Success Is NOT Rocket Science
Except sometimes it is—
especially for young women pursuing STEM careers.
By Kurt Dusterberg / Photos courtesy of Jacqueline Mims
Jacqueline Mims remembers the moment she was inspired to her life’s work. It was January 28th, 1986, the day that NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crewmembers.
Mims had been cheering Christa McAuliffe, the civilian selected to become the first school-teacher in space. McAuliffe had taught Mims’ older sister in middle school. After the tragedy, Mims knew she wanted to work for NASA to help insure the success of future missions.
Later that year, she landed a job as an administrative assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. A year later, she left to pursue a degree in computer science at Towson State University before returning to NASA as an aerospace technologist. Mims became the first African-American civil servant to be certified as a spacecraft ground controller for Goddard’s unmanned spacecraft.
After completing a 10-year career at NASA in 2001, Mims continued her professional career at IBM and Lenovo, and today she works as an independent IT project manager. But she is also following her passion, promoting careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly known as STEM.
Mims’ work begins in Raleigh, where she has coached the robotics team at Leesville Road Middle School. But she is dreaming big, with plans that take her to the far reaches of the globe.
Why is it so important for you to guide girls and young women toward STEM careers?
Statistics show us that 75 percent of these career opportunities in STEM are occupied by men. We have a lot of programs available now to increase student interest in STEM, but we also have statistics that show women are not moving toward those careers and education opportunities. And if they do go into those fields, they are leav-ing in large numbers. Now that I’m an empty-nester, it’s time for me to share my story.
Why do you think it is more difficult for girls?
Science and technology isn’t always intuitive to a girl, and we don’t always feel like we belong. You have to work hard for success; no one is going to just give it to us. If you shift the mindset and enable them to understand who they really are and the power that resides within, and the fact that you have to do the hard work, then that changes their trajectory and belief in themselves.
Are you starting to see high-achieving high school students move toward these fields?
We are woefully behind. A lot of times, young girls start out strong in middle school and high school, and then they pursue STEM in college. But in transitioning to the work world, it’s a whole different game. The support and building up of women in the corporate arena is starting to grow now, but if you don’t have the connection with a mentor, the transition is quite difficult. It’s a dog-eat-dog world—if you don’t have thick skin and the ability to see positivity in your life, that’s challenging. I look at minorities. The number of them participating in STEM is very low.
Why do you think that is?
With minorities, there is not a lot of access to a lot of the programs. But there are a lot of things that happen in the home that weigh upon girls differently in the minority arena. There is another level of hands-on that has to take place to encourage and motivate, building up the self-esteem and the self-awareness. If you’re not taught that in your home or in your school, you have a harder time moving forward toward something that seems so far out of your reach.
Let’s talk about your career a bit. People often describe easy work by saying, “It’s not rocket science.” But working at NASA sounds like literally the opposite. What was your experience like?
It was a lot of pressure because there was a lot of money, and sometimes a lot of lives, at stake. You had to be precise on everything. But being on the inside, we didn’t think of ourselves as being elite. We didn’t think of ourselves as rocket scientists. We had fun.
As a satellite command controller, I was the person with the headset on when we had contact with the spacecraft. I would be talking to the ground station, making sure all of the system’s numbers were within the normal range. If not, I had to convene the engineers to come up with a solution to get us back on track. In my mind, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist.
I think society has blown that up to make us like we’re such brainiacs. I never saw myself as the smartest one in the bunch. I saw myself as someone who had to apply grit and determination and just make it happen.
I had to encourage myself a lot of times because the field was dominated by men. When I was going through the certification process, I had two babies. Most [of my colleagues] had degrees in aerospace engineering; I didn’t. My degree was in computer engineering and business administration.
Was that intimidating? Did you feel like other people at NASA had an advantage over you?
I started in aerospace technology and I developed code for the in-orbit telemetry and data-handling processing subsystem. That subsystem on the spacecraft allowed for the successful transmission of data from outer space to the ground, and it produced the pictures we see today of the sun and the starburst galaxies. That was my initial role out of college at NASA; it was a role that had a lot of prestige. If my code was not right, satellites would not be able to get that data down. I had some experience, so it wasn’t as intimidating going into the command controller world. But it was a lot of work. Not too many applied, because it was an unknown path and it was a lot of work.
And now, you’ve started a nonprofit aimed at promoting STEM careers here in the Triangle as well as in Kenya and Guyana.
Mombasa, Kenya invited me to start a technology initiative. I’m currently working with them to teach a camp this October. I will teach leadership and team building, but I’m looking to partner with experts in other areas to teach some courses as well. I could teach those courses, but I’m looking to have a team come with me. I will be there for two or three weeks. Right now we’re looking at about 30 students.
How old are these students, and what do you hope to teach them?
The students range from age 10 through 16. They’re educated; but in third-world countries, women are like second-class citizens. Their leaders want women to pursue education, but often women feel like they just don’t have a voice. What I do is come in with my technology offering and teach on the following pillars: self-awareness, building self-esteem, leadership, and team building. I also teach financial fortitude and entrepreneurship. Then we bring in the technology, like environmental sciences. In Africa, they’re keying on reducing their carbon footprint. They want to grow in terms of teaching recycling.
You mentioned you are an empty-nester. What is this stage like for you?
I’m loving it. I have a son who graduated from The Citadel. He’s a first lieutenant in the [U.S.] Air Force, and is a combat pilot stationed in Greece. I have a daughter who studied abroad at American University of Rome and in Germany. She is now working for Cisco Systems. It makes life better at this stage when your young adults are excelling.
And my next move is travelling the globe and working locally to promote STEM. That is my give back, and I’m going to walk it out. STEM is every day. It’s a part of the fabric of my being.