Hello, I’m Jayla, a youth writer and team member for Brandy’s Happy Home. It is with great excitement that I get to share with you an interview that I did with, Dr. Shelley Cazares, a leading female engineer in the STEM field. As a lover of science, technology, engineering, and math it was amazing getting this opportunity to meet Dr. Cazares. Her education and work experience have been a huge inspiration! Dr. Shelley Cazares has earned degrees from MIT and the University of Oxford and has worked with NASA and continues to create life saving equipment . This interview gave me the motivation to keep going and to never give up at achieving my goals. She truly is my idol and I aspire to be just like her. Thank you, Dr. Cazares!
1. Please tell me about yourself? What’s your educational background?
I grew up in a small town out west. Technically, it’s California, but the “rodeos and farmers” part of California, not the “surfers or Silicon Valley” part. I was born and raised in Tehachapi CA, a small town up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. My great-grandfather immigrated there in the early 1900s and my family has lived there ever since! My entire family is of Mexican descent.
I went to small public schools from kindergarten through high school. Tehachapi only had one junior high (grades 7-8) and one high school (grades 9-12). I was lucky to have parents who stressed education and an older brother and sister who were great role models. When my senior year of high school rolled around, I just followed their lead and applied to as many colleges and scholarships as I could. I ended up earning a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is the best engineering university in the country. Its nickname is MIT.
At MIT, I majored in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. We sometimes abbreviated it as “EECS”, but more often, we referred to it as simply “Course 6”. (All of the different majors have numbers at MIT.) I also had two minors: one in Biomedical Engineering and one in Spanish. I did not learn Spanish as a child, and so I did not start speaking Spanish until high school. My Spanish literature classes were some of my hardest classes at MIT!
After MIT, I earned another scholarship to go to graduate school at the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England. I designed new machine learning algorithms at Oxford—that means that I programmed computers to make decisions like humans do. My computer programs were for fetal heart rate monitors, to catch when mothers and babies were about to start having problems during childbirth. I earned my PhD in Engineering Science at Oxford, in the Signal Processing and Neural Networks research group.
2. Have you always been interested in STEM? What triggered your first interest and when did you know you wanted to make a career with science?
I was not always interested in STEM. I grew up in a family that loved books and art. As a child, I wanted to be either a writer or an artist. I spent hours each day reading and drawing and coloring. When I was in the 6th grade, though, my teacher taught me how to draw designs on a computer using a programming language called Logo. I loved it! That’s when my teachers first thought I might have a future in STEM. I didn’t quite realize it yet, though…
In junior high, I tried to sign up for a sewing class. The sewing class was too full, and so they put me in woodshop class instead. I was the only girl in the class. The shop did not have a girls’ bathroom, and so I had to walk outside through the snow to go to the bathroom in the main building! But even so, I realized that I loved the woodshop. It was just like doing art, but in three dimensions! I also loved drawing up the plans for the objects I wanted to build. So, the next year, I signed up for a drafting class. Drafting is just like drawing, but with math. And that was it—that’s when I knew that I wanted to be an engineer.
3. What other types of activities where you involved in, in school?
I played the piano starting in the 5th grade. I competed in many classical music competitions in junior high. And then in high school, I became the pianist for my school’s jazz ensemble. That was hard for me at first, because I was used to playing by myself, instead of with a band. I was also used to playing classical music very seriously. It was a big change to loosen up and play jazz music for fun!
4. What’s it like being a female as well as an ethnic minority in your field?
It can be lonely at times, since there aren’t always people around who understand where you’re coming from. It can also be frustrating, too, like on the days when I dress up in a skirt suit and high heels for a big presentation, but then equipment breaks down, and I have to crawl around on the floor to fix it, without running my tights. My male colleagues never have to worry about that! Or when I need to use the bathroom but there isn’t a ladies’ room close by—just like woodshop class in junior high!
However, over the years, I have gotten really comfortable with being uncomfortable! That is, I am used to being “different” now, and it no longer phases me much. This can be very useful in many situations, like when I’m traveling overseas, or when I’ve just started a new job. In those situations, I don’t exactly fit in at first, but since I’m used to not fitting in, it’s no big deal, and so I just shrug it off and keep going. Some people never learn to do that, even when they are 50 years old. However, as a Latina in STEM, I learned to do that back in junior high!
5. Any favorite experiments that you have been a part of?
My favorite experiment was NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA). NASA is already planning for their trips to Mars in the 2030s and beyond. To get ready, they are investigating what types of food, housing, and activities can keep people healthy and happy on long space voyages. Astronauts are too busy to experiment on, and so NASA asks other people who are similar to astronauts to volunteer for experiments at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. NASA looks for people who have the same type of schooling, job experience, age, and health status as astronauts. I applied to be an astronaut last year and made it to the “highly qualified” round out of 18,000 people, and so I fit the bill!
6. What was your experience like training in the space capsule?
In August 2017, my three HERA crewmates and I were enclosed in a simulated spacecraft that was only the size of a studio apartment. We experienced almost everything that real astronauts would in space—except that we had gravity, of course. On most days, we spent 12 – 16 hours per day doing typical astronaut activities. We practiced flying the spacecraft (using some of the real simulators that astronauts train on). We also practiced doing spacewalks (using virtual reality goggles). And we performed scientific experiments, such as hatching and raising brine shrimp, planting and growing alfalfa seeds, and building and programming robots. We also recorded data from our hearts and brains using wearable electronic sensors. Then we also had our blood drawn every few days by sticking our arm through a curtain. Several times a day, we would pause our activities and do mental puzzles and fill out psychological surveys on the computer. Video and audio were collected around the clock throughout our simulated spacecraft—but not in our shared bathroom or our private sleep bunks. In the few hours of free time we had at night, we would gather around to have dinner together—real astronaut food that we rehydrated using a special gadget! We also watched movies together, read books, and told each other jokes and funny stories. I also brought my coloring books, just like when I was a kid!
7. What was it like to be a part of an astronaut team?
I normally like to spend a lot of quiet time by myself. And so, I had guessed that the most difficult part of the experiment would be living so closely with my three crewmates, who all started out as complete strangers to me. Turns out, I was wrong! Hanging out with my crewmates turned out to be the best part of the experiment! We helped each other out so much. Some parts of the experiment were designed to be stressful, with emergency alarms, missing or broken equipment, and only 5 hours of sleep per night. I really depended on my crewmates during those stressful times—together, we were able to laugh through just about anything. They are like brothers to me now. Now that the experiment is over, I miss them!
8. How do you feel knowing the projects you work on benefit the U.S. government and the U.S.A.?
I feel very grateful to be able to work on projects that have a direct impact on the world.
After I finished graduate school, I went to work for a company that makes pacemakers. Pacemakers are little electrical devices that are implanted inside people’s chests in order to keep their hearts beating. I designed the programs for the tiny computers inside the pacemakers to catch when a person’s heart was starting to show a deadly rhythm. I really enjoyed that work, because I knew it was helping sick people.
However, once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan geared up in the early 2000s, I began to hear news reports about people being hurt or killed by roadside bombs. These bombs are usually buried in the dirt and covered up with trash, and so it can be hard to find them using normal metal detectors. I thought about the math that was being used to design advanced detectors to find these bombs, and I realized that it wasn’t that much different than the math I was already using to find deadly heart rhythms with pacemakers.
So, I left my job at the pacemaker company and moved to Washington, DC. Now I work for a not-for-profit organization that performs research for the U.S. government. I have spent the past 10 years researching ways to reduce collateral damage in military theater—that means I use math and science to help keep people safer during wars.
9. What other hobbies and favorite things do you have?
You’d think that after 21 years of school, I’d be sick of it! Well, it turns out I can’t get enough of it! I still take classes after work, at night. Sometimes I take art classes, where I can get better at drawing and weaving. Right now, though, I am studying Arabic. I really like learning foreign languages, and Arabic is one of the most fun—and most difficult—because it uses a different alphabet. Instead of letters like A, B, and C in English, Arabic has letters like ا, ب, and ت. My name in Arabic is spelled شلي. My first year of Arabic class was just like being in kindergarten, learning to write the letters and sound out words. Now, after five years, I can read the newspaper!
I also like to volunteer at the zoo. I am a huge animal lover—I have two cats and would love to get a dog someday. And at the zoo, I get to be around so many other animals, too. I work the “Panda Cam” to monitor our baby panda cub and his parents—although since he now weighs over 150 pounds, he’s not really a baby anymore! I also monitor the Kori Bustards, which are the largest birds on earth capable of flight. I had a photo of my favorite Kori Bustard on my bunk during the NASA experiment!
10. Your advice to young girls dreaming of becoming scientists in the field of STEM?
My advice to young girls is to try as many different fields of STEM as you can. Just because you don’t like one field doesn’t mean you won’t like another! For instance, in my freshman year of college, I hated my first physics class—we called it “8.01” at MIT. But then the next semester, I took 8.02, and I loved it! It turned out that 8.01 was all about mechanics, which I didn’t like, and 8.02 was all about electromagnetism, which I loved. I’m so glad I stuck through 8.01. If I hadn’t, I would have never made it to 8.02, and so I would never have realized how much I loved electromagnetism, and I would have never realized how much I wanted to be an electrical engineer.
Also, as a girl, or an under-represented minority, or a person from a small town, or a person who didn’t grow up with a lot of money… sometimes other people might laugh at you, as though they don’t think you have what it takes to be a scientist or engineer. Good! Welcome it! Use it as fuel! Think of yourself as a rocket and their laughter is the fuel you need to make it to orbit! You’ll just burn up their laughter as you make it to the next stage of flight.
11. What is your thoughts on toys being released specifically inspired by / for STEM females? Such as LEGOS, “Women of NASA” and American Girl’s 2018 Girl of the Year, Luciana Vega, who’s passion is STEM and presumed to be of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity.
I love toys that are inspired by women in STEM. When I was a young girl, there weren’t any toys like that at all.
My favorite toys in elementary school were Lego. One year, I asked Santa for a Lego castle set for Christmas. Another year, I asked for a Lego space set! I loved those Lego sets very much and I still have them—they are displayed on the shelf above my computer at work. Many of my colleagues come into my office and ask me about them. I always reply, “These were my prized possessions in 1986!” All of my castle knights and astronauts were men, though. I would have given anything to have had a female knight or female astronaut. I hope Santa brings me the “Women of NASA” Lego set for Christmas this year.
I also remember picking out my Cabbage Patch Kid doll in the early 1980s. Many of the dolls had blond hair and blue eyes, and it didn’t even occur to me that I should even hope for a doll that looked Latina like me. I picked out the one I thought was the prettiest and wore the best outfit—an African American doll in a pink running suit with long black pigtails like mine. Her name was Cass Christie and I still have her.
Later on, in the 1990s, once I was a teenager, I saw the Josefina doll from American Girl! I couldn’t believe there was actually a Mexican American doll on the market—one whose family story was similar to mine.
And then this year! OMG! When I saw that American Girl was introducing Luciana Vega… I actually teared up a little. I had just finished my space experiment and so I still had my flight suit in my suitcase, with my mission patch on the shoulder—just like the Luciana doll! I never thought in a million years that there would be a doll who looked like me and liked the same things I did.
My only quibble is that I wish Luciana had a robotic cat to go along with her robotic dog. I hope some smart girl out there can put her STEM skills to work and invent one for us!
Thanks again Dr. Cazares for inspiring young girls who love STEM! Nothing can stop us from achieving our goals!
Update! 12/13/17 Dr. Cazares made it into the 2017 Johnson Space Center’s Year in Review! She can be found at 2:54.
UPDATE! 12/22/17 Dr. Cazares can be found in an article in The Atlantic: The Asteroid Mission That Never Leaves Earth