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This Latina NASA Engineer Shares How Community Helps When Pursuing A STEM Career

April 19, 2019
Author: Vivan Nunez

Jessica Marquez has always reached for the limitless. As a child her personal mission to find a world beyond her own looked like wanting to be an astronaut. Now, 11 years into a career at NASA, it looks like helping facilitate space exploration as a Human Systems Engineer and Research Scientist at the Ames Research Center.

“Our Human Computer Interaction Group designs and builds software for NASA. We use human-centered designs to make software that is driven by user needs,” explains Marquez. “This means I get to be immersed in the work that others at NASA do — be it training astronauts, controlling the International Space Station (ISS), or learning about future exploration in remote locations like underwater or on volcanoes.”

Focusing in on human connection has ultimately become a common thread through all parts of Marquez’s life. When she moved from Peru to the U.S. to pursue an undergraduate degree at Princeton University, it was finding a community which embraced her that helped her slip into her new identity as a Latina and to embrace the nuances of a career in STEM.

“I strongly believe in the power of representation,” shares Marquez. “Seeing people like you, who share your experiences, doing the very things you want to do — it is empowering. It has empowered me throughout my life.”

Marquez’s involvement with nonprofits like Career Girls, a digital touchpoint with over 10,000 videos of over 500 women in all types of careers, bare witness to the person she is and the change she wants to see both in STEM and within the Latinx community.

Below Marquez shares advice she has for Latinas who are looking to pursue a career in STEM, how she’s navigated community building, and what’s next for her at NASA.

Vivian Nunez: What about pursuing a career at NASA helped you stay focused in a space where there weren't many women or Latinxs?

Jessica Marquez: I have now worked at NASA for over 10 years, and most of my graduate education was funded through NASA grants. In many ways, NASA has been an essential part of my life, affording me many opportunities. Despite the small number of women and Latinxs in my field, NASA is a special place. I get to contribute to making spaceflight exploration happen. NASA’s mission is bigger than me. It is a mission I believe in, that I’m passionate about. That’s probably the biggest reason NASA has helped me stay focused in my career.

Nunez: What advice do you have for Latinas who are looking to pursue a STEM career?

Marquez: My advice to Latinas who are looking to pursue a STEM career is to keep at it! We might be few, but we are here. Over the last few years, so many wonderful Latina women have reached out to me, and I am constantly inspired by them. I also recommend finding mentors – other Latinxs, other women, other men. Find those who will give you good advice and inspire you to be a better person. I may have never chosen to pursue a PhD at MIT if I had not met Professor Dava Newman – she continues to be a wonderful mentor for all these years. Part of the reason I have my current job because my mentor Doug O’Handley introduced me to the right people. Mentors are vital. And most importantly, don’t forget to lean on your family. Educate them on what it is to have a STEM career. Your family will support you in difficult times.

Nunez: What do you think is the difference maker in encouraging more Latinas to pursue careers in STEM?

Marquez: There are many obstacles for underrepresented groups in STEM – from the lack of representation and financial challenges to cultural resistance and gender stereotypes. It is hard when all of these come together. I would encourage other Latinas to really look at all the diverse types of STEM careers. For example, Careergirls.org has more than 500 women role models from diverse backgrounds and ages across all of the major U.S. career clusters. Working in STEM doesn’t have to look like a NASA engineer – it can be using mathematics to understand economics or it can be to use biology to discover a cure for cancer or it can be becoming a YouTube star talking about the next new cool tech. If you are passionate about STEM, don’t let others dictate what you can be – make it yours.

Nunez: What has been your biggest lesson learned throughout your career thus far?

Marquez: I have had many lessons, many failures, many career disappointments. These hardships will happen, but it is what you do with this experience that makes you rise. You can choose to let it bring you down, or you can choose to learn from it, grow from it, and erase the self-doubts. It is way easier said than done, but you have to believe in yourself. Also, try and surround yourself with people you like working with. Your career takes a long time to build — you want to spend it doing something you love with people that build you.

Nunez: How important is finding a community in order to keep you going in your career?

Marquez: I have learned that you have to participate in multiple communities, some might share your STEM interest, some might share your background, some might be centered around church. Finding your community is important because you want to share your excitement with people who share your passion. They will be a source of companionship, of support, and of advice. It is also where you are able to give back – help others overcome their obstacles. I have mentored a number of women and Latinas studying STEM through my participation in communities. We don’t get here by ourselves; we get here by helping each other. You need different types of communities because they are also essential in advancing your career. I wish someone had told me when I was an undergraduate that networking with my communities would be the way to find my perfect job!

Follow me on Twitter @vivnunez.