Latinx Women Pioneering the Future of Aerospace Engineering

From Ellen Ochoa's Historic Flight to Joan Melendez Misner's Trailblazing Work at NASA, Latinx Women are Redefining Aerospace Engineering

NASA astronauts Ellen Ochoa gives an interview at Airbus in Bremen, Germany, 28 September 2017. Photo: Carmen Jaspersen/dpa (Photo by Carmen Jaspersen/picture alliance via Getty Images) (Picture alliance via Getty Image)

September 15 marks the start of Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month- and what a better time to celebrate Latinx women in STEM! Latinx women are one of the most underrepresented identities in STEM fields, making up only 3% of STEM fields. While Hispanic scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are underrepresented in general, Hispanic women are 28% less likely to get Bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields than male counterparts.

While representation of Hispanic women has plenty of room to grow, strides are certainly being made to increase representation in STEM. Aerospace engineering is one field where Latinx women are changing what representation in STEM looks like.

To celebrate Hispanic Heritage month, we’re looking at how aerospace engineering has changed over the years. From the first Hispanic astronaut building the path for more Latinx women to break into the field, to the aerospace engineers continuing to demand space for diversity in their profession, STEM has come a long way - and it still has a long way to go.

The First Hispanic Woman to Go To Space

Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic astronaut in 1991. In April 1993, she was the first Latinx woman to go into space aboard the Discovery space shuttle. “With the advent of the Space Shuttle, NASA was looking for people with a variety of STEM backgrounds,” Ochoa tells Built By Girls in a new interview. “And with the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and the women’s rights movement of the 70’s, they also opened up jobs to underrepresented groups.” This advocacy and shift in culture ignited conversation about diversity, which made space for more people with different backgrounds and identities to get involved in engineering at NASA.

One of Ochoa’s inspirations was Sally Ride, who was the first American woman to go to space. “Sally Ride flew in space when I was in the middle of getting my doctorate. Not only was she a woman, but she had been a Physics major, like me, and had gone to Stanford, which I was currently attending,” Ochoa shares. “All those things helped give me the idea to apply to NASA as soon as I got my Ph.D.”

She was selected to go to space five years later. “Going to space was exciting in all possible ways — intellectually, physically and emotionally!” Ochoa voices. There are many aspects of STEM involved in going to space, which aren’t always highlighted. For Ellen, that meant getting to be involved with up-close research of solar wind and the ozone hole. “I got to operate the shuttle’s robotic arm to deploy and retrieve a science satellite studying the solar wind,” Ochoa explains.

Ellen Ochoa made waves in the aerospace engineering world for Latinx women. However, she too had to overcome many obstacles in her engineering journey. “It wasn’t common for women to study engineering or many of the sciences, much less for a woman of Hispanic heritage. Some professors tried to discourage me [or] didn’t believe women belonged in the field,” she tells Built By Girls. While the aerospace engineering field became more diverse throughout Ochoa’s time with NASA, Latinx engineers are still advocating for a bigger voice in the field.

The Next Generation of Aerospace Engineers

Joan Melendez Misner is an Aerospace Integration Engineer at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Her work focuses on sustaining space rovers through their launch, by designing and planning tests. Using social media, she’s built an online community on her page, YourFemaleEngineer, where she shares stories about her journey as an engineer, connects with other women in STEM, and inspires Latina engineers wanting to get into a STEM profession.

“Living and growing up in Orlando, Florida, the space coast was in my backyard,” Melendez Misner shares with Built By Girls. “Seeing the rocket launches, being able to really feel my house shake whenever rockets would launch or come back…it was just really interesting to me to kind of think of being able to help send astronauts to space.”

As a first-generation college student and Hispanic engineer, Joan Melendez Misner uses her voice as a way to inspire other women to pursue a STEM career.
As a first-generation college student and Hispanic engineer, Joan Melendez Misner uses her voice as a way to inspire other women to pursue a STEM career.

Though she always had a passion for aerospace engineering, she started her journey in STEM working in chemical engineering, partly because she had planned to study to be a doctor and had taken classes relevant to the field. “I was the first one in my family to graduate with a college degree, so they always kind of instilled lawyer or doctor [as] the career. I never really thought engineering was for me,” she explains.

Even though she joined the aerospace engineering field years after Ochoa went to space, Melendez Misner has encountered multiple obstacles working in aerospace engineering. “I didn’t know how to navigate scholarships in general,” she explains while reflecting on her college years. “I didn’t have those resources, specifically financial resources.”

Along with figuring out how to pay for her path to pursue her career, Melendez Misner felt a lot of pressure as a first-generation college student. “Being the oldest, being the first one to go through college, I had so much pressure and I’m sure there [are] a lot of first-generation students going through college who…feel that pressure,” Melendez Misner voices. “That pressure sometimes weighed heavily on me.”

Women make up about 35% of people in STEM, with Latinx people making up about 8% of STEM professionals. Melendez Misner describes these two statistics as a “double whammy” when it comes to working in STEM as a Hispanic woman. “I have both of [these] thoughts in my mind every time I step into a room and I see that [people] all kind of look similar, and then here comes me and I’m sort of that outlier.”

While it may seem surprising that these challenges are still present in STEM, Ochoa reiterates that diversity still has a long way to go in aerospace engineering and that the field has only recently made improvements when it comes to things like diversity in leadership roles. “While NASA had been hiring a more diverse workforce than many technical organizations for several years when I joined, it took a long time to see women or people of color in leadership roles. Now, the directors of NASA centers include four women, [including one Black and one Hispanic woman], and a Black man.”

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center, but it didn’t happen until 2021. Ochoa herself was the first Hispanic woman to be a NASA Director as the Director of Johnson Space Center from January 2013- May 2018.

Improving Representation in Aerospace Engineering

It’s clear that Latinx representation in aerospace engineering has improved since Ochoa went to space. However, it’s also clear that it still has a long way to go, and engineers like Ochoa and Melendez Misner are using their voices and resources to encourage more young Hispanic women to enter the field.

“Research shows that the best way to get students involved in STEM is through role models, mentoring, and providing hands-on activities,” Ochoa shares with Built By Girls. “The more that those can be provided to communities all across the country, the more the demographics of STEM fields will look like the country’s demographics,” she emphasizes.

Melendez Misner echoes this idea; she encourages engineering companies to visit colleges and show up at job fairs with engineers of many different backgrounds, in order to build better connections with students from underrepresented communities. “Being able to bring a diverse group of people to those job fairs so that when you are answering questions or just [being] there for support, the students can see themselves in you,” she articulates.

Melendez Misner also stresses that to increase representation, we must break the stigma that you have to fit a certain mold to be an aerospace engineer. “When I was starting engineering, I thought that I had to have that 4.0 GPA to eventually be at NASA and that’s not true,” she asserts. As someone who had to work during college to help pay for her degree, Melendez Misner didn’t always have a perfect 4.0 GPA in college, but she’s still able to be successful in her career at NASA. “Being able to break down that stigma I think will help elevate and bring more diversity into these fields.”

She has used her social media accounts as a way to directly increase representation, answer questions, and connect with aspiring female engineers. When she first started posting about her engineering work, Melendez Misner shares that she would get a lot of questions about it, oftentimes from women.

While social media can be a false representation of many things, Melendez Misner didn’t only want to share the positive parts of her journey, to show that STEM professions are attainable even if you experience challenges. “I started sharing my personal journey of how I failed classes and how I stumbled along the way, but every single stumble…I would learn from it and pick myself back up, so that really resonated with people,” she explains. “It kind of humanizes that STEM profession.”

Encouraging Young Hispanic Women to Pursue Aerospace Engineering

Hispanic girls are more likely than Hispanic boys to consider themselves “A” students, but less likely to rate high in confidence on STEM subjects. So what is needed to build confidence among aspiring Latina engineers?

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of every success story,” Melendez Misner expresses. “I applied to NASA 13 times and I did not get a position. Every single time I didn't get the opportunity to interview, I would email the hiring manager and I would ask, what should I include or what kind of skills do I need to become competitive?” she reflects. “I learned from the rejection…and eventually I was given the opportunity and now I work in the career I wanted.”

Ochoa advises that you can actually start working towards a career in engineering during high school and early college years. “While in school, study math and science and learn how to be a good team player, since engineers most often work in teams to accomplish something,” she explains. “We need you! We need bright, creative, curious minds to help make discoveries and solve challenges.”

With dreams comes rejection, so don’t be discouraged if everything doesn’t work out the first time you try. “You will fail,” Melendez Misner states. “If someone says no to you, it doesn’t mean no to you as a person, it just means no right now.”

She emphasizes that mistakes and failures don’t define you, but the way you move forward can. “Failure [is] not the end of the world. Being able to pick yourself back up, learn from your mistakes, and [move] forward, I think is the biggest piece of advice that I’d be able to give someone.”

Hailey Dickinson (she/her) is a creator passionate about using writing and digital platforms to build community, make connections, and ignite positive social change. She is a Communications Major with a social media emphasis at the University of Minnesota and will graduate in December 2023.