How the Women of JPL Are Expanding Our Understanding of Space

The women of JPL are second to none, regardless of gender, when it comes to expanding our understanding of space.
Farah Alibay, Diana Trujillo, Ashley Stroupe, Michele Colizzi

“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” as an old pop-psychology trope would have it. But at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory women are very much in the vanguard when it comes to Mars exploration. I recently spoke to five women who have distinguished themselves as part of the Curiosity and upcoming Mars 2020 rover missions.

Vandi Verma

“People are so passionate about space here at JPL,” says Vandi Verma, who in 2007 joined the Mobility and Robotics Systems Section, where she began driving Mars rovers and working on robotics research projects. Currently, she designs and develops flight software simulation for Mars 2020 rover operations. “You’re working with people who just love what they do.”

Michele Colizzi

“Everyone loves being here, doing what they do, and you never hear complaints,” says Michelle Colizzi, a mechanical engineer for Mars 2020, echoing Verma’s assessment. Colizzi was responsible for the fabrication, assembly, testing, and delivery of the Bridle and Umbilical Device (BUD) and is now the vehicle integration lead for the aeroshell, Mars 2020 ATLO (Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations).

For Donna Trujillo, passion about space exploration that began as a child in Colombia grew into a desire to exceed expectations—expectations that included cultural norms that would have otherwise kept her at home raising a family. Instead she learned English and followed her heart.

Diana Trujillo

“I came here and thought, I need to do something hard. … do more than what everybody else’s expectations of my gender and my culture are,” says Trujillo, who leveraged her education, intelligence, and persistence to become an engineer on Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory). She currently serves as a surface sampling system activity lead and tactical uplink lead for Mars 2020, ensuring that the scientific objectives of the missions are met. “My gender and my culture were not going to decide how I was going to be branded,” she says.

JPL long ago broke through the barriers of gender, skin color, and cultural background and has  led the way through hiring decisions based on individual talent and perseverance. Canadian-born systems engineer Farah Alibay believes that diversity is a key to success. “Having people of different gender, backgrounds, and ethnicity brings variety to a team,” she says.

Farah Alibay

Alibay has been working recently as a payload systems engineer for the InSight Mars lander, ensuring the appropriate systems tests are conducted and analyzing data to verify that InSight performs its scientific objectives once it lands on Mars.

“To solve all the hard challenges that we face when building spacecraft, we need to be able to think outside the box and look at problems in different ways,” Alibay says. “As a woman who grew up outside the United States, I definitely am able to bring that different point of view and insights to the teams I am on.”

Being a woman at JPL is “no longer unique,” says Ashley Stroupe, a staff engineer since December 2003 working on flight operations for the Mars rovers. Stroupe builds sequences for rover driving and operating the robotic arm and works on evaluating terrain near potential landing sites for the Mars Science Laboratory. “By the time I joined the team, there were quite a few women involved in operations,” she says. “I found out that I was the first woman to drive on another planet almost a year after it happened. I think this is very telling, the fact that it didn’t stand out or seem unusual and was fully normal and natural for a woman to be doing that role.

“Now, every role has been done and is done by women, across all the rover teams,” Stroupe adds. “The rover teams are about 50 percent women, and there are a lot of women in management roles. I am important because of my experience and what I bring to the table with my unique background, not because of my gender. This balance is important because it really demonstrates that engineering and science should and can be equal opportunity careers.”

Colizzi agrees, saying, “As a female mechanical engineer, I don’t really see any gender or age bias, especially because I am one of the younger female engineers. There’s a lot of mutual respect from people of all ages, genders, and orientations.”

“There isn’t a particular stereotype anymore of what a scientist or space robotic person looks like and that opens it up to a lot more people,” Verma says. “Now, you’re not surprised. You look at a person and you don’t assume that they do one thing or another. There’s no assumption because they could be anything.”

JPL’s outreach program invites anyone to be part of the solution regardless of gender and cultural background. “My biggest reward is in the outreach that I do, like standing in front of a room and telling a young Latino girl that she can do this,” Trujillo says. “It’s mainly the fact that they can see themselves in me when I talk and relate to them. I tell them, ‘Look at where I am. I’m actually doing it.’”

Alibay also draws great satisfaction from her example-setting role to young women looking to science as a career. “I spend a lot of my time doing outreach and mentoring young women,” she says. “When I was growing up, role models who looked like me were few and far between. My hope is to show the next generation that engineers and scientists come in every color, gender, and background.”

The men and women at JPL are readying the Mars 2020 rover for its mission.

Given the number of brilliant, creative women doing important science at JPL, it’s clear the institution does far more than simply give lip service to the ideas of diversity and gender equality. At the end of the day, what matters are the unique individual skills, character, and work ethic that are clearly reflected by JPL staff, and which drive the world-changing science produced by the famous institution.

“I think a lot of the work that we do here and the positions that are given are very merit based,” says Colizzi. “If you are good at the task that you are assigned and you succeed, they are going to reward you with something bigger and better the next time. I think that’s what keeps a lot of people here motivated.”

The key point each of these successful women stressed was that, at least at JPL, the only limits are the ones you impose on yourself. “Going back to college, I remember writing a paper about the laser beam eye of Curiosity and now I might be sitting in a cubicle with the guy that was leading the landing of Curiosity,” Trujillo says. “It is about bringing my whole self to the table. That’s what matters here.”

Like Trujillo, Alibay’s interest began in college. She recalls visiting JPL as a graduate intern in the summer of 2012 when Curiosity landed on Mars. “I remember dreaming that day that I would eventually land a spacecraft of my own on the red planet,” she says. “I fell in love with JPL, its people, and the innovation it brought. I returned to JPL in the summer of 2013 as an intern, and on my last day as an intern, I got a job offer to come back as soon as I finished my Ph.D. Needless to say, it was quite the motivation to get that thesis written up!”

Education was the original impetus for Verma as well, launching her initial fascination with space and space robotics when she watched rovers land on Mars while in graduate school. Stroupe and Colizzi found inspiration at home, and are following a family legacy into a career in space exploration.

“My father worked in the space program on Mercury and Gemini and I caught the bug from him,” Stroupe says. “When I discovered that someone who gets motion sickness on carousels wasn’t going to be a good astronaut candidate, I decided to find other ways to work in space. And with Voyager and Viking, robotic spacecraft looked like the path to the future.”

Colizzi’s grandfather, Tommy Tommy, worked on Pathfinder, the first rover to land on Mars, and on Cassini. “My grandfather and both of his brothers were JPLers way back in the 1970s, so growing up as a kid I wasn’t as interested because they really pushed me to work here,” she recalls. “In spite, I wanted to do other things but I ended up finding my way here anyway.”

Whatever piqued their initial interest, each of these women possess a profound sense of curiosity that more than validates the name of JPL’s famous eponymous Mars rover mission; A mission that has assuaged our curiosity about what is perhaps our most profound question regarding other planets. Could other planets support life?

With skill and persistence, from profound questions can come profound answers. “Within the first year of Curiosity being on the surface of Mars, we found the answer that, yes, there was chemical composition at some point on Mars to sustain life,” Trujillo says. “That’s the thing Mars 2020 is geared to do—find if there [were] or if there [are] bio-signatures.”

Despite the myriad daily challenges, each woman loves being part of a team that expands our understanding of the universe and our place in it. As far as these women are concerned the hope is that Mars is only the beginning of our interplanetary voyage through the universe. Alibay echoes the sentiment of all saying, “I want to continue working on missions to other planets—it’s the bread and butter of what JPL does and the reason why I came here. Being the first to see science results from these missions is quite extraordinary.”

With talented women like these continuing to press our knowledge deeper into space there is little doubt humanity’s understanding of our planetary neighbors, and even planets in other “neighborhoods” will continue to expand. “One day, I would like to have a conversation like we’re having now and say, I have to let you go because the shuttle to Mars is going out,” Trujillo concludes. “We’re getting there. It will be cool if I had to tell you my 2:30 is actually my spaceship ticket taking me somewhere.”

Images: Courtesy Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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