Joan Melendez Misner (@YourFemaleEngineer) is an Integration Engineer at NASA working on space & asteroid planetary defense missions. Her work includes sending a helicopter to Titan (Dragonfly), a spacecraft to Europa (Europa Clipper), and crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid (DART).
Joan volunteers throughout the community and is fully involved with STEM Outreach Programs, most notably, @PASSAGEscience – a program aimed to bring STEM education to Latin America.
For Joan, being a change maker and inspiring the next generation is the goal. As a first-generation graduate, she strives to increase representation in underrepresented communities, encouraging people to pursue STEM careers through mentoring, social media, and nonprofits. Joan is also a musician, an avid tennis player, and is currently getting her Private Pilot License.
IFLScience spoke with Joan to learn more.
What did it take to get here?
What didn’t it take (lol).
I started off by getting a dual bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. While I was in college, I started interning for the Department of Defense (as a Pathways Intern), specifically at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) working on biofuel qualifications for the Navy. During my time, I qualified alternative sourced fuels made from sugar, corn, etc. for use in both Naval aviation and sea trials.
Once I graduated, I was hired full-time at NAVAIR and got to work as a Fuel Systems Engineer for Navy jets, aerial refueling, and a propulsion engineer. I gained valuable knowledge in test engineering, systems engineering, and reliability. While I was working full-time, I also earned my master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Naval Postgraduate School.
After eight years in the aviation industry, I made the move to the space industry because I knew that I eventually wanted to work on space hardware. I started working for Blue Origin as a Launch Integration Engineer working on their New Glenn orbital rocket. As an integration engineer, my role was to work with the design engineers and ensure that the systems verified its intent. I worked on everything from the launch pad, (LC-36), fluid systems, drone ship, and communications to system safety.
However, after one year at Blue Origin, NASA gave me an opportunity to interview for the role I have now. It was a hard decision to leave Blue, but NASA has always been my dream. And after applying 13 times, it felt like it was finally my time. And I was right. Now I work for the Launch Services Program, which helps launch scientific missions to space.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair, how would you describe what you do to your former self?
You help launch scientific missions to space that help explore both our planet and our universe. The work that you do now is so important. You even helped launch a mission that tests Earth’s planetary defense against potential asteroids that may head our way. You are a Planetary Defender!
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
The most common misconception, which I also fell victim to, is that I thought that you had to be a perfect 4.0 GPA student to work at NASA. This misconception stopped me from applying to be an intern at NASA, since my GPA was around a 3.2.
The one thing I want to be remembered as is someone who inspires those to reach for the stars. Don’t let your GPA hold you back. We can teach you how to do your job. Finish your degree and work hard along the way.
Proudest moment on the job?
The Proudest professional moment of my career at NASA was when I launched my first mission, which ended up being one of the coolest missions I have ever been part of (DART). To be part of a team that is testing our planet’s defense capabilities from a future asteroid that may have a trajectory towards Earth feels good.
My proudest moment at NASA that does not revolve around missions is my participation in outreach. I love talking to students about what I do, and how I got there, and inspiring them to pursue their dreams.
Memorable misstep/hairiest moment on the job?
Before I share my misstep on the job, I want to say that we all make mistakes. As an intern, I was terrified of making mistakes or asking too many questions. I thought that my coworkers or team would think I was not “smart” enough to have the position. And boy was I wrong. You are supposed to ask questions on the job, that is how you learn. If you make a mistake, do not cover it up. Bring up the mistake to your mentor or coworker that is helping you, and together you will figure out the next steps. I learned a lot more from my mistakes than my successes. Just a little piece of advice.
Ok, now on to my most memorable mistake I had on the job. While I was an intern for NAVAIR, I oversaw a weeklong test to see how much bacteria there was in a fuel. I completely forgot to check the data throughout the week, which was an important element of the project, and instead remembered about the experiment 2 weeks after it was supposed to conclude. The number of bacteria was overwhelming, and since it went over the timeframe of the scope of the experiment, AND I didn’t collect any data to compare, the test could not be used. So, I had to restart the test and unfortunately had to be late in reporting the results. It was a learning experience for me because it taught me how to manage my time better, and I learned to set email reminders to check on the experiment, that way I would never forget to collect the data again. To this day, I set due date reminders on my calendar to remind me of specific tasks.
What do you never leave the house without/what’s your most treasured piece of kit?
I never leave home without my Sony camera, my Apple Airpods, and my space-themed backpack. I love exploring new places, so I want to make sure I can capture any content I want to share with my audience.
I also have a lucky patch that I carry around with me in my Harry Potter wallet (Slytherin by the way). The patch is a SpaceX Cargo patch, which was the very first mission I was in mission control working as an engineer.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
The first one is going to sound a little cliché, but don't give up. If working in STEM is your dream, don't get discouraged if you fail a class, or if you have to study harder than everyone else. Keep on pushing towards finishing your degree and working hard to land your dream job. My favorite quote is “Failure is not the opposite of success; it is part of every success story.” (Ariana Huffington)
My other piece of advice is to “Network to Get Work”. I went to a NASA networking event and after touring a NASA facility and connecting with NASA engineers, I stayed in touch with them. They guided me by providing me with upcoming job requisitions and gave me résumé tips and tricks. I truly believe that networking can help you get on the right path, which is another reason I am so open on social media. If you need resume help, I got you. If you need someone to give career advice, I got you. A lot of people helped me along the way to help me get to where I am, and I want to extend a helping hand to anyone who was in my position several years ago.