STEM Professional of the week

Erika D. Rodgriguez, Ph.D.      
NASA Ames Research Center

Erika D. Rodriguez was born in a small farm-working town in Fresno, California – a city approximately 220 miles northwest of Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents. While Erika’s father was supportive of her academic and professional aspirations, it was her mother who would hold down the household as a single parent. Erika’s family worked long full days in the fields of San Joaquin Valley picking, trimming and cultivating farm produce. Having been witness to this, Erika understood that these tremendous efforts were all part of her parents’ efforts to provide a better life and to instill in her to aim high especially when it came to education.

Erika’s rise to the top was no easy feat. A product of Fresno public schools, Erika was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia early on. She managed, however, to persevere by working harder than most even when it felt impossible. After graduating high school, Erika enrolled in Smith College, the first all-women college in the country to have an ABET-accredited engineering program. During her sophomore year, she led a team of five classmates to custom design an apparatus to test plant growth in microgravity environments. This led to their selection into the NASA-Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, which also gave Erika a true engineering experience in design process.

Upon graduating from Smith, Erika accepted a full-time position as a design engineer at Pratt and Whitney, an American aerospace manufacturer with global service operations, while also taking graduate engineering classes at Syracuse University where she eventually went on to earn both a master’s degree and Ph.D. from their Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering department with a specialization in material science.

Dr. Rodriguez accepted a postdoctoral position as a materials research scientist/engineer with ERC, Inc., at NASA Ames Research Center, a major NASA research center at Moffett Federal Airfield in California's Silicon Valley, in 2012 and was quickly promoted to her current position as a full time materials research scientist in the Thermal Protection Materials Branch, Entry Systems and Technology Division, Exploration Technology Directorate. Dr. Rodriguez is currently developing strategies and non-destructive evaluations (NDE) for analyzing TPS materials. NDE is critical for material science research as it can pose less time and cost for investigation while preserving high cost fabricated materials.

Dr. Rodriguez has also been working on spearheading a new NASA ARC summer research program specifically geared to the Seven Sisters Colleges. The purpose of this program is to increase the number of female scientists and engineers in STEM fields across the NASA agency and at NASA headquarters by engaging the Seven Sister College community. She hopes to motivate women to consider a career at NASA and other governmental agencies. Dr. Rodriguez strives to educate and advocate for the need to have more women in the conversation and actively involved when developing the future of technology and engineering.

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