A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Diana Trujillo, Flight Director and Robotic Arm System domain lead for the Mars Perseverance mission at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
What is your background?
Growing up in Colombia, there was this notion that women were limited in terms of what they could accomplish intellectually and professionally. Fortunately, my closest family members encouraged me to pursue my education and put my own professional aspirations first, inspiring me to attempt the hardest intellectual challenges I could possibly even think of, despite these stereotypes of what I should be. My arrival at the personal philosophy to always pursue the hardest challenges possible was born out of wanting to prove to myself and everybody else that I was fully capable of achieving professional success. Space, to me, was one of these “hardest challenges,” and my fascination with space began.
To pursue my educational dreams, I moved to the United States at 17 years old. At the time, I knew no English, had only $300 in my pocket, and had no idea how to even begin navigating the U.S. educational system. I was in complete survival mode. It was incredibly difficult to learn a new language in a completely foreign place while also trying to figure out who I was supposed to be, but I learned from that experience that I was capable of learning more than I ever thought possible. While I had been interested in space prior to moving to the United States, the interest had been reignited after one of my professors told us she knew someone in the space industry, and I felt compelled to figure out how I could contribute. Space seemed like the hardest industry I could possibly pursue, so I decided to get my aerospace engineering degree. After completing my degree, I went on to work for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Curiosity and Perseverance, and I am currently the Flight Director and Robotic Arm System domain lead for the Mars Perseverance mission.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
To date, my biggest career accomplishment was creating and hosting Juntos Perseveramos, a Spanish broadcast of the Perseverance mission in March. As a Colombian who now lives in the U.S., I'm aware that these amazing feats that have gone on in space, from the moon landing to Mars missions, are only observed by a few countries in real-time. In Colombia, people weren’t able to be engaged in these events as they were happening because they had to wait for the stories to come out and be translated into Spanish. They were missing out on feeling like they not only witnessed history, but were a part of it. For me, the question was “How do we make sure the whole community is engaged and understanding the human presence in space?” Juntos Perseveramos, for me, was what was missing. So, I made all the phone calls and made a to-do list. Luckily, everyone was very receptive, and we made a script and recorded it. To date, the broadcast has over 2.6 million views on YouTube, which exceeded all of our expectations.
My second best career accomplishment was getting the opportunity to work as Flight Director for helicopter deployment. Just being in the room for that experience was really powerful.
I’m not exactly sure about my third best career accomplishment. This may not be a career accomplishment as much as a proud personal accomplishment, but I’d probably have to say I’m extremely grateful and proud that I have the opportunity to work for such an A+ team at NASA JPL. Once you get to a place where everyone in the room is an expert, you have this crazy feeling that nothing is impossible. Like, you know how you watch a movie and you feel the excitement that a character is going through? Sometimes I feel like my job is a movie that I’m watching, and I have to remind myself that this is real, and I’m just going to work.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
When it comes to my career, my first important choice was to learn English as quickly and as comprehensively as possible. I knew that the language barrier had the potential to slow me down a lot, and I needed to get rid of that barrier as quickly as possible. The second choice I made was to pursue my educational studies relentlessly. I was confident that education would open a door one way or another, and I never second guessed my decision to go to school. From learning English, I realized that I had the ability to learn, and between that realization and the security I gained from finding work and a place to live, I wasn’t in survival mode anymore. This gave me the ability to free up some of the mental space that was dedicated to survival to now engage more with my academic studies. This enabled me to really go all in, and I eventually realized my goal of working for NASA when I was accepted into the NASA Academy, and later graduated as an aerospace engineer and began to work for NASA full-time.
In terms of personal choices, probably the most important one I had to make was constantly assessing and reassessing the elements in my life that were slowing me down or helping me along. Sometimes, that thing slowing me down was my own self-doubt, and I had to make a conscious decision to shut down those voices in my head and trust my intuition. Because I didn’t have a support system in the U.S. it was important for me to gain confidence in my ability to find out answers for myself when I was going through difficult times.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
What I have enjoyed the most from my career is getting to work with a team that works on insane projects. It’s not about me or what I do or say--it’s about tackling giant problems with an awesome team where every person brings something unique to the table. On the flip side of working on such intense projects is the reality that sometimes your hardware breaks, you miss lunch, and there’s a lot of stress involved in accomplishing the mission. Overall, though, I’d say working with a stellar team is by far the best part of my job.
The part I enjoy the least is the long stretches between project milestones where you’re tired and mentally exhausted from dealing with the same problem for weeks on end. The exhaustion hits often, and it hits hard. Also, when you go back from Mars time to Earth time--that’s pretty rough, too.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
Find a goal. Shut everything else down, the noise around you, the busyness of the day and, I don’t know, get a pizza and lock yourself in a room with a white board and a marker and write it all down. And by finding a goal, I don’t mean write down a job you know someone else has that seems cool. Find a contribution that you want to make, regardless of whether a job exists for this specific contribution or whether you have the prerequisites yet to attain this goal. It’s about what you feel in your heart you can do. Once you write it, then back up and figure out what you need to do to get there.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’m thrilled to be part of the executive team of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which is an organization that’s geared toward women and gender minorities to, honestly, kick down the door of whatever is holding us back from bringing everybody’s ideas to the table. It’s an amazing organization, and I highly recommend that any undergraduate woman or gender minority check it out and apply. You can either come in with tons of internship and research experience in space, or know nothing about space. All that matters is that you are passionate about being part of the change we want to see in the aerospace industry. With the Brooke Owens Fellowship, we want to show students all aspects of the space industry that students can contribute to while getting a paid internship at an aerospace-related company.