I never felt a need to stick with the status quo—while growing up, I didn’t have many role models in technology, but being different didn’t discourage me. Without role models, women and minorities often choose not to go into the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and it is costing us in many ways. But I’ve found myself in a very rewarding, technologically oriented career. Maybe it’s been the ambition gene in me that made it possible. Maybe it’s been my good fortune to have seen a few encouraging sparks along the way.

Let me explain. I grew up in Iowa, the only kid in the area with a Hispanic last name. My fascination with math and science also seemed to be unusual. I was the only student in my high school class to take four years of both math and science courses. I may have been an outlier, but I never felt like one.

I was fortunate to have loving parents. My father, who came from a blue-collar background, saw the value of a good education. He was my biggest advocate. My parents weren’t engineers, but they made it clear that I could be one. And so the sparks flew.

School always came easily for me, but another spark for me was when I was accepted into a gifted and talented program. I started learning computer programming and went on mock archaeological digs. The world of science kept expanding for me and its opportunities seemed endless. 

My family often drove to Florida when I was a kid, to a town not far from the Kennedy Space Center. I spent hours looking out the window as the landscape flew by, pondering how something that looked as simple as a space shuttle tile could have needed such careful design by engineers. While I was a senior in high school, my parents moved to Florida’s Space Coast, and I got to see actual rocket launches. The sight of a ship lighting up the night sky like a giant Roman candle, and the delayed rumble of the Earth as the rocket vanishes into the distance—that sticks with you.

I had many interests in high school, but I knew science was for me. Then, when I was thinking about where to go to college, a friend told me his brother was applying to a school called MIT. I’d never heard of it, but I figured that if he could apply, I could too.

A few months later a letter arrived in the mail—I got in. I majored in aerospace engineering. There were certainly times when I was barely treading water. Luckily, I found and joined a network of women on campus who met weekly to support each other.

Throughout my career, seemingly unrelated sparks have propelled me. They sent me on a path I might not otherwise have thought possible. After college I was given an opportunity to help make rocket launches possible. I went to work in Houston, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as a space shuttle propulsion engineer in Mission Control. I helped American astronauts service the Hubble Space Telescope, meet with Russian cosmonauts on the Mir space station, and execute more than 15 other missions. Today I’m the chief information officer of a private investment firm in New York, and the technological and leadership skills needed are remarkably similar.

MIR space station
Space shuttle Atlantis, docked to Russia’s Mir space station on July 4, 1995. Author Casey Santos worked on the shuttle’s propulsion systems from Houston. Credit: NASA.gov

I learned a lot, from my parents and from caring friends, about the value of hard work, of not giving up, and of giving back. That’s how I found myself at the Flushing YMCA in New York several months ago, talking to an enthusiastic group of middle school students.

The YMCA of Greater New York has organized what it calls the Y STEM Speakers Bureau, an after-school program in which people with careers like mine can talk with young kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods, showing them where life can lead. I had a great time, meeting the kids, showing them a NASA video and trying to keep up with the torrent of questions that followed.

I told the kids that there’s no single roadmap. My career has taken many turns, none of which I could have planned. At each step I worked hard and I was able to seize new opportunities. Hence my mantra: do the best you can at what you do, and you will be more prepared to take on new opportunities, including unexpected ones. Coincidentally, those opportunities will come your way more often.

Did I turn any of the kids that afternoon toward technical careers? I have no idea, but I hope I set off some sparks, like the ones that lit the path for me.

In my experience, it appears that many girls and young women turn away from STEM careers at one of three junctures. It may happen in elementary school, when they’re interested in the sciences but put off by the idea of studying what they love. They may get to college, where they can find themselves alone among male classmates in any science course. Or they may graduate with a degree in engineering or one of the sciences—a ticket to a very promising career—and later decide it’s not for them.

At the same time, there are tremendous opportunities in science and technology, and the lack of participation of women and minorities in these vital fields is damaging economically. Being an outlier—a woman in a man’s field or a minority in what seems to be a white world—can be hard. Young people may think they lack possibilities. Their parents didn’t go into STEM fields, and neither do their friends. It’s intimidating. Perhaps I was not intimidated because I was used to not fitting the mold.

I want those kids to know that they don’t have to be intimidated. That they can be successful. That they can escape into a new orbit—that they can shoot for the stars.