To Explain the Universe

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| This is the 493rd story of Our Life Logs |


There are three things I know to be true in this world.

  1. My name is Margaret.
  2. I could eat avocados until I was sick.
  3. If uninterrupted, I could talk to you about optics (which is the study of light and its properties) for the rest of my life.

Now, I won’t, of course. That would be ridiculous and we both have places to be. But I know I could. Here’s why:

Section Break-Mountains

1 | She Let Me Explore

After preparatoria, my father left Mexico to study business in the United States. That’s where he met my mother who was studying accounting. My mother didn’t know Spanish, or where Tecamachalco, Puebla, Mexico, was even located, but when they fell in love and wanted to begin their lives together, she moved to where my father was from. Years later in 1986, they had the first of their four daughters (ME).

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With my sisters (I’m on the top right), 2009.

I love my mother. She knew I observed the world differently—at least differently than my sisters. She told me stories of when she used to walk into our kitchen (while I was supposed to be washing the dishes) and see the way I observed the way the tiny waterfalls of the sink’s faucet would propagate. Instead of chiding me, she let me explore.

My mother didn’t know the grammar, Mexican geography, Mexican history, and had never been a fan of math in school, but she was so attentive in helping me with my homework. In fact, she sat alongside me and together we scribbled numbers and letters on scrap paper. As I learned, she did too. And because I didn’t have to take it on by myself, I think I was able to be more confident about what I was learning.

During my first years in middle school, I took a class in pre-algebra and another in the introduction to chemistry and physics. When math changed from strictly numbers to numbers and variables, I remember thinking how cool, numbers didn’t have to be restricted to just being a number. They could be a letter or whatever it wanted. “A” could mean -3 or infinity, and you would never know until you solved the equation. I remember thinking, wow, that is just so awesome.

Section Break-Mountains

2 | Physics Explains the Universe

I took physics for the first time in high school and loved it. I continued exploring numbers during the day and getting into all sorts of extracurriculars during the evenings. Everything was so smooth, really, until I made the decision not to go into business as my father had before me. Instead, I was set to study physics at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla in Mexico.

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One the things I love to do is dancing. That’s me (above) during a performance with a local troupe, 2001.

You know, families are different in different places. In Mexico, it’s understood that, even if you go to a far-off place for school or training, you’ll find your way back home. My small community was very family-oriented, and it was expected of me that I would simply step into a role at my father’s business. That’s just how it worked. But my father saw science in a very romantic way. I love that about him. “Physics explains the universe,” he would say. My father used to tell me that I have the mind to be and do whatever I wanted—which was really powerful. He did not push his dreams into my own. Instead, he encouraged me to ask the universe questions with numbers and variables.

And like my father, my mother always said, “I want to be selfish and have you near me, but that’s not fair.” I am so thankful that they let me explore. So, in 2004, I went to Universidad, like many do, and continued to develop a passion for science. But wait—there’s more!

Section Break-Mountains

3 | That Was the Easy Part

In 2007, we (students from the physics department) organized an international physics conference and one of the speakers was a scientist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA. I remember asking a lot of questions (maybe too many) that day. Eventually, this man looked at me and said, “Have you ever thought about an internship at NASA?” and I said, “No!”

No one had ever told me that I didn’t have the skills to work at NASA, but I had never wondered about this as being one of my options. I’m from a small town in Mexico (remember?), and while I grew up with confidence and curiosities and dreams, NASA was for “other people.” But this small conversation with a man I had just met led me to believe in something new. Maybe it is possible for me.

After that conference, I applied and was accepted. That was the easy part.

Section Break-Mountains

4 | A Person Can Fall in Love

In the summer of 2008, I began as an intern at NASA Goddard as part of the SESI (Science and Engineering Student Internship) program. Each day, I woke up early, swallowed a cup of tea, and began poking my way around the Assembly, Integration, and Testing Group in the optics branch. I didn’t have the biggest brain there, but I think I made an impression on the senior engineers and scientists because I asked. So. Many. Dang. Questions. I wanted to understand everything. How does this work? Why do we do this in this way and not in that way? What is the purpose of this, that, and the other thing? In that time, I learned that if knowledge is “king,” then curiosity is “emperor.” The more you want to know, the more you get to know. It was an amazing experience.

Ok, friends, this is where the next chapter of my story begins.

I realized that a person can fall in love with science. So, I had always enjoyed science (obviously), but learning about optical metrology was so…fun. I got along with the optics team so well, and when they heard that there was an opening in the Cooperative Program (COOP), I was encouraged to apply.

The thing is, as my school year in Mexico inched closer to graduation, I realized that there were very few universities that offered a graduate degree in optical engineering. The best place I could find was in the United States, in Arizona.

Whenever you make a move like that, it’s always challenging. But it was the only move I wanted to make. It was the only place where my dreams made sense and my questions could be answered. So, in 2010, I went to grad school at the University of Arizona because they gave me a fully-funded fellowship.

Of course, I was in a new country and didn’t know anybody. I’d been speaking English ever since I could form words (thanks to my mother), but the pop culture references and slang made it difficult for me to make friends at first. Thankfully, I found a couple of people who, despite my constant questions, were able to laugh with me throughout my master’s and doctoral program in sunny Arizona.

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In the lab (one of my favorite places to be).

Section Break-Mountains

5 | Another Failure

At the end of my Ph.D. program, I had to take the comprehensive exam. Essentially, it’s an exam that every doctoral student has to pass in order to lay claim to the expertise they have obtained in their respective field. Some are taken orally, some written, some both; generally, they span the course of multiple days to complete.

The first time I prepared for the exam by studying 8-10 hours every day for about two months. And I failed it. Don’t sweat it, Margaret. I told myself that this was common—which was true; about half of all test takers fail the comprehensive exam first time. When they offered the exam months later, I studied for more than 10 hours every day for about three months. But when the mail came, it was harder to make excuses. It was undeniable. Another failure.

It really is something to have your passion halted like that. Especially when the circumstances seem to point to you as the weak spot in the equation. But after a conversation (and quick emotional breakdown) with my advisor, we decided that I would try one last time.

Cue a season of nothing but eating, breathing, studying, and waving away the doubt. This was no time for notecards that didn’t leave a long-lasting impression. But as the days fused together, I began to lose weight and I even developed this horrible twitch in my eye from the stress (and yes, there was a brief moment of oh-no-what-if-my-face-is-like-this-forever). My body and mind could only exist as a vehicle for knowledge and all necessary functions that would sustain said vehicle for knowledge.

Section Break-Mountains

6 | Time’s Up

Did I pass? Want to guess?

Time’s up. The answer is YES.

I was on the phone with my husband (then boyfriend) when I broke the envelope’s seal and began crying uncontrollably. I passed with higher scores than I had even expected and it would be an understatement to say that I was HAPPY.

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Yes, that is me and my husband at our wedding reception. And yes, I did do an optics demonstration with prism diffraction grating glasses. Yes, each of our guests got prism diffraction grating glasses as their wedding favor. Cool, huh??

Section Break-Mountains

7 | So That, Together, We Can Understand Each Other and Our Universe

Fast forward a few years.

These days, I work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as an optical engineer (which means I spend most of my time in a lab working on really cool projects). I’ve worked on spectroscopic measurements on witness samples that were collected from the Hubble Space Telescope. Now, I’m working on the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a space telescope that will be 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope’s successor. Hubble will still be floating around up there, but WFIRST will inherit the bulk of the business, so to speak. It’s awesome. And it’s HUGE. I’m specifically building the grism (grating prism) instrument, a slitless spectrograph onboard the telescope which will survey emission-line galaxies when it launches in 2025 (that year looks very futuristic, I know, but it’ll be here before we know it 😊). I’m so excited because WFIRST will allow us to look at more of the universe, to see the stars that sit behind the ones we’ve come to know.

When I’m not in the lab or spending time with my husband, I do outreach. I want to be the person who asks the question, “Have you ever thought about an internship at NASA?” to a student who, like me, had never before considered the opportunity. Because I was able to navigate my early education and confidence with my mother and father who held my hands as I scribbled and cried and celebrated my learning, I believe that I have a duty to somehow do the same for others. And, most importantly, I have a duty to share my story (with all its bruises and band-aids) so that, together, we can understand each other and our universe (with all its bruises and band-aids too).

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Me during an outreach demonstration with (you know what these are!) diffraction grating glasses.

 

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This is the story of Dr. Margaret Dominguez

Dr. Dominguez is from Tecamachalco, Puebla, Mexico, and now works in Greenbelt Maryland as an optical engineer for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She grew up in a small town with parents who encouraged her to explore her curiosities. Eventually, Margaret moved to the United States to study physics and optical science at the University of Arizona. Even with all the bumps along the way, Margaret loves her job at NASA and has been working there since 2008 (when she began her internship). She was selected to be a TECNOLOchica and a Latina SciGirl, these programs are funded by PBS, NSF, Univision network and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). These are initiatives designed to raise awareness among young Latinas and their families in museums, science centers, and schools about opportunities and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She has been invited to give talks in the United States, Mexico, Spain (she was invited to give a talk there in the beginning of 2020) and Peru to share her passion for science and technology and to help recruit more people in these fields. She is a STEM advisory board member at the Children’s Science Center at Fairfax Virginia.

Margaret enjoys traveling and when she is not at NASA, she teaches Jazzercise (dance fitness exercise), watches movies and goes for walks with her husband, who is also an optical engineer at NASA Goddard. Margaret also loves to travel and has visited 20 different countries (so far!). For each new place she goes, Margaret makes sure to buy a mug or a magnet as a token to remember her time there.

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Margaret at TEDxUDLAP, 2016.

To learn more about Margaret’s work, visit her TEDx Talk:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-pMRTgoPzM

 

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This story first touched our hearts on January 9, 2020.

| Writer: Colleen Walker | With special thanks to Dr. Margaret Dominguez |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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