Life Lessons as a Woman in STEM with Ivette Rivera Aponte, NASA Engineer

We have an amazing guest with us this week! Let me introduce Ivette – my former NASA mentor! We are such great friends, and I appreciate her taking the time to come on the Launching Forward podcast. We started working together at Kennedy Space Center in 2008, and she encouraged me to pursue entrepreneurship! She’s an inspiration to me, and I know many others, too. Today, we’re talking about the challenges and lessons of being a woman in the STEM field.

When Ivette started at NASA in 2003, she was the only female in the office. It’s challenging to work in an office as the only female. There are several other industries where this is the norm. Let’s talk about some of the experiences and lessons Ivette and I have as a woman in STEM.

Lesson #1: Do Your Best

No matter the task you’re given, do your best. Even if you think it’s minor, give it your full effort, and people will notice. Your attitude and work ethic will stand out from others who only give 75%. Leadership in your company will notice and give you promotions or raises above others. 

Take the opportunities you’re given seriously. Specifically for internships, many companies hire interns after the program. Treat it as a job in your career because it very well could be someday!

Lesson #2: Figure it Out

Before you reach out for help with something, try to figure it out yourself. Google it, watch a tutorial, look back on notes or messages, etc. before asking your mentor for help. The conversation completely changes when you explain what you’ve already done to find an answer to a question vs. asking without doing any work before. Problem-solving is a life-long skill!

At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re really struggling with something, utilize the people on your team! You all have the same goal and want to see each other succeed. 

Lesson #3: Overcome the Fear You Aren’t Good Enough

Girl, you are! Work on overcoming the fear that you aren’t good enough to run a project, lead a team, or complete a task. Impostor syndrome runs rampant among women in STEM and entrepreneurship. Ivette and I have both experienced it! 

Overcoming it is easier said than done, but it’s crucial to establish confidence in the workplace. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it and put on a brave face! Try to get feedback from colleagues and observe how they do things. 

Lesson #4: Be Flexible

You need to learn how far to push your opinions and when to hold back. Management and team leaders oftentimes have different visions for how the project should be completed. Finding the middle ground can be difficult, and conflict could arise along the way. You need to find the balance between inserting your opinion and saying, “You’re the boss, so I’ll do it how you want.” 

There isn’t a set rule on how to do this, but you need to learn how the people you work with operate. Learn their character and personality to know when to back off. 

Being a woman in STEM isn’t easy, but it’s so worth it! My students often ask me what it’s like to be in the STEM field and if it’s possible to work for NASA, and my answer is always YES! Learn from our mistakes and take the advice of Ivette. She’s been at NASA for 20 years and has had many challenges along the way, but she was gracious enough to share them with us so we can learn from them. I hope you found this episode to be inspiring and thought-provoking!

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About Ivette

Ivette Rivera Aponte is an integration engineer for NASA Engineering at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She is responsible for the contractor’s technical performance and surveillance processes, systems, and efforts within the engineering organization; facilitating management strategic planning efforts, and streamlining technical communications and actions. Read her full bio here.

Watch her NASA Talk.

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