Mary Ann Esfandiari
It has been such an honor to be part of the NASA and GSFC team for more than 30 years. I still love it and am enthusiastic about coming to work each day!
In looking back, I can’t say that I started with a grand plan when I was younger about where my career would go but I can say that I had a passion about space and, in particular, astronomy. I was fascinated about the detail I could see when I trained my first telescope on the Moon and this passion fueled my desire to pick Astronomy as my major at University of Maryland. Getting that degree was not easy for me. I had no particular natural talent for the complex math and multi-dimensional thought process one needed to understand and complete the course work. There were days when I thought I just couldn’t do it. But, one of the skills I do have is resilience and this got me through. I asked for help repeatedly, pestered those that had that natural talent, scoured every physics and astronomy book in the library and became a fixture in the lab. It worked and I got better at the material.
The day I discovered the COOP office at University of Maryland was great. I was not aware of COOP opportunities but I had heard there were work study programs so I went exploring. Being a student that was working my way through school, I had several part-time jobs but balancing all this with school was tricky and left little time for anything else. When I heard about COOP opportunities with NASA at GSFC, I dared to dream that this might come true for me. It did! I can’t express how thrilled I was to get that call. I was ready to start that day!
My early COOP experiences had me in the microelectronics lab in the “bunny suit” growing oxide on silicon wafers that I would load into a quartz rack called a “boat” and slide into various high temperature furnaces for specific periods of time. Once photo resist was exposed to the wafer, the silicon dioxide would be etched off in an acid solution and the etched areas thicknesses could be measured using a sensitive stylus that would move across the surface. I loved the work and learning the process. I was a part of the NASA team! Many days I went home and later discovered little holes in my clothes from the acid that had perhaps splashed in one of the processing steps.
After more than 10 years working in a variety of hands-on lab and computer programming positions, I started to think about continuing my education. Should I continue in Astronomy or something else? At this time I was working in the Lab for High Energy Astrophysics supporting the scientists in developing science data analysis software and working on some of the early graphics systems. I enjoyed this work and it kept me close to the science. Once of my assignments was to get the early High Energy Astronomy Observatory (HEAO-1) Quick Look science data in the morning to see if there were any ‘unusual counts’ in the detectors that measured incoming photons. The HEAO-1 mission surveyed the X-Ray sky. I was stunned to see a complete saturation and large counts in several of the detectors. It turned out that this was the remnants of supernova 1987a which was seen by a number of x-ray detectors in February 1987. Wow! This was exciting stuff and I was thrilled to be able to participate with the scientists on their analysis and discoveries.
After much thought I decided to continue my education in Computer Science and earned a MS in this field at George Washington University. I had found my niche. Although I enjoyed the amateur astronomy and the studies required to get my BS degree in Astronomy, I loved working with the scientists and developing specialized computer application code based on their requirements. I had a front row seat into new detector development, requirements for new science missions and the resulting science discoveries on the structure and evolution of the universe plus I had a skill that I could apply to support this work.
Although I enjoyed each position that I have held, it did not come without challenges along with ups and downs. As I moved from the early hands-on work to more management positions, the work sometimes became harder and the problems were not always easy to solve. I made plenty of mistakes, learning from each along the way and making improvements. Like any good wine, I’d like to think I got better with time! Being an officer in the Naval Reserve for the past 23 years has also helped to develop my leadership skills. I no longer feel the stress I once did when faced with a brand new assignment. From having been exposed to a wide variety of positions and challenges, I think I have gained from each and each has improved my ability to take on something new and ensure that I contribute to the mission at GSFC.
The gift that GSFC provides to its employees is the wide variety of work and opportunity to apply and compete for new assignments, new experiences and greater challenges. From working on the science data analysis portion of the mission where the data has already been transmitted to the ground, to working on the flight software that operates the systems onboard the spacecraft that will, upon command, then transmit data to now working in the space communication area, I feel I have experienced a large part of the spectrum of science missions.
If I was to convey to new employees some of my thoughts on what would ensure their success, I’d tell them several things:
• Do your absolute best at every assignment. Be committed. Not every job is great fun but every job is important and a contributing factor to the success at GSFC. Stay in a position at least until you have achieved a measure of success. Always ask your supervisor how you are doing and don’t be afraid to hear you need improvement. Everyone makes mistakes. Make improvements, move on.
• Try new assignments and take on challenges. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Continue to learn throughout your career. Utilize the senior leadership at the Center to develop a mentorship. Ask for advice. Listen well.
• Stay on track with GSFC missions and focus. Don’t stray into preferred work areas that are off the mainstream or in areas of unsupported science or technology. Be a contributor to NASA/GSFC success by focusing on key areas whether they are infrastructure, safety, IT security, data management, science, etc. Stay focused.
• Be resilient. With changes in mission schedules, budget shortfalls, mission cancellations, set-backs in the lab, difficult personalities, and changes in the NASA/GSFC mission focus, nothing goes exactly as we would all wish or prefer. Ride the challenges to new goals, opportunities or pathways. Influence and energize others with a positive spirit.
• Be sincere and be yourself. Treat others with care and respect and they will treat you similarly. Many times there is rarely one single solution to a problem. Listen to other ideas. Contribute yours. Be present.
It has been an honor to be selected as a Woman at NASA!
For Mary Ann, her path to NASA began as a cooperative education (co-op) student in 1974. She hailed from the University of Maryland in College Park as she found her place at NASA. Little did she know that she would lead two careers, one at NASA and one in the Navy Reserve. Moreover, her life took a turn when she was was involuntarily deployed for one year to the Office for Administrative Review of Detained Enemy Combatants (OARDEC). Upon report, she was deployed to Afghanistan for 5 months serving as the Detainee Review Board president at the Detention Facility in Parwan, conducting over 540 detainee review boards. The second half of her deployment year was spent at Guantanamo Bay (GTMO), Cuba serving as the OIC for OARDEC Forward. During her time in GTMO, she worked with the Joint Detention Group and the legal teams to develop the new detainee review board process following a period Administration review. For NASA, Ms. Esfandiari’s early technical work and leadership provided good preparation for her next career phase in management. In her career at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Centger, she has held many leadership positions such as Branch Head of the Science Data Systems Branch, the Acting Branch Head of Advanced Data Management and Analysis Branch, and the Associate Chief for the Information Systems Center. Currently, Ms. Esfandiari is an Associate Director of the Flight Projects Directorate for the Exploration and Space Communication Division, responsible for the on-orbit operation and sustaining engineering of the Space Network (SN). Ms. Esfandiari also serves our nation as a Commander in the U. S. Navy Reserve as an Aviation Engineering Duty Officer. Ms. Esfandiari holds a Bachelor’s in Astronomy/Physics from the University of Maryland at College Park and a Master’s in Computer Science from the George Washington University at Washington, DC.