Where are you originally from?
I was born in Costa Rica.
What degree program did you study graduate school?
I obtained a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University.
Why did you decide to pursue science as a profession and what were your primary influences?
I have loved science since I was very young. The Apollo 11 moon landing was my first motivation. My mother’s influence was also powerful. Even though she did not finish high school, she instilled in me the love for books. When I was little, some of the first books I read were by Jules Verne – From the Earth to the Moon, The Mysterious Island, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. After reading those books, I was very inspired to pursue science in high school and college.
(Editor’s note: Sandra Alba Cauffman earned two Bachelor of Science degrees – in physics and electrical engineering.)
What challenges did you face along the way?
As a minority woman, I had to learn to speak up for myself. I went to school and earned my degrees like the next person. I have encountered some individuals who felt that since I was a Hispanic woman, I should be the secretary, not the manager in charge. That pretty much changed as I progressed in my career and received recognition.
You mentioned the impact of your mother’s influence in your Hispanic Heritage Observance keynote speech – how did she encourage you?
My mother is my hero. She has always been a positive influence in my life. My grandmother died when my mom was seven. My grandfather died when my mom was nine. She was an orphan at a young age. She is the youngest of 12, but her older siblings never wanted to be responsible for the three youngest. As a teenager, she ran away and went to live in home for youth that was run by a Catholic priest. She had to take care of herself and made many mistakes. In spite of her difficult life, she was never bitter. She was always positive, telling me that if I worked hard, I would succeed. She was open with us about her mistakes because she did not want us to repeat history. I think we turned out all right!
In terms of mentorship, how do you help the next generation of Hispanic engineers pursue their career goals?
I have mentored many men and women. Some Hispanic and some not. I think it is very important in everyone’s career, and life for that matter, to have a mentor or two, or three, or more. The mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street. I have also visited elementary schools, high schools, and universities to motivate the next generation to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. I have found that planting those STEM seeds early on is best. In many ways, by the time the kids are in high school, it may be a bit too late to motivate them into a STEM career. However, it is not too late to encourage them to go to college and get an education. The college kids have figured out to some extent what they want to do and the trick is to keep them there.
Do you believe that you have followed your dreams?
I have followed my dreams, but they have not always materialized. My dream of going to the moon will not be fulfilled. I wanted to be an astronaut, but after getting married and having kids, my priorities changed. Dreams are just that! Dreams and goals give us direction and are a powerful force in our conscious and the subconscious, driving us to better ourselves. I continue to follow my dreams, which have taken me to many unexpected places, like my current position at NASA.