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Women in Research

The 22-Year-Old NASA Engineer Working to Send a Rocket to Mars

Photos: Courtesy of The Hill

Tiera Fletcher, a rocket structural analysis engineer at the Boeing Company, is no average young woman. In fact, she’s out of this world.

Describe the work you’re doing at Boeing and NASA.

As a rocket structural analysis engineer, I am analyzing parts of NASA’s Space Launch System to ensure the structural integrity of the vehicle.

What was it like being full-time undergrad and simultaneously working for Boeing on NASA’s program? 

Being a full-time aerospace engineering senior at MIT as well as a rocket structural design and analysis intern for The Boeing Company on NASA’s program was definitely a challenge. However, it was exciting. If I was not analyzing parts for a UAV or conducting research to determine the protective layer of a spacesuit, I was working on the most powerful rocket ever created in history: NASA’s Space Launch System.

Can you describe your experience as a minority female in the sciences in comparison to your male peers?

Throughout my upper-level schooling, including high school and college, I first realized that I was truly a minority in STEM as an African American female. There were numerous classes that I had to take where I was the only woman of color, or even person of color. I realized I not only had to succeed as a minority, but I also had to encourage and uplift others who are considered a minority to pursue their STEM passions. Now, in a male-dominated field, it can be tough to not see more female or minority representation, especially in upper-level positions.

What are the biggest concerns regarding the gender gap for women in research? Is it a fear of feeling too masculine, deficient self-confidence, a lack of opportunity in elite labs, the pay gap?

Research is quite expansive in the sense that the demands can vary greatly for various fields of research. However, a reigning concern amongst most, if not all, fields has been the lack of opportunity for women to achieve higher positions due to the societal complex that has set contagious expectations for many years. Many still believe that the female mind is not capable of excelling in the sciences. With that lingering doubt, some women fall ill to that belief and others simply are not presented with the opportunity.

Did you have a mentor when you began to conduct research or do you still have a mentor? Do you believe that mentorship programs can play a big role in helping women take their idea and turn it into something tangible?

Mentorship is vital for helping anyone turn their ideas into something tangible. A mentor is someone from who you can learn, and most importantly, someone who can help you grow. I have a plethora of mentors that have played huge roles in my life in various ways, so I am a strong advocate of mentorship programs. I aspire to create a non-profit organization alongside with my husband, fellow rocket scientist Myron Fletcher, in order to inspire children of various backgrounds to pursue all of their dreams. At this time, we have our Facebook Page “Rocket With The Fletchers” to motivate people of all ages to pursue their dreams via speaking engagements or our Facebook Live sessions where followers can participate in Q&A.

MIT is one of the nation’s top research universities. What part of your education was most helpful for you in your current career, and how could other schools draw inspiration from this academic structure?

As one of the nation’s top research universities, MIT takes special interest in making sure that their students have the exposure to various research opportunities, as well as a researcher’s freedom to explore their own inquiries of science. Undergraduates have the opportunity to undergo an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, which presents the student with the ability to contribute to existing research projects. Other programs include independent ventures, research-based courses and numerous others that encourage research throughout all majors offered at the institute.

What do you see is improving for women in research?

I see that women are beginning to be recognized for their capabilities in various fields of research after so long. In my industry, I am excited for our new space race with the destination set to Mars. I’m always interested in seeing new designs and ideas of vehicles to decrease air travel time across the world.

What insight do you have to a young woman considering a career as a researcher, particularly in STEM?

For young women who are considering a career as a researcher in the field of STEM, I encourage you to challenge the gender bias by focusing on understanding your subject matter and excelling in everything that you do. Do not depend on others to define your abilities. Never stop learning. Never give up on yourself.

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