Who are you and what do you do?
Hi! My name is Mary and I’m a Structural Engineer at NASA based in Huntsville, AL.
Where did it all start?
Whew, it’s been a long a journey! It all started after obtaining my Associate of Science in Business. I didn’t feel completely satisfied and wanted to capitalize my problem solving skills. So I sat out a semester and did a lot of research. I was interested in something more technical, where I can work on impactful projects and bring my creativity to the table. I then graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Throughout my undergrad, I aimed to accomplish internships, engineering related projects, and volunteering. During my very last year, I was able to obtain a summer internship on a contract at NASA, which led to a part-time position during the fall, then a full-time position when I graduated!
On your blog, you talk about taking different paths to this career. I think that’s great! What advantages do you feel this has given you?
Yes! Prior to engineering, I had an open mind to all career fields, but health and business were the two that I actually dabbled in or pursued. This was important to me, because I didn’t exactly know what kind of career path I wanted at the time. I didn’t want to settle, so I didn’t mind taking a little longer to figure out where I wanted to be! The advantages this has given me is that I now have diverse skills, insights, and experiences, which all allows me to be multifaceted and more innovative.
What does your day to day normally involve?
Every morning I spend some quiet time drinking a hot cup of coffee, catching up on e-mails, and planning my checklist for the day. At work, I’m generally working on modelling test stands and supports, running stress analyses, performing bolt and weld calculations, and being in the test area! I love days that I get to spend time away from my desk and be out in the field, where I get to look at the projects up close and personal. Sometimes on my break, I make a short drive to NASA’s Rocket Park to get some good ol’ Vitamin D. I try to keep it as balanced as I can, so that I don’t get burned out from just “work”. Afterwards, I sweat out the stress at the gym. Not to mention, I also try to find time for blogging and keeping up socially!
Is there someone that encouraged you to do this?
Nope! If I remember correctly, at the time I initiated a career path change to engineering, I didn’t really know anyone else in the industry. My friends, colleagues, and family members thought I was crazy for wanting to be an engineer. They didn’t think I would “fit the part” and felt I should’ve opted for something easier or more suitable to my “personality”. But I was so passionate and excited about it that I didn’t care. I had put forth so much time and effort towards my decision making process that I was able to validate myself and success potential. Plus I thought I was pretty badass for doing something no one thought I was capable of doing.
What motivates you/what do you find motivating?
Innovation, creativity, and self-improvement. I love doing and working on things that push me out of the comfort zone. Once I feel any kind of stagnation or little room for advancement, my motivation highly declines. So I always try to push myself to try new things and continually seek higher experiences.
What advice do you have for people pursuing/aspiring to your career?
Love yourself enough to know that you deserve whatever it is you want to achieve and own your worth. You are worthy of learning, growing, and becoming successful. When you know what you want and why you cannot settle, you will feel more inclined to take the necessary steps in achieving your vision and goals. Be sure to network, put yourself out there, face your fears, apply for those internships/jobs, challenge yourself, risk failing, ask questions, and remain curious. Just remember, it all starts with you!
If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself? (hindsight is a wonderful thing!)
Knowledge and talent is something that you adopt and learn through practice, time, and consistency. I deliberately avoided the STEM field initially, because I thought I wasn’t “smart” enough. Yet it wasn’t until after I dove in when I realized my potential. I eventually became the “go-to” person in some of my classes and later lead a team of Rocket Scientists in my senior year. Sometimes it’s not about what you know or where you started, but how you persevere in order to find the answer, regardless of the circumstances or barrier.
What is your favourite thing about your job? What excites you most?
My favorite aspect is that the projects are all uniquely challenging. Engineering is all about innovation, so it’s both important and exciting when you have to think about the box and determine never-before-seen solutions! I also love that engineers contribute to such greater good and societal impact. My job may be small, but my overall mission is to help safely return America to outerspace! When I see how valuable my job is, I see that my day-to-day activities are about so much more than just me.
What is your biggest goal at the moment?
To continually evolve professionally, give a voice for women in STEM, and be a role model for young girls considering the field!
You speak passionately about self-care and wellness: What is your favourite act of self-care and how do you look after your own mental health?
I am such an advocate for mental wellness because 1) I’ve personally suffered for a long time from my own lack of self-care/love and 2) it’s so easy to normalize and brush off things like depression and anxiety when you’re in college or your career, and that’s crazy! I try to implement little things into my routine every single day/week. Every morning I indulge in my “alone coffee time”. During work I take breaks, a drive, or go catch up with a colleague over lunch. After work I go to the gym. On the weekends I meal prep healthy foods for the upcoming week. Every Sunday is “self-care Sunday” and I put on my favorite beauty mask. At least once a month I plan a girl’s night. I also like to journal, read poetry, and find new books. All of these things may be insignificant but they are what makes me happy. It’s all about intentionally setting time aside to do the things that make you feel alive!
You recently spoke in your blog about the challenges you faced as a first gen college student, what is one piece of advice you would give to someone in the same situation?
For me (and it may not be the same for everyone) it was really important to build a supportive tribe and network because it was harder to receive such from my parents. My advice would be to do whatever it takes to set yourself up for success, minimize debt (especially if you’re relying on student loans like I did), and take your time on your college/career decisions. But most of all, it’s really important to determine what is best in life for you and don’t let anyone talk you out of it. I’ve seen a lot of first gen parents prioritize their business or work over their kid’s higher education, which is totally unfair and can lead to guilt/resentment later. Do what’s best for you, without or without others’ approval!
Do you think having a mentor is important and what does the word “mentor” mean to you?
I think it’s SO important. There were a few people I remained in touch with throughout my undergrad that I considered mentors. They were simply a friend’s parent or someone already in the industry. Mentors are someone who can provide you meaningful support, guidance, and tips. They are someone you can go to when facing an unfamiliar life, college, or career challenge. It’s important to find people who have already been where you are trying to go and build a healthy relationship with them. They are the ones who can provide you with real insights and wisdom.
Do you have any thoughts on how we can encourage diversity in STEM?
It is dire that society/companies first recognize the importance of and actually make it a priority to implement diversity. It’s hard to showcase role models of various backgrounds, when there are little to begin with. And when there are, they tend to have to work slightly harder to get the same recognition. We have to work on providing a welcoming and supportive environment, to not only advance those already in the field, but to attract the younger generation as well. If one cannot see someone that looks like them in the field, then it would be harder for them to envision their own success potential. We can encourage diversity in STEM by consistently promoting, highlighting, and supporting.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Expressing myself creatively via social media/blogging, relaxing on the couch, going to local coffee shops, drinking wine, indulging in food, trying new experiences, traveling, and simply enjoying life!
What’s your favourite color?
It changed and depends on the weather/my mood lol! But mainly neutrals, pinks and oranges.
What is your favourite film just now and why?
Omg I’ve JUST seen Hidden Figures and thought it was such a great movie. It was one of those movies that inspired me yet made me angry at the same time. Like it was inspirational, because Katherine and the other boss gals were total badasses, but the way they were treated pretty much reflected society, which was infuriating. Thank goodness for women and our evolution.
If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be and why? (from any time period!)
Oh this is tough. I’d like to be Michelle Obama for one day because she’s such a phenomenal, influential leader. But I would also like to be Chrissy Teigen because I love her controversial, take-no-crap-from-anyone, raw, and feminist sides! Chrissy and I would definitely click in real life, hehe.
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
I think these questions were amazing and I’ve really enjoyed answering them <3333.
Thank you Mary! I absolutely loved your responses, I know I threw a couple of wildcard questions in there and I’m so glad I did because I know they will be valuable to others!