When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July 1969, three African-American women mathematicians were the human computers behind the space capsule’s feat. But they remained hidden figures with a shadowed glory because they were black and they were women. The giant leap for womankind still had to come.

Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn had to fight overt instances of dismissive superiors at work to become NASA’s steer-leaders, launching America into spaceflight primacy over the erstwhile USSR.

Much later, accolades came their way. Never mind that justice delayed is albeit justice denied.

2021. A long way since, meet NASA’s women engineers Dr. Swati Mohan, Vandana “Vandi” Verma, Zainab Nagin Cox and Diana Trujillo. All women of color. Now inked in history because all have a significant role in the Perseverance landing and continued exploration for signs of past life on the red planet. One had a supportive family that backed a STEM higher education choice. Two fought a conservative background each, while one hails from a milieu that could never imagine a girl growing up to drive. Leave alone steer a rover on Mars.


The Landing Expert

Dr. Swati Mohan (1983)

Aerospace Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Guidance and Controls Operation Lead on NASA Mars 2020

“At age 9, I watched Star Trek and was struck by the beautiful views of the galaxies and outer space. I wanted to be there.”

Born in Bangalore, India, Dr. Mohan’s parents emigrated to the United States when she was one. Most of her childhood was spent in the Washington DC metro area. In interviews post the epic seven month 300 million-mile journey to Mars, Dr. Mohan recorded:

“My parents have been supportive all through. Getting into a good college was the only criteria for them to fund my entire education. It was very expensive but they believed in my passion and that made all the difference.”

Because the pressure of a work-school-work routine was absent, Dr. Mohan was able to avail of the unpaid internships and extra-curricular courses such as satellite coding and design during her undergrad days doing Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University. Shortly after graduation, she was invited to work as a junior engineer on Cassini, NASA’s historic mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.

In 2013, barely three years after completing her PhD, Dr. Mohan became a part of the Perseverance Mission. “My seniors opened the door to NASA’s most heady mission,” she recorded in an interview, adding that diligence and the will to excel are a pre-requisite for anyone looking at STEM soaring their career.

Dr. Mohan narrates that while interested in space and star gazing, she was all set to become a pediatrician.

“I did not know how to fuse my interest and academic choice. Till a Physics class when I was 16. That was a turning point and helped me understand matter, engineering and calculations as the way to space.”

What started as an eight-hour shift, soon gathered steam and turned into a 12-hour work pattern. Hardware testing and probable situations that could be encountered while landing on the Martian terrain were simulated. Ejection from the mother capsule, plunging down the friction of an alien atmosphere and landing onto the target planet were the real test.

Dr. Mohan led the team which developed the “Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation.” In simple words, she led a group of aerospace engineers to craft a technology which enabled Perseverance to scan the area before touchdown in an upright position. Not only did the rover land successfully, it did away with the hitherto experienced glitches caused by slanting or leaning of the study mechanism. Above all, fitted solar panels panned out in a direction such to trap maximum amount of sunlight to power the mission.

Whew! All this made possible by Guidance, Navigation and Controls (GN&C) controlling the maneuvers here on Earth. Dr. Mohan was leading the second-by-nano-second move of the landing during the “seven minutes of terror.” And when, she did announce “Touchdown Confirmed,” the world broke out in jubilation.

In her NASA page, she states:

“It is an honor and privilege to work in such an incredibly motivating environment. All the projects seek to expand human understanding and are almost always first of a kind in some way.”

A mother of two and known as much for her Indian cultural roots, she is every reason to believe that a support system is all needed to back a STEM career for women.


Rover’s Robotic Arm Expert

Diana Trujillo Pomerantz (1980)

Aerospace Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Currently leading a 45-member team behind the Robotic Arm of Perseverance

“The future that I wanted was to explore the stars.”

Feisty, gutsy and loving it all. That is how Diana Trujillo appears. Born in Colombia, she grew up in a country torn apart by narco-terrorism, guerilla insurgencies and a power-hungry elitist political system.

“I grew up with a lot of violence. For me, a safe place was looking up at the sky and the stars.”

Trujillo’s mother left medical school when she came along. Her family was faced with economic hardships which worsened each time political instability rocked the country. Her leanings toward mathematics and the sciences emerged clear but not knowing English was proving to be a disadvantage. In hope of a better future, she set off to an aunt in Miami. Life changed thereon.

“I came to the US not knowing English and with $300 in my pocket. From doing hourly-paying odd jobs to washing the bathrooms, I did all to make ends meet. At the Miami Dade College, where I was studying English, I borrowed a textbook from the math department for a break. It reignited my passion and I decided on pursuing my dreams.”

With confidence in her mathematical prowess and having read about the role of women working in aerospace missions, she enrolled for aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. Here, Trujillo applied for the NASA Academy.

Her selection for the 10-week summer program made her the first Hispanic woman to have qualified for this primary brush with space for promising students. Being part of NASA robots expert Brian Roberts’ team helped her define her forte as robotics in space operations. He convinced her to move to Maryland which offered better prospects of a career in aerospace.

“I need to be the Latina woman that will fulfill the dream of my women. I need to be the Latina woman that will have the life that my mom, great grandma deserved — three generations that couldn’t do what they deserved.”

She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2007 and later that year, joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She served many roles, chief being as architect of the DRT or dust removal tool, to enable shaking dust off the Martian surfaces, for scientists to study deeper.

Each learning experience was only a stepping stone. She enrolled for MS and PhD in Aeronautics/ Astronautics from MIT and while still pursuing the doctorate, was invited to participate in SPHERES. This experiment at the International Space Station conducted from Earth introduced her to the concepts of design and experiments with algorithms for space systems.

The DRT was put into successful action on Curiosity rover’s Mars expedition in 2009. During the same mission, she was also assigned the communication between the spacecraft and scientists on Earth. She is currently heading the robotic arms operations for Perseverance as it looks for signs of past life in the Jezero Crater on Mars.

“Believe in yourself. Don’t second guess it. Write down the skills you are good at. What are the things you love doing and then write a plan. Search for people who have done what you want to do. Find out how they made it happen so you can figure out how to navigate your path. Then put it in a timeline. These things will put you on the right track and keep you on the rails!”

— Quotes from kcet.org


Rover’s Engineering Operations Team Chief

Zainab Nagin Cox (1965)

Spacecraft Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Currently part of Engineering Operations Team working with Perseverance
Conferred NASA Exceptional Service Medal
Asteroid 14601 discovered in 1996 was renamed Nagincox in 2015

“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first. There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

“I am an explorer, engineer and a fighter,” Cox declares. Born in Bangalore, her childhood had a brief chapter in Kuala Lumpur before the family emigrated to the United States. Growing up in Kansas City, where her father was a professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri, she realized the treatment meted out to herself and her sister was far different from what the brothers were handed out.

“At dinnertime, we were expected to help out. My brothers were served and eating was their only role,” she recounts in her NASA page. Her father minced no words when he thought girls were “worthless.” The boys were sent to a middle school known for math and science while the girls were packed off to an arts and humanities specialization school.

“And then I realized that it had to do with being a girl.”

Had it not been for her mother’s encouragement, Cox would probably have lived life in its usual grind. When Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos brought alive the galaxy and beyond, all she wanted to do was explore the universe. Not as an astronaut. As a robot… and from Cornell University because that’s where Carl Sagan was from!

The dream alive in her heart, little wonder then that when she saw an Air Force trailer parked behind her high school, her interest perked up. “Join us and The Air Force pays for your college” came as her ticket to NASA. She enlisted and even specified her college preference but the letters of admission did not come. Or so she thought, till one day, she realized… her father was tearing up the letters because he did not want his daughter to go to university.

She was determined and four years later, in 1986, she graduated with a double major in psychology and engineering from Cornell. An Air Force stint as systems engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton propelled her into a master’s program in space operations systems engineering at Air Force Institute Technology. Thereon, came six years of job as an Air Force orbital analyst.

When she finally joined the Jet Propulsion Lab in 1993, she struck upon IWWTWTF — I was willing to wash the floors — an acronym that she scribbled in every notebook thereon. A constant reminder of how much she yearned getting in, Cox has been a constant in iconic missions such as Galileo, all the Mars rovers – Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, Kepler and Insight. With Perseverance, she has taken on the role of deputy team chief of the engineering operations.

In her many TED talks, she speaks of how she lives in the Martian time zone and actually wears two watches! And when there is some free time to spare on Earth, she occupies herself as a state representative travelling the world to encourage greater participation by women in STEM careers.

“Work does not feel like work. It is where I want to be.”


Rover’s Driver

Vandana “Vandi” Verma

Space Roboticist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Drove Curiosity and now driving Perseverance

“I do realise that I possibly have one of the coolest jobs in the world.”

Her seventh birthday was indeed the lucky one. Verma was gifted a set of books on space, which she “devoured” and then set her goal. A space scientist and no less. Her father, a pilot with the Indian Air Force flew Russian-made MiG jet fighters while her mother, a traditional housewife, knew that her daughter will be sent to college and then sorted into an arranged marriage. Born in Halwara in Punjab, India, Verma’s planets were perhaps outweighed by Mars.

After a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, she pursued a master’s program in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Between studies, she gained a pilot’s license because:

“I wanted to fly planes. Actually, what I really wanted to do was make automatic flying planes.”

Her thesis later, also from CMU, involved a three-year astrobiology experimental station at the Atacama desert because of its similarities with the Martian surface. While still a student, she bagged the first prize in a competition to create a robot that was capable of collecting balloons and navigating a maze in an unknown environment.

“As long as what you do is something that interests you, and you do it with passion, it makes your work unique in that different way. There is no right or wrong way.”

Armed with a flying license and loaded with robotics, it was but natural that she co-wrote PLEXIL, a programming technology developed in 2006. A year later, she saw herself in JPL with a special interest in flight software and robotics.

Verma joined the Mars team in 2008 and has since then “driven” all the rovers on the red planet. Together with her team, she has “everything to do with the mobility of the rover.” This includes driving and navigation as well as operating the robotic arm that gathers rock and core samples on Mars.

Existing in Martian time was bound to happen and each day starts 40 Earth minutes after the previous one. Her breakfast could be at 10 pm and dinner 5 am because the rover’s day works in a sol or one Mars day. Each night, it relays back data and images which are carefully studied and helps the team plan for rover’s next day ride. The chartered route is then beamed back so that the rover can start at dawn.

In Verma’s words:

“Perseverance is the most sophisticated machine sent to Mars and will look for biosignatures of past microbial life. The rover’s robotic arm will drill the surface and collect sample the size of chalk. These will be brought back to Earth sometime in the early 2030s.”

A mother to toddler twins, she says her husband has been a pillar of support.

In the end, distance does not matter. At the end of the day, we are all under the same sky.

– All Images Credit: Sidra Choudhry

They all had a dream. And it led them to ignore ground reality.

These women of substance are not the usual one line-clinchers. They talk deep and question deeper. Physics, chemistry, math, bio-sciences, psychology and neuro-sciences are their respective arenas. While they work out groundbreaking theories or deduce new formulae to compute faster, what they actually wrestle with are gender stereotypes. Being a tall figure in what still remains a “man’s domain,” STEM, these women are every reason to believe: If you want to, you can.

The UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, aimed at celebrating women leaders in STEM, is a clear message from the world body that STEM avenues are now more open than ever before for women. This benchmark date attempts to slowly but surely fade out the unconscious bias nurturing gender inequality.

The age-old yoke that women must gravitate towards career options that allow a domestic routine as well, needs to be eroded. These, of course, are deep-rooted ideas embossed on the collective consciousness of successive milieus and will therefore take another set of successive milieus to delete forever. The silver lining is that change is underway.

We list below 12 inspiring women achievers who are reasons to STEM like a girl.


Linda B. Buck

American Biologist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (2004) for her work in the olfactory process)

Linda Buck is every reason to believe that one must have a distinctive nose for something.

“As a woman in science, I sincerely hope that my receiving a Nobel Prize will send a message to young women everywhere that the doors are open to them and that they should follow their dreams.”

Apart from being a puzzle-solver in childhood days, nothing about Buck suggested how life would unfold. In 1965, she enrolled for an undergrad psychology course at the University of Washington. Not sure of her choice, she took time to travel as college was happening in bouts and phases. A lecture in immunobiology sparked her interest and in 1975, 10 years after she enrolled, Buck graduated with a BS in microbiology and psychology.

Thereon, a PhD in immunology at the Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, led her to further trail the scent of what her brain thought was the ultimate puzzle.

“How could humans and mammals detect over 10,000 odorous chemicals and how could nearly identical chemicals generate different odor perceptions?”

— Buck stated post the Nobel honor.

The research took her to Columbia and to Richard Axel, a neuroscientist, working on the molecular structure in the nervous system of sea-snails. Three years of hard work led them to publish a paper in 1991 which established the 1,000 olfactory receptors in mice versus 350 such receptors in humans.

But she wanted to delve deeper to understand how does the brain relate a particular experience or memory to a specified smell and in turn how does that memory live the transient smell again or trigger attraction and aversion.

This time the light was focussed on the brain’s olfactory cortex. Years of hard work backed by tonnes of research papers led her to a full-time position at Harvard in 2001. In 2004, Axel and she were jointly awarded the Nobel for their work in understanding the olfactory receptors.


Donna Strickland

Canadian Physicist

(Nobel Prize in Physics (2018) for developing Chirped Pulse Amplification)

Donna Strickland says she studied lasers as a Freshman at McMasters University, Ontario, because “lasers sound cool.” One of the three women in a class of 25 to have graduated in Physics in 1981, Strickland almost lived her mother’s dream. Way back in the 1940s, when her mother expressed her aptitude for the sciences as a university course, she was strongly dissuaded. Why?

Because “women are better served by taking arts.” Strickland is the third woman to have received the Nobel in physics. Her award came 55 years after Maria Goepert Mayer, whom Strickland referred to as “he” in her thesis and now laughs at her own ignorance. But even more, sneers at the ingrained gender inequity… for all serious stuff, a man it is.

Strickland went on to the University of Rochester, New York, to pursue a doctorate under Gérard Mourou, who was working on ultra-short high-intensity laser pulses.

“It is the one time in my life that I worked very, very hard!”

Together, the duo published their Nobel-winning research in 1985 and paved the way for the most intense laser pulses ever created. The study finds application in laser eye surgeries, machining of small glass parts used in smartphones, medical imaging and presents an entirely new spectrum into cancer studies.

Interestingly, even though she earned herself a PhD in Optics in 1989, a full-time job did not come her way till eight long years. Her scientific explanation for this unscientific trend is the “two-body problem.”

In an interview to nobelprize.org, Strickland explained that in a marriage between two academics, the unspoken principle is that women must put their career on the back-burner. She moved along with her Physicist husband Doug Dykaar wherever his work took him. Eventually in 1997, she was hired by the University of Waterloo.


May-Britt Moser

Norwegian Psychologist and Neuroscientist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (2014) for discovery of grid cells in the brain by which animals are able to navigate their environment)

May-Britt Moser comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s region and her childhood seems like a page out of a fairy-tale. Born in the small island town of Fosnavåg in west Norway, Moser does have the Elsa-Anna look. Only that, even as a little girl, she liked studying a snail’s behavior or watching the sheep on the farm for hours to understand what goes on in their minds as opposed to flitting about with butterflies or feeding squirrels.

“My father worked as a carpenter and my mother was a homemaker,” she reports, adding: “The one thing I did learn was that work keeps us happy”

After her under graduation in psychology at the University of Oslo, which she and her future-husband Edvard completed together. The duo notched a Master’s thesis mentored by the acclaimed Terje Sagvolden and Per Andersen. Rats, water-mazes, lesions, hippocampus, dorsal and ventral brain…. this was their world till their thesis was published in The Journal of Neuroscience .

This watershed moment brought the young couple much limelight in academia and also the force to persist in their study of the brain. Funding for two PhDs, marriage and two girls along the way, they kept going with university grants in London and Edinburgh.

Nothing was allowed to come in the way of their study to unravel cognitive processes (such as memory) and spatial deficits associated with human neurological conditions such as Alzheimer disease. Finally, in 2005, they arrived at what they were looking for! Grid cells in the brain that govern our understanding of spaces and directions and how we navigate our environment.

In several interviews, Moser recalls her school teachers who were crucial in encouraging “female students” to live their dream. At that time, all she wanted to be was a doctor and travel abroad.

To her credit, Moser is today a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Her theory is the guiding principle for many doctors. She travels across the world as a luminary in her field.


Cynthia Breazeal

Roboticist and Professor at MIT

(Known for pioneering social robots and working on artificial intelligence)

Cynthia Breazeal is the archetypal gizmo queen. Armed with technical expertise, she works on secret life codes that breathe artificial intelligence into machines! Simply put, she creates robots which respond to the environment around them.

Star Wars with its iconic R2D2 and C3PO left an indelible impression on the mind of 10-year-old Breazeal. She went on to a postgraduate program in space robotics at MIT in 1992. Led by renowned roboticist Rodney Brooks, they focused on building small robots to work in the farthest reaches of space without direct human guidance.

Almost living her childhood dream, Breazeal threw herself into the subject but the focus came in 1997 after NASA landed a robot in space. And here she realized that motor skills-adept robots would remain servile to human commands till an emotional quotient is ingrained into their intelligence.

That is where her story really begins. Breazeal went on to create Kismet , the first humanoid robot to sense and respond to human feelings and emotions. Thereon, came Autom , which helps people stick to their diets and Aida , the driving assistant. And then the acclaimed Jibo , the family robot that functions as a member. All available at retail prices.

The lingering question if robots will ever find practical application is answered by statistics and changing needs. Ageing population, nuclear to monochrome set-ups and the world having gone through a virtual year, Breazeal’s concept of robots as adapting to and supplementing human needs may just be the next big thing.


Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

British Astrophysicist and Astronomer

(Known for discovering space-based Pulsars)

“You do not have to learn lots and lots. You just learn a few key things, and then you can apply and build and develop from those. He was a really good teacher and showed me how easy Physics was.”

— Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her physics teacher, Mr Tillott.

Had Mr Tillott not entered young Burnell’s life, it would perhaps have taken an entirely different route.

Born in Northern Ireland to a family of Quakers, Burnell’s parents were progressive and protested for an overturn of the local school’s policy which clearly delineated a curriculum for girls and boys. In the 1940s, cooking, baking and cross-stitching were among the core essentials of girls’ curriculum.

Her father, an architect, who helped design the Armagh Planetarium, and his library of books on astronomy sparked an early interest in Burnell. However, she did not fare well in academics and failed the high school entrance exams.

Undeterred, her parents sent her to a Quaker Boarding School in England. That little belief and encouragement in their daughter’s abilities made all the difference. In 1965, she graduated with a degree in physics.

The following year saw her pursue Radio Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a part of a team of students and researchers, she helped design a massive radio telescope to monitor quasars. Burnell was thereon assigned to analyze the recorded data. She noticed some anomalies in the usual quasar pattern and took her jottings to thesis advisor Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle.

The finding was a discovery! Over the next few months and in collaboration with Hewish, they were able to establish “neutron stars,” fast spinning stars too small to form Black Holes but nonetheless the ones that emit high frequency radio waves. The new entity was labelled, Pulsars. Undeniably, the pioneer remained Burnell. But what followed was sheer gender bias towards recognizing a woman’s achievement.

In 1968, Nature , published the findings. Six years later, in 1974, only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for their work. “Student” Burnell’s work was overlooked. Many still await the fifty-year wait to open the archives to understand what went through the Nobel Awards Committee in deciding the year’s winners. Come January 2024, and being a woman would have proved another point. Even in Nobel circles.


Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

French Virologist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (2008) for discovery of the HIV which made possible anti-AIDS medication and management)

“We are not making science for science. We are making science for the benefit of humanity.”

— Françoise Barré-Sinoussi in the 1980s

Barré-Sinoussi words rang true in 2020 when all of humanity was left at the mercy of scientific research for a possible vaccine to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.

Born in Paris, it was her summers spent in the idyllic countryside that shaped the mind to be. “I could spend hours just watching the smallest insects. ” Barré-Sinoussi liked to observe, record and deduce.

So, enrolling in the bio-medical science program at the University of Paris at 19 was more a calling of the heart. However, mere lectures did not interest her and she often bunked class to work at the Pasteur Institute. It was an active zone with Jean-Claude Chermann studying retroviruses in mice.

Barré-Sinoussi was awarded PhD in 1974 for a paper in retrovirology research. And this, after being dissuaded by a senior mentor: “A woman in science, they never do anything. They are only good at caring for the home and babies. Forget this dream.”

Years later in several interviews, this gritty face has been recorded saying:

“Thank God I had a dream.”

Perhaps it let her ignore the reality. After a brief stint at the National Institute of Health in the US, Barré-Sinoussi returned to join the lab with Luc Montagnier in Paris. Sometime in 1982, a “new alarming epidemic” targeting homosexual men was rattling medics and virologists across the world. It was here that her work gained momentum.

A fortnight later, Francoise and her team isolated the rogue. What was later labelled as HIV, her identification led to blood tests to detect the infection and to anti-retroviral drugs. AIDS was no longer a death sentence. The Luc-Francoise jury overturned the penalty into a chronic malaise.

Barré-Sinoussi continues to study possible cures for AIDS. Over a dozen national and international awards for her crusade in HIV research, she heads a lab for anti-retroviral therapy at Pasteur Institute.

— Quotes taken from mosiacscience.com.


Ana Caraini

Romanian-American Mathematician

(Research subjects include algebraic number theory and Langlands program)

While Romania scores high with more women than men in gymnastics, the tally is a gross reverse in mathematics. Ana Caraini is only the second woman apart from Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea to have vaulted high in math.

In 2001, when Caraini was 16, she came into the limelight when she bagged the silver medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad. For Romania, this accolade came after 25 years.

The following two years saw her bag gold medals. After high school, she took the Bucharest-Princeton route that most Math wizards from her country took. While still an undergrad, she won the Putnam Fellow Mathematical Competition twice. Again, she was noticed as the only woman to have notched the laurel more than once.

The degree in 2007 came with an undergraduate thesis in Galois representations. Thereon, a doctorate from Harvard in 2012 and awards and recognitions were just a matter of time. Caraini bagged the Whitehead Prize of the London Mathematical Society in 2017 and emerged one of the winners at the European Mathematical Society in 2020.

Caraini is a “to watch out for” the Fields Medal. The only other woman to have been conferred the honor was Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014.


Uma Chowdhry

American Chemist

(Specializes in the science of ceramic materials and polymer technology)

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Uma Chowdhry graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Bombay in 1968. Like most bright Indian kids, it was the US calling for higher studies.

All set to take on nuclear physics, Chowdhry’s preference changed allegiance and she took on Chemistry instead. After graduating from the University of California in 1970, she worked for a brief stint at the Ford Motor Company. Driven by a mind keen to explore, she went on to earn a PhD in materials science from MIT in 1976.

Chowdhry joined the chemical giant, DuPont, in 1977 as a research scientist. An interdisciplinary field, materials science draws on the principles of physics, chemistry, metallurgy and engineering to create performance-efficient materials or improve upon existing options.

She focused chemistry on ceramics, a known non-conductor of electricity. She researched and developed ceramics that conduct electricity even better than metals do.

“I had the courage to dream the impossible,” is how she summed up her feat.

This superconductor found potential uses in computers, batteries, and other electrical devices. The technologies she contributed to at DuPont are now a part of electronic packaging, photovoltaics, batteries, biofuel, and many sustainable products that fundamentally change the way we use everyday things.

Picking up awards and publishing papers on newer findings became the norm for quest-driven Chowdhry. It was just a matter of time that she was promoted to the management at DuPont, a position which she held for 33 years till her retirement in 2010.

Kudos to this researcher and woman business leader for living up STEM possibilities in corporate sectors.


Persis Drell

American Physicist

(Best known for her expertise in Particle Physics)

Persis Drell grew up on the Stanford campus in one of the original 12 homes built for the faculty by Leland Stanford. Her father, Dr Sidney Drell, was a famous physicist of his times and their home, often a brainstorming hub with like-minded luminaries dropping-in.

“I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.”

Interestingly, Drell scored low in math and physics in school. But that did not deter her. A bright kid and with academic support at home, she went on to graduate in the same two subjects from Wellesley College.

“I owe a lot to Professor Phyllis Fleming. She inspired me to pursue physics. I took every course Miss Fleming taught.”

Poised on the springboard of an accomplishment was just the jumping point into further depths. A PhD in atomic physics and thereon postdoctoral work in high-energy physics from Berkeley National Laboratory followed suit.

Her career mapped its way from a teaching role at Cornell to administration at Stanford in 2002 and eventually in 2014, she was named dean of Stanford School of Engineering. She was the first woman to have ever held that post. In 2017, she became Provost at Stanford.

Dr Drell is known for her questions. On public forums, she has often debated on “urgent versus interesting” research. To her credit, Stanford changed from being a solely high-energy-physics-focused enterprise to a leader in multiple scientific disciplines. It was under her stewardship that the Linac Coherent Light Source, the world’s first X-Ray free-electron laser, came online.

Today researchers are using it to formulate better blood pressure drugs, study crystal formation and shockwaves in diamond.


Rita Levi Montalcini

Italian Neurobiologist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (1986) for discovery of nerve growth factor NGF)

Rita Levi Montalcini must have had nerves of steel to steal her own way with nerves. When asked by Scientific American in 1988, why she became a scientist, she answered:

“The love for nerve cells, a thirst for unveiling the rules which control their growth and differentiation, and the pleasure of performing this task in defiance of the racial laws issued in 1939 by the Fascist regime were the driving forces.”

When Montalcini died at the age of 103, she was a veritable tome. All rolled into her were annals of history and aerial bombardments, chronicles of culture and racial persecution, fleeing through conflict-stricken geographical boundaries as opposed to modern-day countries and, of course, the story of being a Jewish girl growing up only to raise her own family.

As a teenager, Montalcini admired Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf and wanted to become an author. In her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, she writes how seeing a close family friend lose life to cancer, changed it all. The University of Turin Medical School happened only after a persistent fight with her Jewish background.

The university course brought Montalcini under the wings of neuro-histologist Giuseppe Levi and helped the young student clearly identify her stream — the nervous system. When she graduated in 1936, the then Italian education system did not require a Masters or PhD. She was now a certified MD who chose to remain Levi’s assistant at the university.

However, two years later, Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race clipped the young researcher’s aspirations. Laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers were strictly enforced.

Did Montalcini give up? No.

She was barred from working at the laboratory. But the laboratory could always work at home! In her autobiography again, Montalcini pens the narrative of looking around for eggs to “feed her little ones at home.” No one would ever suspect that a woman would cycle the heavily-Nazi police patrolled streets looking for eggs to carry out experiments at home.

With such grit and determination, little wonder then that after World War II, Montalcini went to the University of Washington in St. Louis. There she isolated and identified the “nerve growth factor,” a discovery which earned her and research partner Stanley Cohen the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Montalcini’s discovery elucidated how embryonic nerve cells grow into a totally developed nervous system and, in general, how a damaged nervous system could be repaired.


Sandra Faber

American Astronomer

(Credited with establishing that the brightness of galaxies is related to speed of stars within. Also, co-designed the Keck telescope. Sandra Faber’s studies are a key to tackling global warming and conservation of earth)

As a young adult, the only thing Faber was sure about was learning where the universe came from. The formation of galaxies and the jig of many such fast-circling entities fitting into the structure of the universe is what she wanted to unravel. A passionate cosmologist even as a child, Faber recalls reading and spending summers in a worthwhile hands-on learning experience.

Much later, in 1972, she went on to complete a PhD from Harvard specializing in Optical Observational Astronomy. Later that year, she found herself as a faculty at Lick Observatory at the University of California, thereby becoming the first woman on staff.

This was a turning point because hence far, she was confused about:

“How could a woman be a scientist. A high school science teacher was just as far women could go…. And a woman scientist in the 1940s and 1950s, was a single woman. I was confused.”

But once enabled with the position, Faber took her dreams higher. To observe space, one needed the tools and funds. Her credibility was fast picking up with the many research papers published and at seminars where she delivered lectures.

In 1983, Faber’s original research negated previously held notions of “dark matter” being composed of fast-moving neutrons. Grants from NASA and National Science Foundations kept the work going.

Mastering the techniques of observational recording, data collection and fine calibrating a computer to meet the requirements of her work, Faber spearheaded the construction of the Keck telescope in Hawaii in 1985. Alongside, in the same year, fundamentals worked out by her were used in building the first wide-field planetary camera for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Awarded with many national and international awards, Faber was honored with the National Medal for Science by President Obama in 2013.


Barbara Liskov

American Computer Scientist

(Pioneering computer languages and system design)

Ever wonder how net banking works? Or how do systems in the office orchestrate many devices into one large hub? The world owes a big thank you to Barbara Liskov who developed the language of veritable computer communities.

If Charles Babbage is the father of the modern-day computers, Liskov is undeniably the one who made possible its infinite uses. Without specialized coded languages Argus, CLU and Thor, desktops would have remained mere sophisticated office filing systems to store, compute and retrieve data.

In 1961, when Liskov earned an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Berkeley, she was the only woman in a class full of men. Keen on studying further, she applied to Princeton and Harvard.

Interestingly, at that time, Princeton was not accepting women in math. Though accepted at Berkeley, she went on to work for a year at Mitre Corporation and returned to a programming job at Harvard.

By now, Liskov recognized her forte was the coded world of computer languages. Keen on learning more, in 1968 she became the first woman in the United States to have earned a PhD in computer sciences.

The thesis on chess-endgames was mentored by John McCarthy. In 1971, she was offered a faculty position at MIT, which she holds till date. Publisher of over 100 papers on technical subjects, the A.M. Turing Award came her way in 2008. Liskov was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012.


“With my Glenview’s Got STEAM program we want to excite girls about the possibilities of STEM that are available to them and pair them with high school mentors who are involved in STEM.”

— Kate Stack


This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination. In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.

Kate Stack, a high school student at Glenview, Illinois, has taken her love for STEM beyond the four walls of her classroom. Her invention, Epi-Spot, a stuffed animal that teaches people with food allergies how to administer lifesaving epinephrine injections, had won her the Infosys Young Maker Award 2017. Kate has also been instrumental in starting a makerspace and STEM program at the Glenview Public Library with her Infosys grant money of $10,000.

Founder of Glenview’s Got STEAM, an outreach program for middle school girls, Kate loves attending and presenting her projects at Maker Faires. She spoke to Urmila Marak, Head of Communications at Mand Labs, about her invention and what inspires her to be so passionate about STEM. Excerpts.



1. Your prototype Epi-Spot was chosen for Infosys Young Maker Award – could you please tell us what is Epi-Spot all about and how did you come up with this invention?

Epi-Spot is a furry friend helping people with food allergies learn how to administer lifesaving epinephrine injections. Ever since I was three years old, I have had a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. So I had to learn how to self-administer epinephrine in case of a severe allergic reaction. As a kid, I remember learning how to use my injector was a scary experience because I was afraid of needles. The only ways of training were to practice on myself with a special training device or by injecting an orange. I wanted to create a friendlier method of training that was also engaging.

To create Epi-spot, I had to teach myself how to program electronics with an Arduino. The toy has a touch sensor on its thigh to register the injector being placed. Then an instruction screen is activated which guides the user through the steps of the injection. I have been able to use the project in many cool ways. I submitted the prototype to the Infosys Young Maker Award competition and received a $10,000 grant to donate to my local library to start STEM programming and a makerspace. I have also taken Epi-Spot to national food allergy conferences for feedback.



2. You have also founded Glenview’s Got STEAM, an outreach program for middle school girls. What inspires you to be so passionate about STEAM?

What inspires me to be passionate about STEM is how I can apply my creativity to solve problems. The area of STEM that I am most interested in right now is biomedical engineering. It’s been amazing to see how this field of engineering (and others!) is directly improving the lives of people. With my Glenview’s Got STEAM program we want to excite girls about the possibilities of STEM that are available to them and pair them with high school mentors who are involved in STEM.


3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM?

I think that being a role model and enthusiastic about STEM is important in changing perceptions. It’s important to break stereotypes and show that you can be in STEM and still have a multitude of other interests. On my twitter account (@MakerKate) along with other teens in STEM we use our platform to encourage others and talk about our experiences.



4. As a young girl aspiring a career in STEM/STEAM, what major challenges do you face?

I think it is important to be resilient and keep a growth mindset. It’s crucial to believe in yourself even if others do not. I have found that by keeping focused on what I am learning instead of what others are doing is when I am the most successful.


5. Who are your role models and why?

My role models are mostly peers whom I have met at conferences or through social media. Many of them are a part of @TheSTEAM_Squad on Twitter but others include people like Abigail Harrison (@AstronautAbby) or Emily Calandrelli (@TheSpaceGal). They are all extremely talented and always willing to give advice or help with projects. Each one of them is rocking it in their own way and are an inspiration to others!


6. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?

When I was younger I thought that you had to be extraordinarily smart and understand everything in order to have a chance at a STEM career. But through the Maker Movement and my various experiences I have seen that this is not true! These misconceptions exist among students so it’s important to challenge these notions.



7. What advice would you love to give your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

The biggest piece of advice I would give is not to be afraid of taking chances and trying something new. When I was younger I never imagined I would be as involved in STEM as I am now, but I had an open mind and took risks. It’s easy to measure yourself against all that you don’t know, but instead try to measure yourself by how much you have learned. It’s also helpful to reach out to people who are involved in things you are interested in; whether that be a neighbor, family member, teacher, or even a fellow student.


8. How do you like to relax when you are not working or studying?

I have been teaching myself the ukulele for the past couple years and I enjoy film photography! I love to work in a darkroom and I appreciate the hands-on aspect that goes into every roll of film or print. I’m also endlessly inspired by the Maker Movement and I like to attend and present at Maker Faires whenever possible.

We wish Kate Stack the very best in her future endeavors! Follow Kate Stack on Twitter @makerkate 


“Be yourself and know that your goals are more important than what others “think” you can accomplish. It’s okay to dream, but it’s better to do it.”

— Taylor Richardson


This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination. In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.

Meet 16-year-old Taylor Richardson, an aspiring engineer, scientist and an astronaut, who has an impressive list of accomplishments in her kitty. Taylor is on a mission to inspire more girls of color into STEM and has successfully raised over $100,000 for STEM-related causes through her crowdfunding campaigns. She has also donated over 10,000 books to young people across the world.

Also known as Astronaut Starbright, Taylor is a student of the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. She spoke to Urmila Marak, Head of Communications at Mand Labs, about her philanthropic work and how she remains undeterred by the obstacles that come her way and doesn’t let the challenges slow her down. Excerpts.


1. You are just 15 and you have achieved so much at such a young age. What inspires you towards your dream of becoming an engineer, a scientist and an astronaut?

Knowing that there is so much in the world that hasn’t been explained, or explored. My curiosity drives me to keep moving toward my goals.



2. Please tell us more about your philanthropic work, including what propelled you to start a GoFundMe campaign to help 100 girls watch the movie “Hidden Figures.”

I advocate for girls in STEM so that they know that they have someone encouraging them and who looks like them. Representation in the STEM community is lacking women and people of color, and the media plays a part in that. When I saw a private screening of “Hidden Figures” I was inspired to help other girls see the film because it was the first time I had learned of the extremely important roles that African-American women played in the space program.

I knew that if more girls knew about those contributions then they would feel that they could achieve anything they put their minds to. I’ve raised over $100,000 for STEM- related causes and donated over 10,000 books to young people across the world because representation and education are so important to me.



3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM?

Just by showing them that they are enough. I was bullied because of my skin color, retained in second grade because I initially was a slow reader. I was told not to participate in STEM activities because I was a girl, and have ADHD (Which I call Abundantly Different Happily Divine) but haven’t let any of those obstacles slow me down or make me feel like my goals are not attainable. I believe in doing, not just dreaming.


4. As a young girl pursuing a career in STEM, what major challenges do you face?

I mentioned many of them above. When you don’t resemble everyone doing it, sometimes it’s hard to find your comfort space. That’s why I’ve been building groups of STEM sisters so that we’ll have a built-in support system.


5. Who are your role models and why?

Dr. Mae Jemison, Arlan Hamilton, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. They’ve each added to a system that already existed, but completely transformed how others think about the space program, investing in companies, creating impactful films, and being the voice of reason in the media.



6. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?

The more exposure that children have to STEM education the faster they can find what they do and don’t like about it. Plenty of college student go into pre-med, without even realizing whether they really like it or because it’s the only job they know in the field. Almost everything that we use in our day-to-day lives like cellphones, apps, cars, television, computers email were created by someone in STEM. If we can convey that message to children, many may not grow up wanting to be doctors.


7. What advice would you love to give your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

Be yourself and know that your goals are more important than what others “think” you can accomplish. It’s okay to dream, but it’s better to do it. Find mentors, and ask questions because it’s the only way to learn what you don’t know.


8. How do you like to relax when you are not working?

Hanging out with my friends, going to the movies, and talking on the phone like most teenag

We wish Taylor Richardson the very best in her future endeavors! Follow Taylor Richardson on Twitter @astrostarbright 


“…Be passionate, persistent and work hard. Success does not come overnight, but it is an accumulation of hard work spanning many years.”

— Hasini Jayatilaka


This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination. In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.

Meet Hasini Jayatilaka, the young scientist, who in just a few years into her research has brought hope to millions of cancer patients with her significant discovery. This discovery will help in slowing down the spread of cancer by directly affecting the complex mechanism behind the spread.

After completing her postdoctoral research from Stanford University School of Medicine, Hasini recently joined Syneos Health as a consultant. This young scientist has also made it to the Forbes list 30 Under 30 – Science 2019.

She spoke to Urmila Marak, Head of Communications at Mand Labs, about what got her interested in taking up her study on cancer and how her discovery can help in cancer treatment. Excerpts.



1. You have discovered a signalling pathway that blocks the spread of cancer. Could you please elaborate more on the findings – What it is all about and how will this discovery help in cancer treatment?

My team and I discovered that cancer cells can communicate with each other based on how they are closely packed. They communicate through two molecules called interleukin 6 and interleukin 8. Like anything else in nature, when things get too packed, this signal is enhanced causing them to move away faster from the primary tumor and spread to a new site. So, when we block this signal using a drug cocktail that we developed, we can stop the communication between the cancer cells and slow down its spread.

Ninety percent of cancer-related deaths are caused due to metastasis. Our finding is significant because currently there are no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved therapeutics that target metastasis alone. In fact, metastasis is thought of as a by-product of tumor growth. It is believed that if we shrink the tumor we can stop its spread. However, we successfully slowed down the spread of cancer, not by shrinking the tumor, but by directly affecting the complex mechanism behind the spread.



2. Tell us more about yourself. What inspired you to take up this study on cancer?

I started working in the lab of Dr. Denis Wirtz as an undergraduate research assistant during my second year of university. At Johns Hopkins University, it is mandatory for undergraduate students to complete at least one semester of research. I chose to do my research in Dr. Wirtz’s lab after I had seen him present at a seminar. His enthusiasm and passion for his work on cancer metastasis is what drew me to research on this subject.

As an undergraduate research assistant, I was given to look at how cancer cells move in a 3D Collagen I Matrix that recapitulated in a dish after migrating cells are exposed to the human body. This was new and exciting for me as most studies had been conducted in 2D flat plastic dishes that really weren’t representative of what was happening in our bodies.

During this time, I attended a seminar conducted by Dr. Bonnie Bassler from Princeton University. She talked about how bacterial cells would communicate with each other based on their population density and perform a specific action. This was a light-bulb moment for me! I thought “wow”, I see this in my tumor cells when it comes to their movement. The idea for my project was thus born. I hypothesized that the movement of cancer cells could be regulated by how closely packed they are in the tumor microenvironment.

We then recruited undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and professors from multiple institutions and disciplines to come together and work on the idea that I conceived as a sophomore in college. After years of experiments together and merging diverse perspectives and ideas, we identified a new signaling pathway that controlled cell density dependent migration in cancer cells.

We decided that we wanted to block this pathway and see if we could slow down the spread of cancer. We implemented this in pre-clinical animal models. We came up with a drug cocktail that consisted of Tocilizumab, which is currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and Reparixin, a molecule currently in clinical trials for breast cancer.

Interestingly, what we found was that the cocktail of these two drugs only targeted metastasis and not tumor growth. This was significant because currently there aren’t any FDA approved therapeutics that target metastasis alone.



3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM?

I think part of encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM is by showing them how women, who are currently pursuing STEM, are “ordinary” like any of us. When I was younger (and even now) I look at women who are successful in STEM and think they are superhuman and I don’t have the superhuman talent that they possess. However, what I have learned is that these women who I look up to are just like me. They all enjoy a good laugh, they all want to have fun, and they all want to pursue ideas that interest them. Showing that “ordinary” side of me, has helped me motivate girls to pursue more STEM careers.


4. As a young girl pursuing a career in STEM, what major challenges do you face?

Working with difficult scientists. Working with anyone difficult takes a lot of patience and self-restraint to tolerate the toxic environment. It’s important to teach girls how to navigate these kind of situations. In my case, once the projects ended, I was able to stop working with those scientists and cautiously pick who I wanted to work with.


5. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?

I think with anything else in life it’s important to expose children to all opportunities available to them and let them pursue what interests them. Introducing children to STEM at a young age gets them excited about the possibilities that exists.



6. What advice would you love to give your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

I would advise them to pursue a career that they love. I wake up every day excited to enter the lab and work on challenging projects. I would advise them to be passionate, persistent and work hard as success does not come overnight, but it is an accumulation of hard work spanning many years. My professional journey has been hard but I persisted because I got support from friends and family and I am grateful to be where I am today. I would also advise them to be kind and supportive to peers as individual success contributes to collective success. I wouldn’t have been here without my peers.


7. How do you like to relax when you are not working.

A lot of my free time now is spent meeting with friends and skyping with my family in Sri Lanka. Sometimes when I have time to myself, I like reading, experimenting with recipes, and watching TV shows and movies. I also like to work out and stay active. This usually involves yoga and running. Anything that takes me away from my phone and computer is relaxing.

We wish Hasini every success in her research and future endeavors! Follow Hasini Jayatilaka on Twitter @HasiniJt 


I want to walk on Mars because it’s my dream, but even more so, because going to Mars represents the dreams of my generation and our future.”

— Astronaut Abby


This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination. In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.

Abigail Harrison, popularly known as Astronaut Abby, has set her sight on not just being a NASA astronaut but on being the first astronaut to set foot on Mars. She started being vocal about her larger than life dream when she was only 13 years. She’s come a long way since then and today is a social-media influencer with over one million followers and fans to support her dreams and mission.

Abigail, who studied astrobiology and Russian at Wellesley College, graduated in 2019. Founder of The Mars Generation, 501c3 non-profit, when she was only 18 years in 2015, Abigail is also a big time advocate of STEM and Space Exploration. Through her outreach program she focuses on educating people around the world about the importance of science literacy and how space exploration is crucial to the future of mankind.

Astronaut Abby spoke to Urmila Marak, Head of Communications at Mand Labs, about her non-profit, The Mars Generation and what keeps her ticking. Excerpts.


1. You are just 21 and you have achieved so much at such a young age. What inspires you towards your dream of becoming the first astronaut to land on Mars?

I have wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I can remember- some of my first memories are of staring at the night sky and dreaming of going to space. Over the years this passion for space exploration has only grown stronger.

In addition, I’ve been inspired to continue reaching for this dream by all of the incredible people who I’ve met in the space and STEM industries. I want to walk on Mars because it’s my dream, but even more so, because going to Mars represents the dreams of my generation and our future.



2. Please tell us about your Mars Generation initiative.

The Mars Generation is a 501c3 non-profit which I founded when I was 18 in 2015. We focus on educating the public about the importance of science literacy, increasing interest in space exploration, and inspiring/supporting the next generation to pursue careers in space and STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math). The idea is that if we want younger generations to accomplish great things we need to be inspiring and supporting students today.

The Mars Generation provides educational programs and materials for students of all ages and all around the world through our Student Space Ambassador and Future of Space outreach programs. We also curate an annual awards list (24 under 24) of young people who are changing the world through their passion for STEAM and education.

In combination with my own channels (as Astronaut Abby) The Mars Generation has over 1 million followers on social channels, where we produce and share space and STEAM-based content. Finally, The Mars Generation provides fully paid (including transportation!) scholarships for students living in poverty to go to space camp in Huntsville, Alabama.


3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM

I think it’s absolutely essential that we do not underestimate the importance of representation. Role models are incredibly important, especially on a subconscious level. Girls need to be able to picture themselves excelling in STEM careers, and for that to be possible, they need to see women and girls who are already doing so. The most impactful way (both in reaching the largest number of young women and in making STEM ‘cool’ or engaging) is through pop culture and social media.

As an influencer I can utilize my channels and communities (1 million followers across social media) to be a role model, to engage more girls in STEM, and to encourage people to be more open to girls/women in traditionally male dominated fields. Additionally, being an influencer allows me to support STEM education and advocacy financially- I donate 100% of the proceeds from paid influencer work that I do (speaking/appearing at events/conferences, brand work, appearing in commercials, etc.) directly to The Mars Generation.



4. As a young girl pursuing a career in STEM, what major challenges do you face?

One of the greatest challenges I have faced as a woman pursuing a career in STEM is self doubt. Women and girls face an inordinate level of something known as ‘imposter syndrome’. Imposter syndrome is basically a nagging feeling that your achievements aren’t legitimate or deserved based on your skill and effort.

I have found that many women with equal or greater qualifications to men question their ability to succeed, especially in traditionally male dominated fields, such as STEM. I am no different. Despite having great self confidence, I definitely still sometimes struggle with believing in my abilities. Rather than trying to change this piece of myself I try to look at it as a positive quality that has the potential to be negative, if not kept in check. A little bit of self doubt isn’t a bad thing as it allows me to be introspective.

When I start to feel self doubt I use it as an opportunity to reflect on my actions, to ask myself questions such as; ‘have I given this task my all? What are my accomplishments? What defines success, to me?’ Asking these questions helps me to stay on track and stay motivated. However, self doubt can quickly become a slippery slope.

To avoid this, I try to stay vocal about my dream, so that people around me can remind me to believe in myself. I greatly appreciate my community- family members, friends, teachers, and all of my followers on social media- for being a part of my journey.


5. Who are your role models and why?

Role models are incredibly important to achieving big dreams and even more so for women. I was fortunate to have multiple people step in over the past 10 years to help guide my journey towards becoming an astronaut

Notably, my 5th grade science teacher who assured that I didn’t lose an interest in STEM fields throughout middle school, Astronaut Wendy Lawrence whose belief and encouragement has helped me never give up, and my research advisor Dr. Andrew Schuerger who has helped guide me as I take the big leap from Undergrad to Grad school.

Despite each playing a unique role in my life, one thing which each of these people (and other mentors I have had) have in common is that they have believed strongly in me and my ability to succeed in STEM. Of course concrete help, such as career guidance, is important.

However, when entering fields (such as STEM) which women and girls have been dissuaded from for decades, I think it’s equally important for women to have guidance as it is to have someone who believes that they can accomplish their dreams. Knowing that someone who has already accomplished a career in STEM believes in you can be an incredible help.



6. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?

Kids are born as explorers. They have this natural sense of curiosity and wonder. Introducing them to engaging and exciting STEM education early on allows us to help them retain this curiosity and funnel it into their future education and careers. We need to make sure we teach kids how important having a strong base in STEM fields is (regardless of their future career path) and how much fun it can be to use STEM to explore.


7. What advice would you love to give your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

Be loud and be proud about your dreams! The first step in making a goal come true is believing in yourself- no one else can do that for you. The next step is talking about your dreams and goals and plans. Once you start being vocal about what it is you plan to do in the future other people can step in and help you. But others will not know to help you if they don’t know what you are planning to do.

One of the biggest problems we have with recruiting young women and minorities into STEM fields is that they often don’t feel supported and they often feel actively unwelcome in STEM fields/careers. By being loud and proud of your goals and dreams you can build a community of people around you who will support you during times when reaching those dreams may feel like a struggle.


8. How do you like to relax when you are not working?

My favorite way to relax is through dance! I am passionate about dance and am fortunate to have gotten to learn a handful of different styles over the last couple years. Currently, I do Ballet, Lindy Hop, West Coast Swing, Blues, Salsa, Bachata, Fusion, Contra, and Waltz. I have also always loved to relax through sports. Currently, I play Rugby, but in the past I have trained for marathons, been a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) collegiate diver, and a ton of other activities.

We wish her the very best in her future endeavors! Follow Astronaut Abby on Twitter  @AstronautAbby 


“It’s never too late to get started on your dream, and never too early!

— Makiah Eustice


This Women’s History Month at Mand Labs we focus our attention on the incredible “Little Women” who are following their passion with grit and determination.  In this blog series throughout March, we bring you stories of a few dynamic young women who are paving the way for our generation to soar right through the glass ceiling.

Makiah Eustice is a true example of how it is never too late to dream big and get started. This commissioned US Air Force officer and an aspiring astronaut, has in her own words, “grown from a space enthusiast to an aspiring aerospace industry leader.”

Makiah, who graduated from the Space Studies Program at the International Space University in 2019, also received her B.S in Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University. She is also the president of Texas A&M SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) chapter and founder of the Aggie Astronaut Corps program.

The rising star in defense, aviation and space, also has two space analog missions, Mars Desert Research Crew 200 and the Mars Academy USA mission, to her credit.

Makiah spoke to Urmila Marak about her love for aerospace and why it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age. Excerpts.


1. When did you discover your love for aerospace? What has been the most defining moment in your life so far?

I don’t remember the exact moment, but it was junior year of high school when I first heard about Space X and Virgin Galactic. ‘We are going back to space’ was the message. ‘We are going to Mars’! That sounded absolutely crazy, but it gave me such a yearning to be a part of something big, something humanity shifting. I decided to try what I thought was the hardest, most important job for getting to space, engineering!

During my freshman year at Texas A&M, I had several life changing experiences back to back. I had the chance to ride in a T-38 Talon (what they train Air Force pilots and astronauts in) and attend Space Camp USA. I knew then that I wanted to become an Air Force officer and an astronaut. Soon after, I was accepted into Aerospace Engineering. It was like my purpose in life suddenly became clear!



2. How do you intend to take your aerospace career ahead as the commissioned US Air Force Officer?

I’m so excited to finally serve and work as an engineer! I hope to eventually become a flight test engineer. For that I will need to do additional education, so I need to get a Master’s degree through the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and be selected for the Test Pilot School. At the same time, I’ll be balancing my other pursuits, like spaceflight-related research and training.

My career is unpredictable at this point. I might find a new interest that leads me to another field that I pursue in the private sector. Either way, I want to go to be an astronaut someday! Between the civilian and commercial opportunities in the future, I believe starting my path in the military will help bring my dream closer to reality.


3. How do you think as an influencer in your space you can motivate more girls in STEM?

I believe being my authentic self, whether on or off duty, can help girls see themselves in STEM. I’m a black women, space advocate, analog astronaut, engineer, and future Air Force officer. I can be good at what I do without fitting into any mold.

Secondly, I can show how collaboration and community are so important for STEM. We solve problems together. We depend on each other. We lift each other up. Having a community of supportive women in my field through the Brooke Owens Fellowship has made me better prepared for STEM. I hope girls never think they have to go through their field with a competitive, cutthroat mindset. STEM is fun, and so are the people!


4. As a young girl pursuing a career in STEM, what major challenges do you face?

I didn’t realize how my environment shaped my perception of STEM fields. My interest in physics in high school actually made me scared; I thought it would be too hard to become a scientist, doctor, or engineer. Even when I joined the robotics team, I was very intimidated by students who already had building and coding skills. Instead of encouraging me out of my comfort zone, the coach just did not expect much from me.

The biggest challenge was developing my own courage when I had almost no mentors or proponents to lift me up. It was my own courageous choice to pursue engineering over videography. It is still sometimes a challenge to believe in myself.



5. Who are your role models and why?

I have so many! But I want to especially highlight some of my black role models.My parents, who have a strong relationship, have taught me how to have perseverance and selflessness through struggle. We weren’t well off, but we still brought in two brothers who didn’t have family stability. I really appreciate the value of family because of them.

My cousin, a Columbia University graduate, introduced me to the collegiate world and encouraged me to aim higher than a local college. She is one of the few people in my family with a graduate degree.

Col. Ken Allison, (Ret.) worked in space operations in the Air Force and the private sector. He now supports cadet professional development and has been my mentor since I first visited Texas A&M. I want to model his energy and resilience in the Air force and beyond.

Dr. Sian Proctor, a NASA astronaut finalist and analog astronaut veteran. She helped me prepare for my first Mars analog mission! She is always trying new things and promoting STEM and space. She inspires me to enjoy the journey and don’t stress about the destination.

Naia Butler-Craig is a senior at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. She has presented at multiple conferences, published papers, worked at NASA, started her own company, and got into Georgia Tech for her PhD! She is persistent, confident, and positive. Her achievements inspire me to reach for greatness every day.


6. Why do you think it is important to introduce STEM education to children at an early age?

From my perspective, I grew up with more of an artistic background from my parents. I loved to dance, sing, and collect rocks to make sculptures! Even though I was good at math and science, I couldn’t see any reason I’d want to work in that field (until high school).

No one taught me the connection of music to sound waves, or rocks to the sediments of Mars. STEM is so important, but for young kids, it’s important to bring it to the world they are already curious about. The perception is that STEM is about being good at calculations or having a lot of knowledge, when it is really another tool to strengthen our passion in any domain!



7. What would you like to tell your peers and other young girls who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

It is never too late to start. Whether you decided to become an astronaut at 5, 18, or 40, age or experience doesn’t control your path. Your dedication does.

It’s also never too early. Be proud of your dream, be curious, and don’t listen to others who think small. If your plan changes, it is because you took the chance to decide yourself, not because others turned you away.


8. How do you like to relax when you are not working?

I play this instrument called the Mountain Dulcimer (also called Appalachian dulcimer). My dad is a rock-start at it, so I decided to pick up this four-stringed beauty. I love learning to play my favorite classic folk and rock songs. I’m even starting to write a bit.

We are proud of her achievements and wish her the very best in her future endeavors! Follow Makiah Eustice on Twitter @Astro_Eustice 


Mand Labs celebrates the intellectual power, strength and success of women who have dared to dream and achieve. We asked some of these women in STEM over email to share their words of wisdom this UN International Day of Women and Girl in Science.


February 11 marks the  UN International Day of Women and Girl in Science . The purpose of this day according to the UN General Assembly, is to “achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls…”

Given that February 11 is now a movement recognizing the role of women and girls in science for sustainable development and economic growth, according to the UNESCO’s Groundbreaking report, the fact remains that female STEM students in higher education across the globe account for only 35 percent and women researchers account for only 28 percent.

UNESCO figures of 2014-2016 also reveal that only around 30 percent of girl students select STEM-related subjects. Globally, the enrolment of girl students in information and communication technology is as dismal as 3 percent. The enrolment for manufacturing and construction is 8 percent and enrolment for statistics, math, engineering and natural science is as low as 5 percent.

Seemingly, the number of women in science and engineering is going up, but men continue to outnumber. Based on a research conducted by the US Chamber Foundation, the number of women graduates in the US accounted for only 6 percent compared to the 20 percent of the male graduates in core STEM.

Several studies point this dismal number to the fact that the gender gap begins as early as grade school.

Professor Yamuna Krishnan at the department of chemistry, University of Chicago, points out:

“Rooting out unconscious bias is essential to bridge the gender parity.”


The challenge lies in society where girls are not encouraged to pursue science and math by parents, family, teachers and friends. This influence play a pertinent role in shaping beliefs and choices, not to mention the impact it has on their identity and behavior. Most of the girls grow up believing that they are not cut out for science subjects, thus opting for humanities and arts.

Chantelle Bell, co-founder, Syrona Women & 2018 Forbes Top 50 women in Tech, says:

“The most important factor required to bridge the gender gap would be to have more inspirational women at the forefront and connect women with children at a younger age.”


But the big question is how do we do that? Research shows that we can start at the very core by getting well trained women teachers. It is a given that experienced and well trained teachers can make life-altering impact on students. Female teachers in turn should get professional development opportunities to catalyze their passion and talent for teaching STEM.

Similarly,  we need to include more girls and women in the STEM workforce as it is essential to build a stronger global economy with much wider perspectives and an environment that encourages acceptability and access.

Getting STEM-qualified women into top companies and attracting more women at the science, math and engineering faculty of colleges and universities by introducing effective work-life policies and implementing mentoring programs are some ways to close the gender gap.

Women might be getting more educated than ever before, however, only 25 percent represent the community in STEM fields. So, to bridge this gap and take a step forward towards the UN goal “for achieving sustainable development and fulfilling the promise of the 2030 agenda to “leave no one behind”, we at Mand Labs believe that it is not just one day we should focus on working towards empowering women and girls, but it should be a concerted effort everyday.

This UN International Day of Women and Girl in Science, some women STEM leaders, who have broken the glass ceiling and have made a mark for themselves, share inspiring messages for young girls who want to foray into the world of STEM.


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