QuynhGiao Nguyen

I was 19 years old when I started my internship at NASA in the Environmental Durability Branch. When my mentor called me earlier that year for a phone interview, I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous, excited, and ultimately disappointed. I learned that the man who would be my mentor was not in the chemistry department. I had no real understanding of what material science entailed. I had tunnel vision for only chemistry and hadn’t considered applied chemistry careers, but I kept an open mind as he, along with the rest of NASA, opened my eyes to a world I had never seen but was eager to embrace. That summer soon became four summers and winter breaks. I knew that first summer that I would want to graduate and work for NASA and be a part of the team.

When I graduated from undergraduate school, the government was not hiring. I immediately went to graduate school. Two years into my PhD program, a contracting company for NASA offered me a full-time position. It was a difficult choice to make. I requested that they waited until I could graduate with my master’s degree. Upon graduation, I joined the Surface Science and Tribology Branch for almost 2 years before a civil servant job opened up. I applied for it competitively, and the rest is history.

Speaking of history, I never envisioned that when I immigrated to the US with my parents at the age of 7, that one day I too could grow up to be a NASA scientist. It took years for me to work on my English, which included summer school, and to understand the culture. It is still a work in progress.

I’ve spent 10 years in the Research and Technology Directorate as a materials scientist evaluating high-temperature materials for aircraft and re-entry vehicles. I’ve published my findings in technical journals and gave presentations across the country. I continued to work on my PhD at a part-time level with NASA’s support, and I graduated in 2008.

I’ve recently embarked on a new chapter in my life within the agency and am currently on detail to the Space Flight Systems Directorate in the Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration Program office to learn more about technical leadership and management. Though I feel that my education and technical experiences have groomed me into a proficient scientist, I am enjoying this opportunity to explore NASA as an agency. This has required me to step out of my comfort zone of working solo, and step into technical teams to taking on more challenging roles such as leadership responsibilities and interacting with more diverse groups of people.

While I know that my work is an integral part of NASA, the more personal question for me is: how large is this puzzle? Where does my piece fit and how can I make it better? My desire to understand how my work contributes to the overall picture of the agency is paramount. By working in an agency-led program office and interacting with multiple centers, contractors, and international partners, I am gaining a greater appreciation of NASA’s operation and my role within that operation.

The work is challenging and rewarding. The people are amazing—each one driven, like myself, to make a difference in the world through science. The types of people that work for NASA are the kind of people with whom I’m honored to be affiliated. We are the pioneers of our time. One tiny hallway in my building employs individuals who can choose to work anywhere in the world, but they chose NASA. Our agency put a man on the moon, explored Mars, built a space station, and will remain on the cutting edge of science and technology for decades to come. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that—a part of history? NASA has nurtured, educated, and groomed me into the scientist I am today. I realize that to be truly great at what I do, I must be able to embrace these challenges. I will always welcome and look forward to new opportunities for professional and personal growth within the agency. I believe that through experiences, I will be a better scientist, leader, and role model among what is one of the nation’s greatest assets—NASA.

Biography

When QuynhGiao Nguyen immigrated from Vietnam to the United States at age 7, she didn’t speak a word of English and had no idea she would grow up to be a NASA scientist. Even though she excelled in learning a new language and culture, she quickly found that she was drawn the subject of chemistry. In fact, when it came time to embark on a career, the professional “chemistry” between Ms. Nguyen and NASA was undeniable, even though it didn’t seem that way when she started her first internship at age 19. “When my mentor called me earlier that year for a phone interview, I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous, excited, and ultimately disappointed. I learned that the man who would be my mentor was not in the chemistry department,” she said. This opportunity, however, opened her eyes to a universe of possibilities. Today, she works as a materials scientist evaluating high-temperature materials for aircraft and re-entry vehicles, and is currently on detail to the Space Flight Systems Directorate in the Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration Program office. Her journey provides inspiration to other women as she articulates the importance of embracing every challenge. Ms. Nguyen earned her PhD in Clinical-Bioanalytical Chemistry from Cleveland State University College of Science.