The story of how Diana Trujillo became an aerospace engineer at NASA

From Cali to Mars | Career | Professional accomplishments | Beyond NASA

On February 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on the red planet as a part of the Mars 2020 Mission. This is one of NASA’s most ambitious projects to date. But what made the news all around Latin America was the name of the flight director: Diana Trujillo.

She is an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she also serves as the Robotic Arm System head. The accomplishment: she is the first Latina to lead such an important project.

Mars 2020 Mission seeks signs of ancient life on the planet through the collections of rock and soil samples. And Trujillo was part of the team that designed the robotic arm and other instruments of the US space agency explorer.

For a woman of her origin, working for NASA sounded so far in the future that Latinas found it imposible to comprehend. So, what did Diana do did to make her dream come true?

Diana Trujillo: From Cali to Mars

Diana was born and raised in Cali, Colombia. But she was 17 when she decided to immigrate to the United States. She left behind all she knew and all the Colombian beauty she grew up around, for better opportunities.

She arrived in the US with only $300 in her pocket and not knowing a single word in English. Her first goal, then, was to learn the language so she could be one step closer to her dream. She started working as a housekeeper to support her studies at the Miami Dade College.

Soon enough, she was sneaking into some of the math department classes, where she didn’t need to speak any English, with the numbers being a universal language. And that’s where, she said, she realized this was what she wanted to do for a living.

Her career as an aerospace engineer begins here

Diana started her career in Space Science at the University of Florida (UF) while having four different jobs. A clear goal and what she calls the strength of Colombian women helped her to do it all with a few hours of sleep.

Time would tell her that it was all worth it. While Diana Trujillo was going to UF, she got accepted at the NASA Academy. Once in, she visited the University of Maryland, where she assisted a professor in researching how robotic arms work in space. She finally earned her degree as an aerospace engineer at this school.

Professional accomplishments of Diana Trujillo

With one degree from the University of Florida and another from the University of Maryland, she got her first job at NASA. Right after her graduation at the Cygnus International Space Station.

But it was in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where she experienced her most significant professional growth. The following are her milestones since joining JPL in 2008:

– She served as the Mission Lead, Deputy Project System Engineer, and Deputy Team Chief of the Engineering Division for the Mars Curiosity Program.

– She also created and hosted NASA’s first-ever Spanish-language live broadcast called #JuntosPerseveramos for the Mars 2020 Mission.

– Diana hosts a weekly video series called Martes de Marte via her Twitter account in English and Spanish.

Beyond NASA

Outside NASA, Trujillo has been involved in the Brooke Owens Fellowship program as a leader, mentor, coach, and selection committee member. The Fellowship was created in honor of space industry pioneer and accomplished pilot Brooke Owens. Its mission is to boost the careers of young women and other gender minorities in aerospace. She joined the Fellowship’s executive team in 2020.

Other accomplishements:

– Board member of the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

– Advocate for diversity in STEM, especially for Latin women and Colombian females.

– Board member of the Children’s Center at Caltech.

– Participant in the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

– Was honored with the Cruz de Boyacá in 2021 by the President of Colombia. The highest honor awarded to civilians.

– Was selected as one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in 2021 by People en Español.

In an interview with El País de Cali, her home city’s biggest newspaper, Diana says that you don’t need to be a genius or have tons of postgraduate degrees to work at NASA. You just need to have a strong desire for it, which shouldn’t fade over time, even when obstacles get in your way. It’s a lot of work, but it will pay off in the end.

References

Brooke Owens Fellowship. (n.d.). Our Executive Mentors. Retrieved from http://www.brookeowensfellowship.org/diana-trujillo

El País. (February 21, 2021). De Cali a Marte: el camino que recorrió Diana Trujillo para liderar una misión espacial. Retrieved from  https://www.elpais.com.co/cali/de-a-marte-el-camino-que-recorrio-diana-trujillo-para-liderar-una-mision-espacial.html

NASA Science. (n.d.). Mars 2020 Mission. Retrieved from https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

Rubiano, A. (August 13, 2021). Diana Trujillo, la ingeniera latina que sigue haciendo historia en la NASA. People en Español. Retrieved from https://peopleenespanol.com/noticias/diana-trujillo-la-ingeniera-latina-sigue-haciendo-historia-en-nasa/