By Samuel Sorkin
Photo Courtesy of Maryam GraciasMaryam Gracias is a rising senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, majoring in spaceflight operations with minors in flight, aviation safety and human factors. She is involved in her university’s SEDS chapter, the Embry-Riddle Future Space Explorers and Developers Society. Earlier this year, she was named as one of 36 inaugural Brooke Owens Fellows. The Fellowship, a volunteer-led program awarding internships and senior mentorship to exceptional undergraduate women seeking careers in aviation or space exploration, was founded in memoriam of space industry pioneer and pilot D. Brooke Owens.
How did you get interested in space?“I have always wanted to be an astronaut ever since I was a kid growing up in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. I still remember in elementary school, when our teacher asked us about our ambitions, I answered that I wanted to be an astronaut. He replied that I cannot be afraid of heights. Fast forward to my current life, I am working on making my dreams come true. I have been working on being a pilot in order to get my flight hours. My parents have been a huge driving force in supporting and encouraging me. I am very passionate about flying and having been pursuing this dream ever since elementary school!”
What interested you about SEDS and what do you enjoy about it?“I first heard about the SEDS chapter at Activities Fair on campus. The Activities Fair is held twice per year on campus, where all the organizations are showcased and talk to students who might be interested in becoming members. The chapter at my campus is called The Embry-Riddle Future Space Explorers and Developers Society. It is dedicated to providing hands-on experience in space exploration and related topics for students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. They have several hands-on projects, including Artemis, Pathfinder, Prometheus, and a National Association of Rocketry Certification workshop. They also have several research opportunities including water-based recovery systems, guided parachute recovery and more. It feels great to be working with incredible students who share the same passion as me. I am hoping to be more actively involved in the coming fall after my internship this summer with Air Line Pilots Association.”
How did you hear about the Brooke Owens Fellowship, and what was your multimedia project? Take us through the process of applying and learning that you were accepted.“I heard about the Brooke Owens Fellowship via the Student Success Coordinator Program on my campus. I am a non-U.S. citizen with permanent resident status, but sometimes it can get a little hectic while trying to apply for internships. Fortunately, the coordinators helped me secure not one but two internships – Delta Air Lines for Spring 2017, and the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, via Brooke Owens Fellowship Program for Summer 2017! I know their advice on resumes and cover letters really made a difference! When I first read all about the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program, I felt it was more than perfect for me. I felt so connected to the program that I just had to apply! The purpose of the program is so empowering and motivating to all the women in the aviation industry. I worked on my application and talked about my passion in the aviation industry. In my essay, I talked about myself and career goals. I did a video for my multimedia project, where I further explained about my future goals. After I was content with my application, I submitted it in December of 2016. A few days later, I receive an email stating that I had advanced to the phone interview stage. I was ecstatic, especially when I found out that I would be interviewing with Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA! NASA is basically my dream organization. I was so nervous, but the interview went great. I got back another email in January that I advanced to the final round, and I was matched with Air Line Pilots Association. Keith Hagy, ALPA’s director of engineering and air safety (E&AS), Collie, who is director of human resources, and Garver conducted the final interview. A few days later, I get THE email, the email that I’ve been waiting for! I was selected as a Brooke Owens Fellow and was paired with ALPA! I still remember Garver calling me to deliver the wonderful news, and my reaction by my family — PRICELESS! I remember being in tears after all the hard word and effort I put in — I was finally selected!”
What is the “space culture” like at your school? How have you played a role in it?“Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers a lot of degree programs that are related to space. Some of them include astronomy and astrophysics, space physics and spaceflight operations. My major is spaceflight operations, which is a multidisciplinary degree program that focuses on operations, safety, training, human factors, orbital mechanics, spacecraft subsystems and planning of commercial and private space operations. Students from this program [are] well-suited as program/project managers, flight directors or licensing personnel due to the exposure of direct coursework involving all aspects of the commercial space industry. At my university, I am a national member of the Spaceflight Sciences Policy and Operations Club and International Society of Air Safety Investigators and Women in Aviation International. I am an ambassador for Orientation Team and Career Services Student Program and co-coordinator for the Women’s Ambassador Program. I am also the president of National Society of Collegiate Scholars.”
Why is it important to you to have this fellowship for women specifically enthusiastic about the space industry and getting involved in it? Was there ever a time where you felt that because you’re female, people looked down on you or may not have given you a fair shot?“I am very passionate about the aviation and aerospace industry and dedicated to pursuing excellence in the field. I have been on the Embry-Riddle Dean’s List since my first semester and have been training hard towards being a pilot. My dream job is to be a pilot with a concentration in aviation safety. I was born and brought up in Dubai, UAE. Educating women is frowned upon in some part of the Middle East, and a career in such industries seems likely impossible. When my family and I first moved to America five years ago, I easily adapted to the American culture. My family has been very supportive since they strongly believe in education, especially for women. My mom is my biggest role model since she fought the stereotypes of women just being ‘house-wives.’ Including family members from both sides of my parents, my mom is the first and only graduate of my family from her generation. She paid for her college and earned her degree. When my parents brought me to America, they wanted me to dream big. Now, I am the first female and only member of the whole family ever involved in aviation, let alone striving to be a pilot.”
Who are your mentors? What does it mean to you that this fellowship not only comes with an internship, but with a mentor and a group of fellow talented, passionate, driven, enthusiastic women?“Paul Shawcross is one of my mentors from the fellowship program. He is the chief of the science and space branch in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. He lived in the United Kingdom, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Wisconsin and Boston as a child before attending MIT, where he eventually earned three degrees. After college, Paul worked at the National Research Council and at NASA. He has been involved in many space policy issues over the years, but is perhaps best known for authoring the White House response to a petition calling for the construction of a Death Star. I’m very excited that I got a great mentor. My second mentor is Karen Lacy. She is a first officer for ExpressJet Airlines, and an Executive Vice President and member of the executive council of the Air Line Pilots Association. Karen is the first female pilot to hold this elected position in the union’s 86-year history. She has taken on many other roles in her union and held many positions in the aviation industry including ramp agent for Trans States Airlines, an aeronautical chart maker for a Department of Defense contractor, a revenue management analyst for Continental Airlines, a flight instructor in Sugar Land, Texas, and a first officer for Envoy Airlines. She also spent several years as a computer programmer for Rice University. It was amazing to meet her! This Fellowship means EVERYTHING to me! It empowers women and helps us step into the aviation industry with confidence and determination. I have no doubt that the other Fellows will be successful in the future as well.”
During the summer, the Brooke Owens Fellows spent time in Washington, D.C., where they attended the Future Space Leaders Conference, had the chance to meet astronauts and industry executives, and were together in person for the first time.
The Brooke Owens Fellows in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy of Maryam Gracias
What were your highlights from spending time in Washington, D.C.?“Making new friends with all of the ‘Brookies’ and celebrating my birthday with them! I know I made many lifetime friends this summer. I was so excited to meet them all! One of my favorite moments was meeting Pamela Melroy, one of the most awesome and powerful women in the aerospace industry, and a personal role model. She is a former NASA astronaut, and I am so blessed that I got to meet her (and take a selfie). Pamela is such a true inspiration.”
Maryam meets her role model, former astronaut Pamela Melroy. Photo Courtesy of Maryam Gracias