Has something like this ever happened to you? A school counselor steered Sandra Cauffman away from electrical engineering, because it was “hardly a field for women.”

Portrait photo of Sandra Cauffman (NASA)
Sandra Cauffman (NASA)

Cauffman ignored that advice. In fact, she double majored — in electrical engineering and physics — and started down a path that brought her to a job at Goddard Space Flight Center and eventually to where she is today, managing technology projects at NASA, the U.S. space agency.

Inspired from the start

Cauffman grew up in San José, Costa Rica, and she dreamed about space as a child. She remembers watching the Apollo 11 moon landing. Clustered around her neighbor’s black-and-white TV in 1969, she saw what seemed like science fiction become reality, and she wanted to be part of it.

While everyday life was sometimes hard for her family, Cauffman found inspiration there too. “We lived in an office for a year and a half. I was washing clothes in the tub and dishes in the little sink in the bathroom,” Cauffman said. Her mother worked two, sometimes three jobs to feed her family. “She never gave up, so how could I?”

An amazing trip

During her time at NASA, Cauffman has developed technology for some of the agency’s most important projects. Her work has touched weather satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite. (MAVEN orbits the Red Planet and collects data on the harsh environment in preparation for the first exploration by astronauts.)

“Going to Mars will be an amazing trip,” Cauffman says. But more science is needed to make it happen — “we still need to figure out how to get there faster.”

If you are a budding scientist with an unsupportive counselor, “stick to your guns,” Cauffman says. “This is the 21st century!”

Do you know a girl interested in technology? Help organizations that support girls’ education. Learn about TechGirls, an exchange program for girls from the Middle East and North Africa.