Interview by Claire van den Broek
“I used to go to the roof of my house in Buenos Aires and dream about the stars,” recalls Adriana Ocampo. And as Science Program Manager at NASA, it’s probably fair to say that she’s one of those people who tends to turn their dreams into reality.
I tell students that they must have the courage to move forward with their dreams and believe in themselves. I have a mnemonic that I use, with the word STARS:
Smile, life is a great adventure
Transcend to triumph over the negative
Aspire to be the best
Resolve to be true to your heart
Success comes to those that never give up on their dreams
Born in Colombia and raised in Argentina, as a young girl she would sit with her dog on the roof of her house and spend hours wondering what those points of light actually were, and knew that science was her calling.
“Our parents always encouraged our imagination and dreaming big. I remember the moon landing. I was still in Argentina, a very young kid, July 20th, 1969, and here were humans walking in another world. I was completely fascinated by that, and NASA was the agency that enabled that. I thought: That’s where I can make my dreams come true! I would steal pots and pans from my mother’s kitchen, and my father was an electronics technician. I would make my own space models and draw lunar colonies. I even wrote to NASA, in Spanish. And somehow that letter got to somebody’s desk and they responded. That meant so much to me, that somebody actually took the time.”
When she emigrated to the United States with her family, as soon as she got off the plane in Los Angeles her first question was “Donde esta NASA? (which translates to where is NASA?”, since she did not know any English yet). And at her high school she joined the Space Exploration Post #509 who were sponsored by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s centre of excellence for exploration of the Solar System.
“As soon as I learned they were looking for volunteers, I immediately stood up and in my broken English said I wanted to do this. To me this was like Disneyland. Here where these people, engineers and scientists, that donated their time to provide guidance and to educate us about space exploration. At the JPL auditorium we worked with mentors who gave lectures, and eventually started doing hands-on projects. We constructed a telecommunication station to communicate with weather satellites. For the first time I experienced what it’s like to work together, and to lead a team. We had to do all these reports, and present them to the Director of JPL ,who was Dr W. Pickering at that time. It was a big responsibility. None of us had even graduated from high school yet!”
She stresses the huge importance of having mentors, such as the very bright JPL engineer Michael Kaiserman, who was the Lead Advisor for the Space Explorer Post. He gave generously his time to provide kids those opportunities and inspire them. Adriana fondly remembers the volunteer engineer and scientists who opened the doors of NASA space exploration to her.
“Thanks to the JPL mentors the Space Exploration Post was able to go on space science trips. We went to see the last Apollo launch, Apollo 17, together. We collected money by washing cars, selling cookies, etc. Those are the memories that mark you for life and I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have being given the opportunity to grow up in such an environment. I started working at JPL from the lowest possible position, as a kid in a summer program, and someone took me on and paid me to be his assistant after I graduated from high school. And when I started going to college JPL provided me with the opportunity to continue working part-time, which facilitated for me to pay for my own education.”
But was it difficult to make it through the ranks as a woman, and did she ever feel out of place?
“Obviously there were not many girls, and on top of being a girl I spoke English with a “funny” accent, so I was kind of a double minority. But they were really open and gave me a chance. Through my experience at NASA, I’ve seen how they truly look for talent. If you bring a good idea to the table, they listen to it, and if it’s a good idea it moves forward. One of the good things I learned here is that mistakes are part of the process to mission success. When we have problems with a mission, it’s part of learning how to do it better. Blame is not part of NASA vocabulary, nor is problem, we use instead the word “challenge”. It’s about: “How can we learn to do it better next time?” That’s something that really helps build confidence, trust, and a team spirit.”
These days she spends as much time as possible helping to create the next generation of scientists and explorers, trying give young girls some of that same inspiration and support.
“It is truly important, having somebody who is a mentor, developing that relationship and seeing that a young women could see herself working in this team, having someone who believes in her. Just responding to those dreams, sometimes a thing as simple as taking the time to respond to a message, as someone once did for me, can make a tremendous difference.”
For example, she participated in a Shadow Program organised by the Society of Women Engineers, where young girls come and spend a day with people such as Adriana, to get a flavour of what life at NASA is like, and develop a relationship and dialogue which helps to guide and support them in their STEM career path. It is a well-acknowledged problem that a high number of women are lost as they make their way up the career ladder in those fields, something that Professor Athene Donald from the University of Cambridge defined as the “leaky pipeline”
“Right now we’re facing a generation of people who are retiring. We need more talent in science and engineering, so that’s one of our challenges. But for every space mission that NASA launches, one percentile of their budget is allocated to education and public outreach. Those programs help kids get involved, but they also help teachers. We need to inspire not only the students, but the teachers and the parents. Less than 1% of science teachers actually have a science degree, even at Bachelor’s level. So you need to incentivize, and educate them, so they can build that sense of “wonder” in students.”
This is not easy though, specially with women, and those, like her, who come from minority backgrounds. “I remember a case where we had a very talented young woman who had a full scholarship to Stanford, to become an engineer. Her parents wouldn’t let her go, because San Francisco was too far away. Many parents of girls from minority families don’t see becoming an astronomer, mathematician, or physicist as a career path. They think they won’t be able to support themselves.
“We need to change that paradox in society, science can be fun and is necessary for the future of the species.I strongly believe that everyone is a scientist. Anybody who is a good observer and uses her or his imagination is a scientist. We need to develop that excitement about science and space exploration into the parents, the family and society. During the International Year of Astronomy I organized an event for 24,000 students and the whole theme was ‘space adventures’ and making science hands on and fun. At the end, we gave each student an oath, the essence of which was that science is to be used for the good of humanity. We all share the responsibility for science and technology to be use to benefit society.”
At Mendeley we’re very keen to support female researchers (nothing against the male ones of course!) in their pursuit of STEM careers, and are proud to have a number of fantastic women in our team. In fact, you can hear a few of their stories about how they got into technology on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested in the subject, or are working to help young girls get inspired to follow those careers, you might like to check out the Every Girl Digital community on Facebook and join our dedicated Mendeley Women in STEM group!