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Dr Dragana Perkovic Martin, Technical Group Supervisor And Radar System Engineer At NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Business Of Inspiration

It is the morning of February 18th 2021. We are gathered in the virtual meeting room while being physically dispersed around Southern California. We’ve been working from home for almost a year and have mostly interacted through video meetings. This certainly wasn’t the way I’d imagined Mars landing day. What I had imagined is fear and hope, as well as the success of landing, but also sharing these feelings with other people in the same physical space

Iguess a lot of my life hasn’t turned out exactly as I imagined it would… Growing up in Belgrade, I was a shy child, but I eventually found my voice through a drama club in primary school. This was the first time I felt I could overcome the fear of speaking up – I was acting, after all. Realising that one can overcome fears and internal obstacles was a pretty big revelation at that age. It paved the way for some of the choices I made later and likely got me to where I am today.

Moving from Belgrade to Malta, and ultimately to the U.S., thrust me into unexpected situations and provided me with a wealth of diverse friendships and professional relationships that I enjoy to this day. Being surrounded by people of different cultures and backgrounds who I could learn from has become invaluable to my development. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a melting pot of experts from around the world. It is enjoyable to know that you can find answers to almost any question by walking a few doors down the hall. At the same time, it is scary to realise how little you know and how many smarter people surround you.

This type of environment enables missions like Mars 2020, with its Perseverance rover. When we are presented with a problem, we forget the differences that exist between us and concentrate solely on figuring out how to solve the problem in the most efficient way.

The Mars 2020 mission came up and I was offered the lead role on the landing radar system engineering team. I doubted my abilities at the time, but I also knew that opportunities like this don’t come around often, so I jumped at it. Seven plus years later, we successfully landed using the information provided by the radar

Being a woman in engineering teaches you that you must have a voice, and a strong one. I was always in a minority through my undergraduate studies, and even more so through my doctorate. However, I never allowed myself to feel small or insignificant; I was able to persevere through the hard times when my colleagues did not understand my struggles. When it comes to the JPL, the ratio has changed for the better, and here one needs strength and perseverance to earn the trust of peers and mentors.

Upon starting my career at JPL, I had the luck of being able to work with and look up to successful women engineers. Their stories, experiences and conversations inspired me to take on bigger challenges, some that I didn’t necessarily think I was capable of handling. I dared to start dreaming of getting to where they are, and even further. The Mars 2020 mission came up and I was offered the lead role on the landing radar system engineering team. I doubted my abilities at the time, but I also knew that opportunities like this don’t come around often, so I jumped at it. Seven plus years later, we successfully landed using the information provided by the radar and I found myself celebrating with the team in a virtual room, with my family by my side.

Next up, hopefully, is a mission to Venus, to discover the truth about the planet that started its life much like our beloved Earth. The VERITAS mission is led by amazing women scientists and engineers and I cannot wait to embark on this new journey with them, and to challenge myself once again. I pride myself on being in the business of inspiration.

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