you said that you continue to help people. How so?

Marie: So, one of the really cool rockets which we launched in November 2020 was Sentinel-6. Right now, it’s orbiting our planet and collecting data on the height of our oceans. And that data is going to help us combat climate change. Another mission that I worked on last year, which I was really excited about, was DART, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test. Right now it is headed towards an asteroid that’s millions of miles away from Earth. We’re testing if we can crash the spacecraft into an asteroid and redirect its current trajectory. So if there’s ever an asteroid that’s headed our way, we could steer it away from Earth and essentially save our planet. So it’s really exciting – a lot of the stuff that I do is very scientific, and it also helps the planet.

And then, I do a lot of outreach. What I love about NASA is they give us time out of our day to talk to schools and talk to people who are curious about space. I love that part of my job.

And then, on my own time, I have my social media on which I talk about my journey and all the ups and downs that I have because I think it’s really important that we share struggles. After all, then people can feel seen. I think it’s extremely important to show the realness of STEM. So that’s how I help people – I motivate them to continue. Whether they’re studying to become an engineer or trying to get a job that they just haven’t had the opportunity to do, I share my experiences and answer their questions.

IE: Tell us about your role in the DART Mission.

Marie: I’m the interface between the launch vehicle, which is the rocket, and the spacecraft. We have to integrate the latter into the rocket. For DART, specifically, it’s headed to Deimos. I do not want to say it’s not headed towards Earth – I have to do that disclaimer every single time. So, my job is to write requirements and test those to ensure that everything is going to be seamless on launch day. This mission took four or five years – but people only see the end of it, which is the launch. So, over those years, we tested the loads in various dynamic environments to ensure that it reaches space, detaches from the rocket, and then heads towards wherever it’s supposed to go.

IE: What’s next for the mission?

Marie: DART is crashing into Deimos this September. The really cool thing about DART is that there’s a CubeSat attached to it, that’s gonna deploy right before it breaks the asteroid. It’s going to collect videos and pictures, and data for us to view on Earth. So, we’ll be able to watch the collision. 

Then, I’m on board with the Europa Clipper and Dragonfly missions. The former, Europa, is a moon of Jupiter – there’s a lot of water underneath the ice layer; there could be more water than we have here on Earth. It’s good to see if it would be a habitable environment if we ever decide to go interplanetary. In Dragonfly, we’re going to attempt to essentially do the thing that Ingenuity did, which is a helicopter flying on Mars. We’re going to attempt to fly a helicopter on Titan, a moon of Saturn.

IE: Getting into NASA requires having the right set of skills and degrees, but what does NASA actually look for in a potential candidate?

JM: One of the things I like to dispel is you actually don’t need a specific degree to work at NASA. There are so many different roles that you can do to work at NASA, like lawyers, and graphic designers. I think the skills that they look for are obviously a passion for space and for the mission that they’re trying to do. Those are really good starting points. If you don’t get a job at NASA, don’t give up, you can start working for contractors that work with NASA. That means you’ll be working with NASA, not necessarily as an employee, but you’ll be working on the missions with them. A lot of people don’t understand the number of contractors that NASA gets to work on all these missions. And so, you know, there’s not really a specific skill set – it’s just you showcasing who you are and your passion because they would much rather hire someone who loves NASA than having someone who was just there to work and they had a 4.0 GPA.

IE: What are the challenges that you faced as a woman and also as someone from an underrepresented community in STEM? I know that you’ve been asked this question a million times. But how did you tackle them?

Marie: I’ve mentioned that I didn’t see a lot of people that look like me in these roles. I grew up with media and I had watched the launch of Apollo 13. But I saw only men in these roles, and then whenever I would tour these facilities, it was more men. I thought that this wasn’t a role for women. And again, coming from a very strict Spanish household, a lot of those stereotypes are cast on you. For me, it’s really important to show more women in construction, engineering, and NASA, so that young girls can see themselves in them.

And some of the stuff that I’ve dealt with is misogyny. Once, I went into a room of engineers (I was the lead engineer) and it was the first time that we were all meeting each other, so we were coming from different projects. I came in, and someone asked me to take the notes. I looked around, and I was the only female in the room. Maybe it wasn’t intentional. I walked to the front of the room, and I introduced myself as the lead engineer. It’s one of the things I talk about in my videos.

Not only do I showcase what I dealt with, but I also advise on what I did. Another thing that I’ve dealt with is impostor syndrome. Even today. I have something called a brag sheet to deal with it. And so every success that I’ve had in my career, whether it’s been in college, or professional, I write them down. When the imposter syndrome starts to creep in. I look at everything that has gotten me so far, all the hurdles that I’ve had to go through, and then right there is a visual representation of how I belong to where I am.

IE: Is there anything you wish you knew when you got into engineering?

Marie: I wish I knew that GPA wasn’t as big as everybody thinks it is. I know that you want to have good grades and not fail college. I failed organic chemistry, and the one time I mentioned it at NASA, I thought it was over because I had this idea of just the 4.0 student [getting into NASA]. Just because you have a lower GPA does not mean that you’re not smart. It just means that maybe you’re not a good test taker, or maybe you have anxiety, like for me – I have OCD and ADD. So it was really hard for me to figure out the best ways to study, which took me a while. And that’s why my GPA wasn’t a 4.0. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not smart.

I used to cry endlessly when I failed. I wish that I knew that at the end of the day that GPA is only looked at when you first get out of college to get a job. And as long as you have that minimum GPA, no one really cares. No one asks about it. I’m really well known at work because I do my job. Nobody’s like, oh, did you have a 4.0? So I just feel that a lot of people stress too much about the GPA and do not really understand how things actually work.

IE: What would you tell women beginning their careers in STEM?

Marie: Not to give up. The other thing that I love to say over and over is that failure is not the opposite of success. It is part of every success story. You stumble and fail along the way as long as you can get pick yourself back up and learn from your mistakes. I could have given up that the seventh time I got rejected. And I didn’t because I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to end up. 

IE: What can we change for women in STEM?

Marie: STEM is still very male-dominated. A lot of people may think that they don’t have a voice. But for us to change the perception, we need more women in STEM. Just because you’re not good at math in middle school, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be good at math overall. A lot of women steer away from STEM because they see a lot of men, a lot of math and science, and think they’re not born with it. Like I want to get to a point where the ratio is 50-50, and we’re not even looking at gender. 

IE: Do you have a quote for us?

Marie: Hearing a no doesn’t mean no to you as a character or person. It just means no to you right now. It’s not the end.

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