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Wish upon the moon: Woman's dream takes her from Costa Rica to NASA

Irawaty Wardany

The Jakarta Post

Stockholm  /  Tue, March 19, 2019  /  05:22 pm
Wish upon the moon: Woman's dream takes her from Costa Rica to NASA

Power Woman: Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, addresses an audience at the Women in Tech conference in Stockholm, Sweden on March 8. (JP/Irawaty Wardany)

Watching Neil Armstrong on television as he became the first person to step foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, became vividly ingrained in little Sandra Cauffman’s memory, along with his famous quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

However, it was her mother’s support that gave her the courage to pursue her dream. “You can do something big if you want to,” her mother told her, as she recalled last Friday during the Women in Tech conference in Stockholm that coincided with International Women’s Day.

“I told my mom I want to go to the moon someday and my mother, instead of telling me to forget it, considering we’re from Costa Rica and we were poor, told me to just put my mind to it and work very hard,” she said.

The annual Women in Tech conference featured dozens of keynote speakers including Sophia Bendz, a former global marketing director for music streaming platform Spotify from 2007 to 2014, and Ödgärd Andersson, the vice president of luxury vehicle company Volvo Cars, as well as hundreds of participants from countries all over the world.

Cauffman currently serves as deputy director of the Earth Science Division at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Science Mission Directorate.

She also served as deputy manager of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission in 2014.

However, it was not an easy path for her to realize her dream, especially given her circumstances, but that did not stop her from pursuing it through all means possible.

“When I was 13 years old, I had to be the one who worked for the family because my mom fell sick at one point and she lost her job,” Cauffman said.

She added that she was worked at a department store at that time, picking up clothes left by customers in dressing rooms and putting them back on the shelves.

“By the time I was 16, I had to juggle school activities, work and house chores.” Nevertheless, she graduated from high school with the second best grades in her class of over 400 students.

When she had to pick a major at university, she decided to pursue electrical engineering, which suited her passion. However, someone told her could not do it because she was a girl, and suggested she enroll in industrial engineering, as it was the only engineering major that had female students at the time.

Cauffman spent three and a half years studying a major that she had no interest, let alone passion, in.

It was her stepfather who noticed her frustration and suggested she go to the United States to pursue the major she was passionate about, with one condition, she had to work to pay her way.

She took on the challenge, and leaving everything behind, moved to Virginia and enrolled in George Mason University where she earned a double degree in electrical engineering and physics.

“To my luck, the first time I went for a job interview, I went to a company that was a contractor for NASA and got a job right on the spot,” she said, adding that three years later, in 1991, she was working for NASA where she has since built her career to become one of the top executives in the Earth Science Division.

“I didn’t go to the moon and I don’t think I could ever be an astronaut, but I am working about as close as I can get,” she said.

Cauffman challenged all women to “take responsibility for your own life. If you don’t do it, somebody else will want to do it for you”.

She added that, “Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to go forward, but if that’s where your dream pulls you, that’s what you have to do. So don’t be afraid of making those decisions”.

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post's print edition on Mar. 16, 2019, with the title "Wish upon the moon: Woman’s dream takes her from Costa Rica to NASA". 

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