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Q&A with NASA scientists: Being women in STEM

NASA scientists, Lizalyn Smith, Aerospace Engineer, and QuynhGiao Nguyen, Materials Scientist, on why all women should reach for the stars. Career of their dreams and the opportunities that a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can offer.

What is your role at NASA?

Lizalyn: I work on the design and analysis of the Orion spacecraft, which is due to launch in 2019. I’m a structural analyst, running different simulations to see how the vehicle will respond under certain conditions. It’s a unique experience. Every day brings a new challenge, so it’s very exciting to come to work.

QuynhGiao: For the first 17 years of my career I was in the lab. I was researching how state-of-the-art materials react under high temperatures. Now, I’m a project manager in the high-temperature materials field. Networking with a diverse range of experts who can help us accomplish the goals we have set ourselves. I really enjoy the people-interaction aspect of my work.

Did you always want a career in science?

Lizalyn: I loved maths and science as a kid, and always liked figuring out how things worked. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I learned what engineers do. I was at school and saw a teacher walking around asking if anyone wanted to join a free engineering programme. She explained that an engineer designs products for people to use. That’s when my interest was piqued. I realised that I could put my maths and science skills to good use.

QuynhGiao: When I came to the US from Vietnam, I was seven and I couldn’t speak a word of English. But I was always very driven because I was told that America was the country where you could accomplish anything, so I took whatever opportunities came my way.

I always thrive on taking the hardest route. For example, chemistry was a challenging subject for me — so I put myself right dab in the middle of it. I went on to get my Masters and PhD in chemistry.

Image of female NASA Scientist QuynhGiao Nguyen at work in blue-lit laboratory, surrounded by screens
“Early in my career, a colleague said to me: ‘You’re fulfiling a double quota for NASA: you’re a minority — and you’re female.” That was heart-wrenching.

How did you land a job at NASA; has the career ladder been difficult?

Lizalyn: When I was in graduate school, I was presented with an opportunity to do an internship with NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. Then, later, when NASA came to recruit at my campus, I put myself forward and was offered a position. That was 13 years ago.

I’m still quite young compared to many of my colleagues; but I think career progression is relatively easy, as long as you’re prepared to step out of your comfort zone and operate at your fullest potential.

QuynhGiao: I started an internship at NASA when I was 19 and fell in love with the environment, the type of work we do here, and the people. There are challenges with every career progression. I overcome them by always focussing on the task at hand and going above and beyond when an opportunity presented itself. I have faith that the rest will follow if I’m passionate about what I do.

What stereotypes have you had to overcome?

Lizalyn: It’s a male-dominated environment. In my branch there are three women out of 20-or-so people. But you get accustomed to that disproportion early on at college. It can also be a challenge for women to overcome prejudices because you don’t look like the ‘typical’ engineer. But you defeat that by doing your best and making sure your work is of equal or greater quality than your colleagues.

QuynhGiao: Being a woman in a male-dominated world. Early in my career — I was probably 27 — a colleague said to me: ‘You’re fulfiling a double quota for NASA: you’re a minority — and you’re female.’ That was harsh and heart-wrenching.

We leave fingerprints on each others lives every day, so I’m mindful of how I speak to people — but now I try not to internalise things too much. And I always remember that, if I’m not successful at something today, there’s always tomorrow.

What advice can you give girls and women in STEM?

Lizalyn: Have perseverance and determination. Don’t let setbacks deter you. They are inevitable in engineering — and in life in general.

QuynhGiao: If a career in science, tech, engineering or maths is the passion you want to pursue, then pursue it without limitation or hesitation. Put your heart and soul into it and break the stereotype.

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