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June 2019 Lead

Tuesday, June 18, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Needa Virani
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June 2019
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
GWIS Honorary Membership Candidate, Ellen Ochoa

Dr. Ellen Ochoa was the 11th Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, leading the human space flight enterprise for the nation. She became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on a nine-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993. She has flown in space four times logging nearly 1,000 hours, leading on-board scientific activities, operating the robotic arm, and serving as flight engineer during the launch, rendezvous, and entry phases of the mission. She has shared her experiences in more than 300 presentations to a variety of audiences. She is honored to have six schools named after her, several books written about her for the K-8 grades, and has been profiled in textbooks and on websites geared toward encouraging females and minorities to pursue technical fields.

Dr. Ochoa is the recipient of many awards including NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal; the Presidential Distinguished Rank of the Senior Executive Service; and honorary doctorates from The University of Pennsylvania, The Johns Hopkins University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She is in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame and the International Air & Space Hall of Fame.

Prior to her astronaut and management career, Dr. Ochoa was a research engineer and contributed to three patents for optical systems. She earned a PhD and MS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford, and a BS in Physics from San Diego State University. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), and the Optical Society of America (OSA). Dr. Ochoa is also a candidate for the the Jean E. Simmons Honorary Membership Award for Excellence in Science Education, a GWIS Honorary Membership Award.

STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa KB5TZZ plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery’s aft flight deck in April 1993.
Photo credit: NASA
What sparked your interest in STEM?

I got interested in science through math classes. I had always liked math and done well in it, and after I finished the Calculus series in college, I decided I should check out some of the subjects that used math!
What aspects of your career do you find most rewarding?

As an astronaut, accomplishing a mission along with my crew and a team on the ground was extremely rewarding. On my first two flights, we were studying the Earth’s atmosphere, in particular ozone depletion and the ozone hole, so we helped collect valuable data as well as described the purpose and importance of our mission to the general public. As Director of the Johnson Space Center, I served an amazingly talented group of people who were operating the International Space Station, developing a new spacecraft to go beyond low earth orbit, researching human health and performance in space, and much more, so I felt a part of all of the advances that were made by the team. In both roles, I had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of groups about NASA’s accomplishments, my own story, and the importance of education. Many of these groups were students who were either female or Hispanic, groups that are quite underrepresented in most STEM fields.
What was your most rewarding achievement in graduate school?

Part of my dissertation work was patented—I was a co-inventor along with my two advisors—and actually licensed by a company; that was something I really hadn’t thought about or expected when I was doing the research.
What has been the greatest challenge in your career and what approach do you take to overcome challenges?

There have been different challenges at different steps: persevering in research as a graduate student, determining next steps when the research doesn’t go as expected, being treated differently (e.g. not given the benefit of the doubt in terms of intellect or drive) because of being a woman and/or Hispanic, and learning how to be effective as a manager and leader. I always worked hard to learn whatever I could, watched others to learn from them, and utilized resources that were available (like going to professors’ office hours or talking to my supervisor to get something clarified).
As a student or young professional, what role did your mentors have in the direction of your career path?

While I didn’t have a formal mentor, there were a number of people who were influential and supportive. My two dissertation advisors, Prof. Joe Goodman and Prof. Bert Hesselink, both provided not only technical guidance but also support in general for pursuing a research career. Even earlier, as an undergraduate research assistant at Los Alamos National Lab, the staff member I worked with, Suzanne Stotlar, was really the first person who talked with me about graduate school. When I later took a position at NASA Ames Research Center, my supervisor Dr. Henry Lum, provided me some high-visibility opportunities and my first supervisory role.
What qualities do you admire in a mentor?

Someone who can provide honest and helpful feedback, useful information about the people and culture where you work, and who looks for opportunities for you to stretch yourself (although that may be more of a sponsor role than a mentor role).
Throughout your career, what have you learned from your leadership and mentoring roles?

Leadership and mentoring can take place at any level. I used to think that a person needed to have ascended to a high position or title before taking on those roles, but I’ve now seen so many examples of women who were very effective even in relatively junior positions—in part, because there are always others who haven’t yet gotten even to that position, e.g. students, and in part because influencing and coalition-building skills are needed and useful in all sorts of contexts.
Dr. Ochoa receiving the Engineer of the Year award from the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) at the organization's annual career conference and awards show in Houston.
Photo credit: NASA
How influential is a female support system within the STEM fields for grade school students, continuing education students, and young professionals?

It was definitely important for me to see women selected and then flying as astronauts in order for me to even contemplate doing something like that myself, so certainly I believe other women can be very influential both for girls in school and young women in a profession. I was also helped in my decision to study science by attending a conference where women scientists and engineers described their work and what they liked about their careers. Since I didn’t know any scientists or engineers, I really wanted to hear what it was like day-to-day in different types of positions in the STEM field.
What benefits of workplace diversity have you observed or experienced?

At NASA we really focused on inclusion and innovation, and the link between the two. Diverse teams of people who feel valued and included are very effective at coming up with creative ideas and solutions to problems. In addition, it’s incredibly important to the safety of our astronauts and space assets that team members feel comfortable speaking up and know that they will be listened to; that can only be achieved when bright minds coming from diverse backgrounds are treated with respect.
What are the current challenges within science education and what are your recommendations to overcome those challenges? What have you found is most effective in promoting STEM education and involvement?

There’s not a short or simple answer to these questions. I’ve had an opportunity to speak at a number of outstanding extracurricular programs, particularly for middle school students, that help address this challenge—primarily by getting students engaged in hands-on activities and demonstrating that science is really about curiosity, creativity, solving mysteries, and teamwork. When those aspects are emphasized, students become much more excited about science and engineering.

What is your vision for the future regarding female education, opportunity, and involvement within STEM fields?

While trends have, in most cases, improved over my career, we are clearly not where we need to be or even where we thought we would be when I look back over 30+ years. To really increase opportunity and involvement, we need more women in positions where resource decisions are made, and we need a critical mass of people, women and men, to focus on improvement as a way to bring benefits to all of society.
What was the best advice you have ever received?

Well, maybe not the best but possibly the most memorable is advice that I got when I joined the astronaut office. I was told “there’s only two ways to mess up as an astronaut: (1) not following the procedures exactly as written, and (2) following the procedures exactly as written”! That didn’t seem particularly helpful at the time, but in time I came to understand that it meant making sure I had a deep understanding of the systems in order to be most effective. That can certainly be generalized to be effective in a wide variety of situations.
What advice do you have for current students and young professionals?

First, we need your brains and your creativity, so continue to study STEM fields! Don’t expect it to be easy; in fact, the rewards come from taking on big challenges, solving problems, and/or discovering new knowledge, which requires perseverance and hard work. The rewards are definitely worth it!
What are some of your hobbies or activities that you enjoy?

I enjoy playing the flute, attending performing arts events, and traveling. I’m also grateful to have a variety of intellectual pursuits that keep me engaged since retiring from NASA, including serving as Vice Chair of the National Science Board.
Image accessed from Quora.
Contributed by Erika Kenley. Copy Editor Rozzy Finn.

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