This is one among a collection of videos and essays from women who contribute to NASA‘s mission. They are part of the agency’s efforts to create a collaborative and supportive community of women at the agency, inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to encourage openness and accountability at NASA.
I began my first NASA research project only a year after I started studying mechanical engineering. I was in my mid-twenties and an “older” college student. I had studied musical theatre and education after high school, but I kept dropping out of college and going to work. I worked a waitress for a few years, and then as a veterinary technician for another few years. I also rented rooms and booked tours at the Grand Canyon and managed a gas station.
I discovered mechanical engineering while repairing my 30 year-old 1969 VW Beetle. No one else in my immediate family had attended college; in fact, my mother only completed her high school degree a year before I did. All of us, (I am the oldest of three brothers and three sisters) lived below the poverty line and moved frequently, rarely spending an entire school year in the same place.
When I started my first research project, studying the flow around the cargo boxes that are carried underneath helicopters, my only ambition was to earn some extra pocket money. My family struggled to put food on the table and I didn’t want to be a burden on them.
Two years later, I was earning awards based on my research, and had won a fellowship to study engineering at Stanford University. It was difficult to explain to my family why I was still going to school, even though I had earned my first college degree. “Going to college’ was the most ambitious goal they could imagine. I worked as an intern at NASA Ames Research Center while I earned my master’s and then my doctorate degrees at Stanford. My Stanford education was paid for with scholarships and fellowships, including a Stanford Graduate Fellowship, an AAUW American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship and a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
This support was primarily based on research I conducted with NASA when I was attending Northern Arizona University. As a summer intern at NASA Ames, I met and was mentored by NASA Ames engineer Dr. Karen Gundy-Burlet about adaptive control. Immediately upon graduation I rejoined NASA Ames as a contractor in 2008 and was hired in August 2009.
After I became Dr. Davies, I began to work for NASA full time, seeking to solve problems at the intersection of computer science and aerospace engineering. Today, my work is focused on finding and solving problems in next-generation flight software to make air transportation safer.
The work I do at NASA gives me a way to explain to my family why I spent so much time in school and why the math that I do all day is important. I love that the work I do making the nation’s airways safer, directly affects their lives. I also love that I’ve been able to inspire my mother and my siblings to get their college degrees and to find their own meaningful work to do.
My mother now has an undergraduate degree and has been accepted to graduate school. One sister is finishing her undergraduate degree this year and another sister and brother will be starting college this year. Now that I have two children of my own, I think about how their lives will be different from mine because of the opportunities I’ve been given and because of the work I do.