Another month and another edition of my Scientist in the Spotlight. This month I want to introduce you to an inspirational lady that I have discovered on Instagram very recently. But I fell in love with what she does within a millisecond and am just inspired by her and everything she stands for. So naturally, I had to get her on the blog ASAP and I am delighted she agreed.
I am thrilled to introduce you to Mary N. She is a Structural Engineer working at NASA – yes NASA! – and works analysing NASA’s special test equipment such as test stands for rocket engines and fuel tanks. It’s her responsibility to simulate the support’s loads and environment to see if it passes the safety factors or it needs to be redesigned. But Mary started with a business degree and switched to engineering after realising that she wanted to capitalise on her critical thinking skills. But if she is not solving rocket problems, you can catch her at wine and coffee shops or exploring her creative side. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to Mary N.
Hi Mary and welcome to Soph talk science. I am so excited to have you on the blog so thank you. Let’s start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your STEM journey.
Mary: I had very little background, exposure and interests in STEM growing up. I didn’t have parents or family in STEM. No one ever looked at me and said “you should consider it, you may excel!” I’ve always been a girly girl with a bubbly personality. But my life consisted of an array of challenges – I was a daughter of an immigrant, English was my second language, I became a first-gen college student, and left the nest at 17.
Although none of these things have anything to do with STEM, it’s how I developed a passion for problem solving and overcoming challenges later on in life. I thought the engineering industry was super cool after extensive research. I was amazed by all of the fields, projects, opportunities and advancements. And after dabbling in a couple of misfit fields, I knew I wanted in. Now I am openly sharing my journey to others, highlighting how I’ve overcame barriers along the way, and becoming more of the role model I thought I personally needed when I was younger.
What is your work now all about?
Mary: Here at NASA, I work in the Special Test Equipment Design Branch. It is my responsibility to analyse all assemblies and supports that are used in testing, whether it’s for a rocket engine or fuel tank and so on. Our overall mission, therefore, is to make sure astronauts safely get to outer space and back!
I am currently analysing vibrational shakers to be installed in NASA’s Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand. Previously, I’ve completed stress analyses for the piping supports used in transporting Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) to the SLS’s rocket engine fuel tank test article.
How did you come about your job at NASA?
Mary: I started as a contractor and Intern during the summer of my last year in college. I found it through job hunting via the internet for internships as I’ve done in previous years.
Working at NASA must be amazing. Can you tell us more about what it’s like?
Mary: Perhaps the best part is being at the Centre where you’re surrounded by many aspects of NASA and it’s diverse projects. Therefore, you get to indulge in unique experiences all the time. NASA is also really good with performing tours for its employees to make sure that we get to witness new space articles. On a day to day basis, I model and analyse structures from my computer, occasionally go to the test area and personally see NASA’s stands and equipment, and attend team meeting and activities. I love the exposure and experience I get to gain from here.
Unfortunately, the worst thing right now may be that there’s still a huge gender, diversity and age gap. I’m still one of the few girls, millenials and minorities on my team, and I’m not confident that actions are being taken to overcome this issue either. However, it’s also unfortunate that this is not an uncommon problem in STEM. Perhaps the issue is that companies are still more focussed on those with a million years of experiences than training the new, modern day scientists and engineers for space exploration.
What has been your biggest achievement in your career so far?
Mary: I think the biggest achievement in my career thus far is the simple fact of how far I’ve come. I started as a blank canvas and slowly became the ‘go-to’ person in my class to leading a team in designing and building mechanical components. I’ve been able to design and see my first solid rocket motor component come to life at NASA and designed a Mars Rover Model that was voted top of the nation. Although these are accomplishments within themselves, it makes me so much more proud knowing that I achieved them with very little prior knowledge.
You are a self-confessed STEMinist. What does that mean to you?
Mary: A STEMinist is someone who promotes and advocates for the presence of women in STEM. STEMinists are encouragers, motivators, supporters and accountability partners. These are the characteristics that I strive to have and also look for in others. I use my own voice to highlight my challenges and experiences in the field, as well as connect and highlight those who inspire me and have a passion for making a difference.
What are your top tips for networking in the engineering field?
Mary: Definitely attend career fairs, conferences and joined LinkedIn. The easiest, most effortless way to network is to simply bring up what you do and your professional goals at public events whenever applicable. I’ve gained so many business cards and emails from people who were willing to help get my foot in the door, just by simply talking about being an engineering student and seeking opportunities at job sites, family/friend gatherings, etc.
How do you find being a first-gen college student?
Mary: Being a first-gen college student to me meant that I was going to have to work a lot harder than everyone else to “catch up” or find my own resources. In other words, I’d notice that unlike many of my peers, my parents weren’t able to give me college or career advice, like ever. Or help pay my tuition. Or frequently visit/support me – they moved 500 miles away when I went off to college! They simply didn’t understand my journey, so I felt that I had to do it alone often. With that being said, I also eventually obtained more of a ‘go-getter’ mentality than the majority of my peers. I knew I had to work hard and show up, so I did. I think this attitude reflects in my work and aspirations. It’s what sets me apart.
What are your tips and advice for first generation college students?
Mary: Set yourself up for success early. Make smart financial decisions, especially if you’re using loans – debt really adds up over the years and I learned this the hard way! Put yourself out there and gain valuable connections as they’ll help you when you’re feeling completely lost. Talk to professors and academic advisors. Seriously, just capitalise on all of your resources. Just because you don’t know something, doesn’t mean you cannot find the answer.
What is the one thing you had wished you had known at the start of your engineering career?
Mary: That I was capable of pursuing it sooner! I definitely feel like I would’ve been “farther” in my career, had I not been so initially intimidated by the field. But hey, you live and you learn. Sometimes it takes making a few wrong turns to really figure out what makes you happy!
Engineering is such a broad field, so how did you go about choosing which type of engineering to specialise in?
Mary: It is very broad! And I am honestly still trying to figure that out! In terms of my degree, I chose Mechanical Engineering, because it is the most concrete. I learn the best when I can physically, visualise how something works – which is why coding and software would’ve never worked for me haha! I have to be able to imagine how it functions or is capable of functioning. A real life entity. I also chose Mechanical over Aerospace, because I didn’t want to be too specific in the beginning, you know, in case I changed my mind later or something. But now, even Mechanical and Aerospace both have specific sub fields. Such as fluids, dynamic, vibrations, etc. It takes time venturing and trying a few different things, until you figure out that specific of a passion or interest, which I’m still doing 😉
P.S. I just want to throw out there that I’ve also recently started gaining more interests in science and can definitely see myself venturing in that area as well. I also love leadership roles and would to eventually love to climb the ladder as well. Being multifaceted with diverse interests can really make it tough to hone in on a such specific path sometimes – haha!
What sort of outreach activities do you do as an engineer?
Mary: I love volunteering! Last year I volunteered for a Girls in Science and Engineering day, where I showed girls how DC motors and energy conversion worked. I was also a part of a Q&A Career Panel for engineering students at my Uni. And then I volunteered to be a judge for high school students demonstrating their mission design projects to one of Saturn’s moons! Aside from this, I heavily rely on social media to blog my journey and connect with other fearless pioneers in STEM!
When you are not at work, where would we most likely find you?
Mary: At a local coffee or wine shop, eating, adventuring around town or taking pictures for my Instagram content – hehe! But honestly, I really love my couch haha. Most days I prefer pursuing my creative hobbies at the comfort of my own home and in my sweat pants. I love cooking dinner and drinking wine, so my house has everything I need!
Talking about your Instagram content, your IG feed is just goals! How do you go about making your content and getting that perfect pic?
Mary: Thank you so much! Although I do not at all think my feed is that great LOL – we’re our biggest critiques amiright! – I currently use Lightroom Presets that I purchased from Alexa Jean on IG – I might find different ones soon – VSCO if the presets are too harsh on certain pics because they definitely can be, and an IG feed planning app called Preview! It honestly took me several months to get the hang of a “nice feed”. It just takes playing around with – maintaining good lighting and consistent colours are the toughest – finding what works, and certainly time! For some reason I really have a passion for aesthetics, so if you ever have any more questions, please let me know. I love talking about it. Maybe once I become “really good” at it, I can share more deets publicly – if others are even interested haha!
Well, I for one would definitely be interested. So, looking to the future, where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Mary: I really hope to be my highest form of “impactful” that I can possibly imagine by then. And to me currently, that looks like being a successful business owner that actually helps and encourage people, such as being professional coach of some sort, traveling to speak to girls/women at conferences, and definitely a woman leader in the corporate world, if I’m still there.
And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?
Mary: It’s seriously my dream to travel more often. I’ve never been but some of my top destinations are Italy, Greece and Bali!
Time for the quick fire round!
Statement eye or statement lip? Eye.
Chocolate or cake? Cake.
Beach holiday or ski break? Beach.
Moon or Mars? OMG tough one for a space gal! Hmmm first instinct is moon, but Mars is the newww thing (hello SLS!) – ok maybe Mars!
Girls night in or girls night out? Oooh I definitely love to do both, but nothing beats having girls over relaxing, cooking and drinking wine.
And that is a wrap. Huge thanks to Mary for taking the time to answer my questions with some incredible advice and inspirational answers. If you want to learn more about Mary, her work, mechanical engineering or anything else we have chatted about here, then ask your questions in the comments below and check out Mary’s blog and Instagram to get your fix.
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