10 Space and STEM Role Models for Girls

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Header ImageWho is your role model? Science shows that having a positive role model helps young people reach success. This is especially important for girls in STEM, who generally have fewer women to look up to in their fields. As I wrote in Chapter 8 of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “Having a role model who talks about or shows that the path to success is often windy and unpredictable, and includes mistakes and failures, can make all the difference in a girl or woman’s ability to believe in herself and her own path to success.” When girls have someone to look up to, they’ll be inspired to pursue their dreams!

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my role models. I look up to them and the impact they’ve had on their communities. They’ve shaped me into the person I am today and give me the motivation I need to reach for my stars. Keep reading to hear the stories of 10 amazing space and STEM role models for girls!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Margaret Hamilton ImageImage Credit: Courtesy MIT Museum

1. Margaret Hamilton, Computer Scientist

Her Story

Software engineering as we know it would not be possible without Margaret Hamilton. In fact, Hamilton coined the term itself! She started using the term “software engineering” while working on NASA’s early Apollo missions. As director of the Software Engineering Division at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Instrumentation Laboratory, she helped develop onboard flight software for these missions. Most notably, she developed code to help computers on the spacecraft detect and recover from anomalies.

This software was especially critical during the Apollo 11 mission. As Apollo 11 astronauts descended towards the Moon, warning messages flashed in their spacecraft. This presented scientists with an important decision: move forward with landing, or abort the mission. They looked to Hamilton for guidance, and she assured that while her software was detecting a hardware-related problem, it was also actively solving it. Mission Control trusted this and gave astronauts the go for landing. A few hours later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the Moon!

Why She is a Role Model

Astronauts may not have landed on the Moon when they did if not for Margaret Hamilton! Growing up and learning about Apollo 11, I was fascinated by Hamilton’s story. While she is often overlooked, it was her software that gave scientists the confidence they needed to send astronauts down to the lunar surface. This was a crucial moment for space history. It demonstrated that we can land humans on other celestial bodies, paving the way for future missions to places like Mars!

Hamilton is not only an important figure in the space industry but in the software engineering industry as well! In a time when software engineering was still new, she was a leading figure and helped it become the respected discipline it is today. Software engineering is now a crucial component of many industries, especially the aerospace industry. With every launch, Hamilton’s legacy is carried forward, and she continues to inspire young girls to change the world.

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Annie Easley ImageImage Credit: NASA

2. Annie Easley, Mathematician

Her Story

As a NASA mathematician, Annie Easley showed the world what a scientist could look like. Easley was one of four African Americans working at the NASA Glenn Research Center as a human-computer when she was hired. Human-computers calculated complicated math problems by hand for various NASA missions. Easley originally applied for the job in search of work after relocating, but she ultimately ended up staying with NASA for 34 years!

During this time, she worked as a computer and rocket scientist, studying energy conservation and alternative power. As NASA transitioned into using more technology to make calculations, Easley learned how to code to continue to support missions. She notably worked on the Centaur upper-stage rocket, which helped boost spacecraft, satellites, and probes during their flight. Centaur was what helped the Cassini probe reach Saturn in 1997 and become the first spacecraft to enter the planet’s orbit!

Why She is a Role Model

Outside of her work with NASA, Annie Easley was a constant advocate for women and the Black community. She helped other African Americans prepare for literacy tests, which were required to vote at the time, and tutored elementary students. Hoping to inspire others to pursue STEM careers, she also became an equal employment opportunity counselor at NASA. In this role, she managed discrimination issues, creating an equal workplace regardless of gender, race, or age.

Easley was also the first woman to wear pants in her workplace! As someone who loves design and mixing fashion and STEM, this is particularly powerful to me. Through such a small act, Easley proved that your value is not in how you dress but in what you produce. She showed that women did not have to dress a certain way to be respected, and as a result, she made STEM fields more comfortable for them to work in.

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Pamela Melroy ImageImage Credit: NASA KSC

3. Pamela Melroy, Astronaut

Her Story

Pamela Melroy made history back when she served as a NASA astronaut, and today, she’s making history again! Melroy recently became the new Deputy Administrator of NASA, and in this role, she is leading the next era of NASA missions.

Melroy’s NASA career began back in 1994 as an astronaut candidate. She came to NASA as an Air Force Colonel, logging over 5,000 hours of flight time in 50 different aircraft. At NASA, she worked on Advanced Projects for the Astronaut Office and assisted in mission control before flying as a pilot on her first mission, STS-92 Discovery. She also served as a pilot on STS-112 and was the mission commander for STS-120, the second female commander of a Space Shuttle mission in history!

In 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Melroy to be the next NASA Deputy Administrator. Now, Melroy is leading the future of space exploration, hoping to use NASA technologies to benefit life on Earth and travel where we’ve never been before. In particular, she’s expressed interest in expanding the International Space Station, making room for more research opportunities.

Why She is a Role Model

Pamela Melroy has been a role model to me since I was a high school student applying to colleges. She went to Wellesley College, and when I received my acceptance letter to the same institution, I couldn’t wait to follow in her footsteps! She’s an inspirational astronaut and leader in the space industry, and I have shaped many steps of my journey after her.

Melroy is an incredible role model for any young girl in the aerospace industry. Throughout her career, she’s broken down barriers for women, from serving as second female commander of a Space Shuttle mission to leading the next era of space travel as NASA Deputy Administrator. She’s shown the world that women can do anything, opening up doors so that others too can reach for their stars!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Ada Lovelace ImageImage Credit: NASA

4. Ada Lovelace, Computer Programmer

Her Story

It goes without saying that in the early nineteenth century, computer programming looked different than it does today. In fact, there were hardly any computers to program on! Nonetheless, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace were determined to build a device that could perform mathematical calculations.

Considered as the father of the computer, it was Babbage who developed the device itself. Lovelace, Babbage’s mentee, took the plans for his computer and wrote code for them. She determined how the machine could use letters, symbols, and numbers and developed a method of looping, which programmers still use today!

For this reason, Lovelace is regarded as the first computer programmer. After her death, scientists began to recognize the analytical engine as an early computer model. This made the notes Lovelace wrote on it the first computer program and software!

Why She is a Role Model

Ada Lovelace opened up a world of possibilities for computer programming. So much of the technology we have today is thanks to her; she dared to work on projects no one had thought of, proving that women too could contribute to STEM.

Her story is particularly important to me, knowing that the aerospace industry relies heavily on computer programming. With all we’ve accomplished, it’s easy to take for granted how far we’ve come. However, the missions we can accomplish today – sending probes beyond our solar system, landing rovers on Mars – would not be possible without computers and the proper code. So the next time you watch a rocket launch, think of Ada Lovelace, who programmed without even having a computer!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Sunita Williams ImageImage Credit: NASA

5. Sunita Williams, Astronaut

Her Story

Sunita Williams is one of the astronauts paving the way for the new era of commercial spaceflight. This United States Navy officer joined NASA in 1998 and first launched to the International Space Station as a mission specialist on the STS-116 mission. During this mission, Williams ran the first marathon in space and broke the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman! On her second mission, Williams continued to make history, becoming the second female commander of the ISS and the first to complete a triathlon in space.

In 2015, Williams was chosen as one of the first astronauts for the United States Commercial spaceflight program. She’ll be commander for CTS-1, the first mission flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner to the ISS. CTS-1 will launch no earlier than April 2022, so mark your calendars!

Why She is a Role Model

Sunita Williams lives by the message of paying it forward. From commanding the ISS to shattering spaceflight records, she’s relentless in breaking down barriers. She continues to do so today in the new era of commercial spaceflight, paving the way for future generations to reach new heights.

Williams has also been an important role model to me as both an astronaut and a runner. When I first learned about her marathon in space, I was blown away knowing that such a feat was possible. If Williams could run a marathon in space, surely I could run one here on Earth! In 2017, I did just that and accomplished one of my biggest running dreams. With the Space Coast Marathon under my belt, I now have goals to run another marathon, maybe even in space!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Lise Meitner ImageImage Credit: Smithsonian Institution

6. Lise Meitner, Physicist

Her Story

Lise Meitner was a physicist between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most well known for aiding in the discovery of protactinium and nuclear fission. In 1905, she earned her doctorate from the University of Vienna, becoming the second woman in the world to earn a Ph.D. in physics. Meitner was also the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany.

In the 1930s, Meitner left Germany, which had many anti-Jewish laws at the time. She went to Sweden, where she worked with Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch. Alongside these men, Meitner discovered nuclear fission, a process that would eventually lead to the development of nuclear weapons.

However, in 1944, only Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery. Meitner was nominated 19 times for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and 29 times for a Nobel Prize in Physics but never won. Without her contributions, Otto Hahn would not have made the advances he did in nuclear fission, but still, Meitner went unrecognized.

Why She is a Role Model

Lise Meitner’s story exemplifies the impact that discrimination has had in STEM fields. However, despite the obstacles she endured as a Jewish woman, she persevered and never stopped exploring science. Without her, we wouldn’t know what we do today about protactinium and nuclear fission. Her ground-breaking work in these two areas shows how deserving women are of recognition!

Meitner’s resilience has inspired me to never give up on my dreams. I admire her endless passion for science and how, despite the discrimination she faced, she knew her work would have an impact on the world. She’s a reminder that, when pursuing your dreams, it’s essential to focus on the good you’re putting into the world!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Wanda Peters ImageImage Credit: NASA

7. Wanda Peters, Thermal Control Coatings Engineer

Her Story

Wanda Peters has worked in the aerospace industry for over 35 years, and she’s done it all! After receiving her Ph.D. in systems engineering from George Washington University, she began working at the Naval Research Laboratory. Then, in 1990, she joined NASA, first starting as a thermal control coatings engineer.

Fifteen years after she began her NASA career, Peters transitioned from engineering to public service. Presently, she is the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA and oversees over 100 missions in SMD’s portfolio. Before this, she served as the Deputy Director for Planning and Business Management in the Flight Projects Directorate at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, managing a portfolio of over 80 missions!

Why She is a Role Model

As a civil servant, Peters is also heavily involved with promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM. She serves as the chair of the African American Advisory Committee (AAAC) and has worked with the NASA-GSFC SISTERS Program, which connects young girls with women in the space industry. In an interview with NASA, Peters reflected on the importance of this work, saying, “Being inclusive is more than inviting someone to join a team or attend a meeting. It [is] about providing opportunities for individuals to thrive and bring something different to the table.”

These words are incredibly important to me. They guide my work with my nonprofit, The Mars Generation, and why I wrote my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars. When we give more people the tools for success, anything is possible, and we can change the world!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Swati Mohan ImageImage Credit: NASA

8. Swati Mohan, Aerospace Engineer

Her Story

This past year, history was made when NASA’s Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity helicopter touched down on Mars. It wouldn’t have been possible without Swati Mohan! Mohan was the Guidance and Controls Operations Lead on the NASA Mars 2020 mission, ensuring the spacecraft was properly oriented during its travel and its landing on the planet’s surface. She was also the one who announced “Touchdown confirmed!” when the mission landed!

Mohan attended Cornell University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received her master’s and Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Shortly after graduating, she began her work at NASA, working on the Cassini and GRAIL missions before joining the Mars 2020 team. Cassini and GRAIL studied Saturn and the Moon, respectively, but now, Mohan focuses on Mars. She continues to work as the Guidance and Controls Operations Lead, keeping the Perseverance Rover safe as it explores the Red Planet!

Why She is a Role Model

Before we can send humans to Mars, we need to send rovers! Rovers like Perseverance collect valuable data for scientists that will be used for future crewed missions. Perseverance, in particular, taught scientists a lot about different landing techniques. Landing is one of the most complex parts of the mission, so by using Perseverance as an example, scientists can learn which methods work best before it’s time for humans to land.

We wouldn’t be able to collect this data, though, if it weren’t for Swati Mohan! As Guidance and Controls Operations Lead, she played a crucial role in ensuring the spacecraft’s landing went well. As a result, Perseverance and Ingenuity, the Mars 2020 helicopter, are currently exploring the Martian surface!

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Tiera Fletcher Image9. Tiera Fletcher, Aerospace Engineer

Her Story

When Tiera Fletcher attended a Lockheed Martin aerospace program, she left inspired by the possibilities of space! She went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. Now, at only 25 years old, she works as a Structural Analysis Engineer at Boeing and is one of the lead engineers for NASA’s Space Launch System that aims to put humans on Mars!

Fletcher is on the Engine Section Task team for NASA’s Space Launch System and works on the upper stage of the SLS spacecraft, which assists the craft during its ascent. She is the youngest on the team, but that has never stopped her! She also founded Rocket With The Fletchers to promote STEM education and inspire the next generation of leaders in the space industry.

Fletcher’s dedication to giving back doesn’t stop there. While at MIT, she served as the co-chair of the Black Students Union and Black Women’s Alliance. In March of 2021, she also published her first book, Wonder Women of Science: Twelve Geniuses Who Are Currently Rocking Science, Technology, and the World, which highlights extraordinary women in STEM. For her work, Fletcher was named one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space for 2019!

Why She is a Role Model

Tiera Fletcher is showing the world that age isn’t a limit! At only 25 years old, she is already breaking barriers and paving the way for a brighter future. Her push for increased female and Black representation in STEM has given more young people the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Moreso, her work on NASA’s Space Launch System will help the spacecraft carry the next generation of astronauts to the Moon – where the first woman will step foot on the lunar surface – and Mars.

Fletcher’s work has played an important role in my own life, my journey to becoming an astronaut, and my mission with The Mars Generation. I am grateful for role models like Fletcher, who showed me that my dream didn’t have to be limited by my age; I could still start my nonprofit, publish my book, Dream Big!, and train to become an astronaut. Likewise, I admire Fletcher’s mission to help bring humans to Mars, giving me the chance to fulfill my dream of being the first to step foot on the Red Planet.

Astronaut Abby_Space and STEM Role Models for Girls_Adriana Ocampo ImageImage Credit: NASA

10. Adriana Ocampo, Planetary Geologist

Her Story

Adriana Ocampo is a planetary geologist from Barranquilla, Colombia. While she spent much of her childhood in Argentina, in 1970, she emigrated to California with her family, allowing her to pursue a career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She first got a job at NASA JPL at only fourteen years old, and she still works there today as the lead program executive for NASA’s New Frontiers Program.

With the New Frontiers Program, Ocampo leads interplanetary missions like OSIRIS ReX and Dragonfly. She has also worked on missions like Voyager, which has made historic contributions to our understanding of our solar system!

What Ocampo is most known for, though, is her research that led to the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico. Through her work with satellite images, Ocampo was the first to recognize the relationship between sinkholes and the surface impression of this crater. Later, scientists discovered that the impact that formed the Chicxulub crater led to the extinction of more than 50% of the Earth’s species!

Why She is a Role Model

Adriana Ocampo’s contributions to space exploration have reimagined our understanding of the solar system. Her work on interplanetary travel has allowed us to journey further than we’ve ever gone before, and her research on impact craters has painted a clearer picture of how our solar system was formed.

Impact craters are particularly important when discussing the evolution and habitability of Mars and the stories of the planet’s past! Was there once an atmosphere? Was there once life? Ocampo’s research will help answer these questions and more, giving us a better idea of the possibilities Mars holds!

Follow In Their Footsteps!

These ten women have proven that the space industry is for everyone! They have broken down barriers and have made ground-breaking contributions so that others can pursue their dreams. Now, it’s your turn!

Learn even more about accomplishing your dream in my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars. In it, I talk even more about the importance of role models, as well as goal-setting, overcoming fears, and more!

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