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Joan Melendez-Misner

MS in Systems Engineering '17
Aerospace Integration Engineer, NASA

Melendez-Misner is a mission integration systems engineer at NASA working on management of space and aeronautical flight systems for all non-crewed and scientific missions. She is currently supporting NASA’s Artemis program, a human spaceflight program to explore the Moon, aiming for its first touchdown on the lunar south pole by 2024. Prior to working for NASA, she worked for Blue Origin and Naval Air Systems Command. As a first-generation college graduate, she is heavily involved in growing the representation of underrepresented communities and in encouraging people to pursue STEM careers. Melendez-Misner volunteers throughout the community and is fully involved with STEM Outreach Programs including Passage, a program aimed at bringing STEM education to Latin America. She uses social media as a platform to empower minorities in STEM. Find her on TikTok and Instagram @yourfemaleengineer.

Melendez-Misner graduated from the University of Maryland and Towson University with a dual bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. She also hold a Masters of Science in Systems Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School.

So many people grow up dreaming of working for NASA. Can you give us an overview of your career path thus far and how you achieved that goal? 

My story is a little unique because I didn't think I was going to be an engineer growing up. I wanted to be a doctor. However, after volunteering at a local hospital and seeing a lot of blood and needles, I quickly realized it was not for me. If it wasn't for my amazing guidance counselors and support system, I wouldn't have found my love for STEM, and that is because when you picture an engineer, you don't typically see a Latina woman in those roles. And that is why I think it is so important to showcase to young minorities everywhere that you CAN be an engineer and a scientist. I started my career in aviation working on fighter jets and engines, and then recently moved over to the space sector and now work on space hardware. I still pinch myself thinking that I get to launch rockets and spacecraft to space that explore not only our planet, but other planets as well.

What advice would you give young people, specifically young women, who would like to achieve that dream or more broadly get into the engineering field? 

I strongly believe in the power of your network/mentors. One of the motto’s that I live by is “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 announcements, as well as resume tips. 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. Finally, I think it's important to showcase STEM careers to young girls at a young age. One of my favorite quotes from a fellow STEM friend is “My biggest fear is that the cure for Cancer is in the mind of a young girl that is told from a young age that science is for boys.” It is a powerful quote that I have repeated several times. We need to encourage young girls who may have an interest in science by showcasing female role models in those careers. It is much easier to show them what they can become if they can see themselves in those positions.

You earned your NPS degree as a civilian working for NAVAIR. Can you tell us what led you to NPS and how your degree affected your career trajectory? 

NPS was intriguing for me because not only did the school accommodate working professionals (classes at night and offered online courses), but it was also neat to think that the school isn't open to just anyone. It was an honor to be able to study at a university meant for only military or civilians working in the DOD.

As a distance-learning student, your NPS experience was different than students here on campus, but what was the most impactful part of your studies or research? 

I loved being able to meet people all over the Department of Defense and military who were studying Systems Engineering. I also enjoyed the fact that our Capstone Project was based on a real issue that the Department of the Navy was facing with regards to reliability and maintenance downtime. Being able to work on a concern for the Navy, look at it through a Systems Engineering lens, and then present our findings to both NPS and the Fleet Readiness Center Commander was rewarding.

Tell us about your volunteer and nonprofit work with Passage.

I am currently part of an amazing non-profit, PASSAGE (Providing Aid in Science for South America's General Education), where our team of Science Communicators are aiming to raise over $50,000 worth of school supplies, lab equipment, classroom essentials, and technology to Latin America's most underprivileged schools. This project hits close to home for me because I have family in South America and the Caribbean and I have seen how underrepresented communities don't have the means to provide the best education. With this project, not only are we collecting the funds, but we are personally going to fly the supplies in our plane, The Spirit of Science, and get to talk to all of these schools. I want them to see themselves in me, as a Latina woman, and give them the hope they need to pursue careers in STEM!

How can the academic community better encourage and support young women and minorities to get involved in STEM fields? 

The academic world can help encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), by supporting minority and women led organizations (i.e. Society of Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Engineers, etc). Also implementing  a peer mentoring system where female students who are juniors or seniors in STEM majors serve as peer mentors to incoming women. These peer mentors fill a niche that's different from high-level successful role models because they are closer in age and life stage to their mentees. Peer mentors are a stepping stone on the way to professional success in STEM. Finally, institutions and departments where the gender distribution is really skewed with few women professors and senior scientists, I recommend intentionally creating other ways to enhance students' exposure to technical women. This could be if a male faculty teaching a class incorporates stories or lesson plans revolving around the work of women scientists or engineers related to the content of the class, or invite female scientists or engineers to be guest speakers in their class. Or, if a STEM department makes an active effort to invite women in stem speakers to campuses. Representation is truly powerful, and by showcasing women and giving them a room at the table, we can help break down stereotypes. 

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