Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sandra Cauffman Emerges to Become NASA Manager on Mars Atmosphere

Sandra Cauffman, the Deputy Project Manager on the MarsAtmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission at NASA’s GoddardSpace Flight Center, in the United States. (Courtesy:

(Women’s Feature Service) - Growing up impoverished in Costa Rica without even a roof over her head, few could have predicted the career and life Sandra Cauffman has today. She is the Deputy Project Manager on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Goddard Space Flight Center, in the United States, devoted to understanding Mars’ upper atmosphere. Daughter of a domestic violence survivor, who escaped her abuser and had to take three jobs to support her children, Cauffman’s go-to mantra are her mother’s words: “not to repeat the same story”. Today, she is a role model, a mother and a NASA employee, who is supporting NASA’s quest to explore the red planet. In this one-on-one Cauffman talks about her life in Costa Rica, her struggles with learning English in college in the US and her NASA dream.

Q: Over the years, what were some of the toughest challenges you have had to face?

A: There were so many obstacles that I don’t know where to begin. Firstly, I was born in Costa Rica, a small country in Central America. Since I was little, I remember I wanted to work in something related to space. That time I didn’t know about NASA. When I was seven I got to see the spectacle of the first man landing on moon and I told my mom: ‘I want to do that someday’. My mom could’ve said that it was impossible, but instead she was very encouraging. She told me: ‘You never know; the world goes round and round and if you work and study hard, you never know where opportunities are going to come from’.

My mom lost everything. We lost our house and ended up living in an office, but even with all the struggles that we had, she kept encouraging me to study, to get good grades and to continue to work hard. Even though she worked three jobs to support us, and I had to start working young, she always told me that I all I needed to succeed was the strength to push myself through everything.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to study electrical engineering at the Universidad de Costa Rica, and the counselor told me that I couldn’t do that because there were no women in the electrical engineering programme. This was a big barrier. They told me that I should study industrial engineering, so that was what I did. At the time, I was 17 and I thought that as long as I was an engineer it would be fine. Three-and-a-half years into the programme, I found out that I didn’t really want to be an industrial engineer. I still wanted to be an electrical engineer. It was then that my mom met my dad. He is the man that I call father because he married my mom and adopted us legally. Things started looking up for us since then and we all moved to the United States.

I left everything in Costa Rica, even my incomplete industrial engineering degree. I didn’t speak English and I had to figure out how to get back into college again. I took the Test of English as a Second Language (TOEFL). Even with the little English that I had learnt in high school, I scored 601 and I needed 600 points to be able to start college. The first couple of semesters were very hard because the teachers spoke so fast that I was totally lost. I had to go back home to slowly review and study everything. I finally graduated from George Mason University with two bachelor’s degrees: in electrical engineering and physics. 

Once I started working, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I was one out of a handful of women on the project. I have been very blessed that all the people I have worked with have embraced diversity. There have been a couple of moments when someone had thought that I was the secretary or commented that I should be at home and not working in engineering but those situations were the exception and not the rule.

Q: What do you think have been the most important factors that have helped in getting you where you are today?

A: The most important factor has been putting the effort that is required to succeed. I know sometimes opportunities don’t present themselves, but you have to be ready all the time for those opportunities if they do present themselves.

The biggest influence in my life has been my mother, and all her effort and the encouragement that I always received from her. She was a single parent and always held her head high. No matter how bad things were, she always saw the positive side of things. She told me not to let the negative comments affect me. Her motto was: ‘always move forward…keep on marching forward, and work hard to get what you want’.

She empowered me to be what I wanted to be. My mother is my heroine. She was the youngest of 12 and she grew up an orphan because the older siblings didn’t want or could not take care of the little ones. She had so much strength and she transferred that strength to all of us. She is a survivor.

Q: Has being a woman affected your life and work choices?

A: It is hard for a woman to work in a predominately male environment, and we [women] have to try a little bit harder, but things are evolving. I think that we need more women in high-level positions, but compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it is improving.

We [women] bring a different point of view, a different way to look at problems. Diversity is always good in every sense, not just gender, but colour and religion. Diversity brings a different point of view and the sum of one plus one is not two; it’s always more. 

Q: How do you cope with your predominantly male work environment?

A: Working for NASA has been an incredible experience and I have worked hard to be where I am. I do admit that I had to work harder because I’m a woman, but I’m here and I’m happy for what I’ve accomplished and where I am in my career. MAVEN has been one of the projects with more women engineers. I’m very pleased to say that the project pays attention to diversity. 

Q: What, according to you, is your greatest contribution to society?

A: Everything comes back to the people that you work with and the relationships that you create throughout your life in your career. I hope my greatest contribution is being able to pass on a little bit of encouragement and motivation to the new generation. I go to schools all the time and I talk to the kids and try to motivate them. One of the things that I always tell them is to be grateful for what you have; be grateful to your teachers; be grateful to your mothers, to everybody, and try to have a good working relationship with people. That’s what is going to carry you through life.

Q: What message do you have for young girls today?

A: Do not be persuaded by negativism because negativism is ignorance. Saying that you cannot do something is negativism. It might be difficult but it’s never impossible if you work hard. Poverty is not an excuse because there are a lot of organisations, scholarships, and help for people that really want to go the extra mile. If you really want to do what it takes to achieve your dreams, a lot of help will come your way. You just need to be ready for the opportunities that will come along. You can dream. Go for your dreams!

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