Profiles of Women Working In STEM

Ali Guarneros Luna

Aerospace Engineer

After receiving her Bachelors of Science in Aerospace Engineering from San Jose State University, Ali believed she had made it. With four kids and two full-time jobs, she never thought she would even get to this point. She thought receiving this degree would finally give her a stable life. So, she didn’t know how to respond to her professor, when he asked, “Now that you’ve graduated, what are you going to do?” Up until this point, graduating was all she had dreamed of.

Her professor pushed her to consider returning for her Master’s degree and applying for an internship with NASA —in the following eight years, she did both. Since earning her Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from San Jose State University, Ali’s been working at NASA at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it… Sometimes my family didn’t support me, and even encouraged me to not go to school.”

Despite being a single mom, Ali’s mother worked hard to make sure Ali had every opportunity growing up. Ali was very athletic and participated in many sports and gymnastics, track being her favorite. When she wasn’t playing sports, she was reading the encyclopedias that her mother bought for her.

“I would just sit in the living room reading about space shuttles after school because I really wanted to understand what they did….I was impressed and inspired by the people who made [the shuttles]. This is what I wanted to do [when I was] 7–8 years old… I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.

After the 1985 Earthquake in Mexico City, her life changed. Ali and her mother immigrated to California and settled in San Jose, CA. With only two pieces of luggage, they left everything behind, especially close friends and family.

During the anti-immigration efforts like California Proposition 187 in 1994, school was the only thing Ali was allowed to do as her mother feared deportation. Her new schedule was limited to traveling from home to school and back, with no room to do the sports she loved. So school became her outlet — it became a safe place for her to grow up, where she could continue to learn and grow.
On the cusp of adulthood, she graduated high school and went straight into the workforce. Although she loved school, she wanted to support her mother and her family. She attempted to go to community college while working full time, but the emotional stress was overwhelming and she dropped out. In the next few years, she had four children, with two who had special needs. While caring for her children at home and researching their disabilities, she realized that she needed to go back to school.

“I saw my kids who were born with special needs, and I asked myself ‘How I can help them?’… it was clear to me that I needed to go back to school. I wanted to give them a stable life.”

Back-to-school, together. After her youngest child enrolled in kindergarten, Ali enrolled at San Jose City College and transferred to San Jose State University majoring in Aerospace Engineering. In this transition from stay-at-home mom to full-time student, she became a single parent. She was a full-time student while being a full-time mom, taking care of four children. Yet, she persevered and made her way to graduation and on to an internship at NASA, with ongoing encouragement from her professor.

After more than eight years at NASA under her belt, Ali is only one of a few Hispanic & Latino engineers who hold a full-time, technical position.

“At NASA, [Hispanic] women make up only 4% [of employees], and I am part of a smaller percentage because [my position is] technical.”

There is clearly work to do to get more minorities in STEM, and a huge point of pride for Ali is the work she’s doing to get the next generation involved. Ali spent this summer managing ten interns, introducing them to aerospace engineering through several projects including building three satellites and researching the design for return capsules for the International Space Station. Commercializing ISS has been a difficult problem for NASA and the process to ship products back and forth from the space station has to go through large space vehicles like Falcon, which takes three to six months. Space is limited on these vehicles and launching them gets very expensive. She and her team are paving the way to redesign return capsules with small payload returns so that astronauts can get the products they need for experiments in three business days rather than months later, allowing for more research to be done more efficiently.

Despite her unique circumstances, Ali believes the challenges she experienced guided her to make the right decisions for her future. “I am resilient, if there’s a problem, there’s more than one solution”, she states, “To overcome difficult decisions, you need to plan for them…educate yourself so that you have the tools to make a plan of action.”

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