Surreal 180: From Fashion to NASA

One word encapsulates my experience with the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program: surreal. As a child, televised space shuttle launches touched something visceral in me. NASA was a beacon of the best of humanity and an unreachable enormity. What could I, a fine arts major and fashion designer, bring to the table?

My path to NCAS required blowing up my life. I had earned a BFA in Fashion Design and was a designer at Vince, then one of the top names in LA luxury. I had achieved success in my field. I was also desperately unhappy.

Deciding to transition away from something I had worked hard for — and come to define myself by — triggered an identity crisis: Who was I if I wasn’t an artist, a designer?

I wanted to work where innovation was valued, learning was encouraged, and I had the chance to advance the boundaries of human potential. I realized those were qualities of a STEM field, but I’d have to fill in some gaps before applying for grad school. This is where Santa Monica College comes in.

I wanted to avoid my earlier mistakes. One was not pushing myself to attend a top institution. SMC, with its excellent academic reputation and resources for students, was a natural solution. With only a vague idea of what I wanted to do, I threw myself into math and computer programming to create as broadly applicable a foundation of knowledge and skills as possible.

I also decided to get more involved. I joined the SMC chapter of California honor society Alpha Gamma Sigma (AGS) and began tutoring students in math at the SMC Learning Disabilities Center.

As someone who has always struggled with math, I was apprehensive, but I decided I’d become a “math person.” When I started devoting real time to it, I made incredible progress. This is why tutoring is so rewarding to me — I have to work to master new math concepts. When I can help another student have that “lightbulb” moment, nothing can compare.

The math and computer science faculty at SMC made it easy to participate in extracurriculars. One sent me an email soliciting applicants for NASA’s NCAS program. All the old feelings of awe and wonder surged up, but this time I had something to bring to the table.

The program started as a five-week online course covering NASA’s history and current missions, plus a capstone project to determine my acceptance into the program’s highly competitive engineering workshop at a NASA center. My project was to analyze pathways for the Evolvable Mars Campaign and create a proposal for the most viable approach.

When the NASA email arrived, “Congratulations!” was all I saw. It felt like a tiny validation of the new path I’d chosen. I was headed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.

Over four grueling days, we worked in teams to develop and market to NASA a prototype Mars vehicle. As my team’s lead software engineer, I helped develop programs to control our rover’s functions, igniting my interest in robotics programming. We tested the vehicle and software we’d written, and gained valuable mentorship from NASA engineers.

Reflecting on it all, I am immensely grateful to everyone at SMC and JPL who showed me it is possible to find a path where you are fulfilled and challenged.

And most of all, I am grateful for the privilege of reinventing myself and emerging on a path where, if you’ll forgive me for shoehorning in a terrible calculus joke here, the limit does not exist.