Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D., never expected to be an astronaut.
“I didn’t originally start out in science,” she said. “I barely took any in high school. When I went off to college, I was thinking music, or maybe business.”
For Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the space shuttle changed everything.
“A couple of years after the first flight, Sally Ride flew in space,” Ochoa said. “That was a huge deal for me. We’d both been physics majors and she had gotten her degrees from Stanford, which is where I was in graduate school at the time. I think it really took seeing all of those things for me to even have the idea of ‘oh, well, maybe this is something I can do.’ ”
While in college, Ochoa also experienced something women and minorities experience every day when they express interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers: resistance.
“I talked to a professor in the electrical engineering department who was the student adviser,” she recounted, “and he was definitely not at all encouraging. He said, ‛Well, this is a pretty hard subject. You know, we had a woman come through here once.’”
Ochoa’s experience is one reason why STEM careers attract so few women and minorities. Recent research shows women occupy just 14 percent of engineering jobs and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) reports underrepresented minorities earn just 12.5 percent of STEM degrees.
Dr. Ochoa has seen the reasons for this firsthand.
“What most people who have gone into STEM have found are people looking at you and just assuming you don’t belong because you don’t look like other people they know in STEM,” she said. “A lot of it is implicit bias — they’re just not thinking of those people as scientists and engineers because they haven’t seen it before.”
To encourage more women and minorities to explore STEM careers, Ochoa suggests we start long before college.
“Programs that give kids hands-on experience so they’re not just reading in a book, they’re not just memorizing vocabulary words, have been successful,” she said. “Another key component is mentoring.”
At the undergraduate and graduate levels, Ochoa thinks change must come from the top.
“Faculty have a huge impact,” she said. “Their job should be encouraging people to go to STEM, but for a long time — and I would say and this still happens — they use the first two years to ‛weed out’ people. And they are proud of that, like, ‛we’re making people drop out of science!’ I think you have to rethink that whole philosophy.”
For students interested in STEM careers who are encountering that sort of resistance in real-time, Ochoa suggests proactively seeking out safe spaces.
“A lot of schools have student chapters of organizations like The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or the National Society of Black Physicists,” she said. “If there is a student chapter on your campus, it’s a place where you can actually go and see other people who are like you and hear their stories, and realize, ‘okay, I’m not alone.’ ”
But Ochoa stresses it’s not the responsibility of women and minority students to change how they’re treated in the STEM space.
“You can’t expect the community that’s being discriminated against to be the one that changes it,” she noted. “It’s really incumbent on the people in the majority culture to understand where they have — unintentionally — either not encouraged women and minorities, or put up barriers. That’s what needs to happen for things to change.”