Can we breathe on Mars? Is Europa habitable? What NASA’s work reveals about humanity's future

Marianne Gonzalez reveals her chemistry with the universe and what it feels to be underrepresented in STEM.
Deena Theresa
Marianne with the Mars Perseverance Rover. It was the first project she worked on as an intern at JPL.Marianne Gonzalez

Unlike most people at NASA, Marianne Paguia Gonzalez never dreamt of finding her feet among the stars.

If anything, she truly believed that the space exploration agency was an unattainable entity. Simply out of reach. Something she wouldn't dare to dream.

"My story isn't typical of a lot of NASA engineers, who've always known that they would end up at NASA, grew up going to space camp, or had parents who were engineers or someone at NASA. I didn't know it was a possibility until I put myself out there and tried to explore what else I could do with my love for science," Gonzalez tells IE.

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The second-generation Filipino American, who grew up in Long Beach, California, chose to major in what she loved best - chemistry.

Today, the 29-year-old is a technologist and systems engineer at JPL-NASA who has worked on the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), helped build S.A.M, a spacecraft atmospheric monitor for the International Space Station (ISS), and played a crucial role in various inspiring projects.

Currently, she has her hands full with the Europa Clipper. The spacecraft will perform close flybys of Jupiter's moon to investigate whether it could harbor conditions suitable for microbial life.

100 internships, one destined callback

"The Filipino stereotype is that you become either a nurse or choose any medical-related career. And that's something that my parents tried to get me to do. But I always had a thing for chemistry and therefore started as a chemistry major in college. Later I switched majors to chemical engineering," says Gonzalez. She completed her B.S and M.S in Chemical Engineering from California State University Long Beach and the University of Southern California.

Though she loved her first internship — which was with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — it wasn't something she could foresee herself doing for a long time. There began her first exploration - a deep dive into the careers she could get into.

"I was on a voyage of self-discovery in college. And I applied to over 100 internships ranging across all industries. Several chemical engineers end up in the oil industry but it wasn't for me. Around the time I figured that chemical engineering wasn't as narrow as I thought. I've always been interested in space, concerning science fiction and pop culture. And that influenced my interest in reaching out to NASA for internships," she explains.

Gonzalez started looking into further prospects - on how chemical engineering can come in handy to use resources from another planetary body. "That genuinely interested me," she says.

After applying to some 20 internships at NASA, she received a callback, which led to her interning with the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Six years later, Gonzalez gave us insights on working with the space agency, being a minority in STEM, and dealing with casual sexism at the workplace. Oh, and plenty of pointers on getting into NASA. 

Excerpts. 

IE: How is chemistry useful in space exploration?

Marianne Gonzalez: One of the major things it is useful for is human exploration. There's a field of research called in situ resource utilization, wherein you take local materials to support exploration. Basically, you take a payload to the surface of Mars or the Moon, extract local materials, and chemically change it to make resources for the life support of astronauts. An example would be MOXIE, for the Perseverance rover. It electrolyzes and converts the carbon dioxide on the surface of Mars to oxygen. That right there is a mixture of chemical engineering and electrochemistry to get a scalable process that facilitates space exploration. 

Another example would be based on one of the latest projects I'm working on - Europa Clipper, which will be launched in 2024. It has a bunch of instruments, and I'm working on the magnetometer. Europa has oceans that have hydrothermal vents on the seafloor, which could support microbial life. So, instruments are being researched — like could we take an instrument to sniff out the possibility of chemicals that might be coming from those vents that could be habitable for microbial life?

IE: You've worked on a couple of projects. Is there any that you think has made a significant difference to NASA or humankind in general?

A great example would be MOXIE itself, which demonstrated the autonomous production of oxygen on Mars. I had a sensor on that instrument that ended up being used for the ventilator project that Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) worked on. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a team of JPL-ers who got together and started the technology development of a ventilator that is easy to mass-produce. They ended up getting a patent. I was able to contribute a little bit, to that effort. They were asking around for sensors that can be used to ensure there is enough oxygen for whoever is using the ventilator. Eventually, they came to the MOXIE team and asked about the sensor we use to make oxygen on Mars. At that point, excluding the optical sensor working on Mars, we had an extra one that could be given. We then introduced them to the team in Germany who made the sensors for us. And now those sensors are being used on the ventilator. So, it was a really nice feeling to see the technology that you helped get to space be used back on Earth. 

I think that's the most important thing about space technology. Things that we develop for space have these high functionalities, and you end up getting different techniques that you can adapt for something on Earth. 

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Things that we develop for space have these high functionalities, and you end up getting different techniques that you can adapt for something on Earth. 

IE: You've been at NASA for six years. Can you tell me something that you love about your job and something that you don't quite enjoy?

My job is highly rewarding. I can conceptualize something on paper and then see it become a tangible, functional thing. The other part is seeing something you've worked on being launched to space, which is crazy to me even now. I think that's my favorite part for sure because it makes me so excited to work on the next thing. 

And then something I don't like as much about my job is... (pauses). I feel like this is the case in a lot of places and is not specific to JPL or NASA. I'm very happy with my job overall. But a commonality that young women engineers face is inappropriate comments. And then, the fact that I am very much a minority in terms of ethnicity. There's not that many, you know, Filipinos, for engineers. So, that part on a personal level has been challenging for me because I don't see people who look like me. It was hard for me at first to have people to look up to and get mentorship from because I was not fully comfortable seeing myself in a space that consisted of primarily white males. I know of other women who experienced the same thing, and I talk with them pretty often about such issues and how to deal with them. That has been super helpful. 

IE: You said that one of the reasons you didn't originally see NASA as your future was because you didn't think it was possible. How would you change that for other women? And how does one deal with sexism and unconscious bias at the workplace?

I grew up as a millennial - before smartphones were a thing. So, I didn't have a lot of exposure to the internet, and I couldn't see the other women engineers like me out there. But now, things have changed. I've met a lot of amazing women engineers through Instagram. So, the access that this generation has is already a step ahead. 

That's one of the great things about social media. My advice would be to find those people who are very good with advocating for women in STEM and what it's like to be a women engineer. A lot of them are very responsive to people who are engineering aspirants. Many of us didn't have that kind of help so we're trying to do our bit for the others.

And then my advice would be to not listen to naysayers. I knew people who said that I couldn't get a job at NASA as I didn't have connections. I almost gave up listening to them. But I wanted to try as the worst they could say is no. So I'd say just go for it. Don't hesitate.

(On employee resource tools)

There are many training programs now related to dealing with situations where there might be unconscious bias.

A few weeks ago I attended this training program about the know-hows of what can be done when an inappropriate comment is passed. I think it's powerful to have this mandatory training at work. A lot of workplaces will have employee research resource groups that are intended for safe spaces. I'm part of the women in tech group. So I think it's very important to find those groups of people that you can talk to because they will give you a lot of advice on what to do when a situation arises. So, definitely lean on the employer resources that you have.

Also, I had to deal with a lot of work as I was juggling JPL grad classes at the same time. I chose therapy to deal with it. Therapy is stigmatized among Asian Americans, but I realized that it was important. It helped to stay in control and not spiral during a difficult situation. I grew up with anxiety and didn't address it until after college. It played a major role in how I interacted with people at work. And it was important for me to find an efficient way to deal with it and be professional about it, I guess.

IE: Can you tell me about the one skill that people need to work at NASA?

I think the main skill you must have is the ability to ask questions - knowing what to ask and whom to go to. NASA's always doing things that are new and unexplored and it can be challenging. So the willingness to learn is very important.

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NASA's always doing things that are new and unexplored and it can be challenging. So the willingness to learn is very important.

IE: What do you do for fun? Tell me about some accomplishments that are not science-related. 

Oh, that's a good question. I snowboard a lot - almost every week during the wintertime. My family and fiance are really into it. I also like to hike - honestly, I just love being outdoors. And eventually, I want to get into backcountry snowboarding. I enjoy the adrenaline, and it's a sport that I'm trying to get better at each year. 

And...I made it to the Forbes 30 under 30 lists recently. I got to network with a lot of people who are not in the science field, which is very different from what I'm used to. I'm super proud of being able to make that list.

IE: Is there any course that you think should be a part of every school curriculum? 

Good question. Oddly enough, I think philosophy is a good class that everyone should take. It'll help, regardless of whatever field you're in. It helps with your way of thinking, how you analyze things, and how you debate because I feel like that comes into play in all aspects. My high school didn't have a lot of options like other schools did. I would also say that science classes are super important cause they teach you how the world works.

IE: You've worked for Mars missions. And now you're currently working on Europa Clipper for Jupiter. Would you favor one planet over the other? 

Ooh, a good question. I had an obsession with Mars for a while, but now I'm very interested in exploring Europa. There are a lot of moons out there with icy oceans. And I think they're super interesting. Regarding Mars, we've sent so many things there already, we've seen a lot of it, and I think going to the less explored planetary bodies makes me excited. So I would say Jupiter and Europa because if we find microbial life there, it will be life-changing for the scientists and NASA for sure. So, yeah.