From strawberry fields in California to space travel to Mars

Diana Albarrán-Chicas, MIT ’04, MITES ‘04 Head Resident Counselor, ’03 Teaching Assistant, and SEED ’04 Teaching Assistant, was keynote speaker on Day 1 of the 2020 MOSTEC Virtual Final Symposium. She shared her interpretation of this year’s OEOP theme “Redefine Possible,” and how she has embraced this theme throughout her career to become an MIT student, engineer, and aerospace professional currently leading efforts enabling space travel to Mars.

Diana Albarrán-Chicas’, MIT ’04, was born in Mexico and immigrated to the US with her parents when she was 5 years old. Her parents had only gone to school through third grade and worked in strawberry fields. She still remembers waking up at 4 a.m. on cold Saturday mornings to go with them, and wait in back of their truck because they couldn’t afford a babysitter.

Today, Albarrán-Chicas is Director, Cost and Schedule and Director, Internal Research & Development in Space Programs Delivery at Maxar, where she leads efforts for space travel to Mars, and is working on a planned space station in lunar orbit that will serve as a science laboratory and short-term habitation module for rovers and other robots.  There are 27 spacecraft in orbit that Albarrán-Chicas has helped launch, and one even has her initials carved into it.

“It’s very cool work that I never thought that somebody that immigrated to the U.S. when they were 5 would be able to do,” she said to scholars during her keynote presentation at the MOSTEC 2020 Virtual Final Symposium. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that your dreams or aspirations are too grand, because you and you alone are the only one able to redefine what’s possible in your life.”


Journeying into STEM

While Albarrán-Chicas’ parents had only finished third grade in elementary school, they knew the importance of a strong education, and emphasized that should be her number one priority. For a few years, she jumped from school to school, following her parents work. At a young age she became her family’s official translator, and by the time she was 10 she was managing the family checkbook, negotiating car loans and mortgages. “There was a lot of growing up that I had to do as a young kid, and … this is by no means a unique story. This has applied to many first-generation immigrant families whose aspirations are to have a better life,” she said.

By middle school, Albarrán-Chicas transitioned out of English as a Second Language courses and began taking advanced math and science courses, putting her on track for Advanced Placement classes in high school. But it wasn’t until her junior year in high school, that she learned about careers in engineering. “I thought I wanted to go into architecture, because I was always very curious and really enjoyed doing things with my hands,” she said. Through academic outreach programs in California, she was exposed to engineering and other fields she didn’t know existed.

Soon after, her high-school counselor approached her and suggested that she apply to MIT. “This is how much I knew about MIT at the time: it sounded a lot like a trade school, and my response was ‘I want to go to a four-year university,” she remembered. With the support of her counselor and teachers who saw a lot of promise in her, she completed her application in two weeks, and was admitted to MIT. “It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of talking to my parents and explaining to them what this big move meant.”


Building a diverse network

College was a new reality for Albarrán-Chicas, and she didn’t have a strong network of people who had gone to college that could help her. So, she relied on friends and peer mentoring for support. “There was a lot of peer mentoring between the people I went to college with, and we helped each other out.”

As she developed mentoring relationships with professors and advisors, she realized that she needed to learn to build networks with people that she felt she had very little in common with. “I had to actually try to nurture a relationship beyond assuming that people will not understand me because of economic, racial, ethnic, or political differences,” she said.

As an aerospace professional she has found a similar experience. “Many of my current mentors now are white men or white women, and what I have found is that by not making any assumptions, I have found true mentorship and sponsorship conversations,” she said.

Mentorship relationships take time, and start by reaching out and demonstrating interest in other people’s roles, she advised students.


Keeping an open mind and asking for help

Albarrán-Chicas asked students to keep an open mind while navigating a career in science and engineering. “In college I expected to focus on chip design in electrical engineering, but I actually ended up in a career in aerospace,” she said. “I challenge you to keep an open mind, ask for help when you need it, and realize that maybe your career doesn’t exist yet.”

She encouraged students to think about what fields spark some sort of passion, explore different subjects, and connect with people whose careers sound interesting. “There are a lot of instructors that have impressive careers – send them a message and ask them to explain a little bit more of what they do and how they got there.”

“Explore different subjects, and connect with people whose career sounds interesting,” she advised scholars. “That’s the value of having a great network and I can almost assure you that many of us have ended up in a completely different field than what we had initially planned.”

Then, there is no such thing as an uninformed question, she said. Institutionalized issues in academia and the corporate world can make it difficult for people of color to ask for help or feel like they belong, said Albarrán-Chicas. To overcome this, she suggested reframing the experience: “We’ve been invited to play a game where we’ve only been told half of the rules, so we need to ask other people what the other half of the rules are and realize we don’t know some things because the rules haven’t been explained – not because we are not capable or not know how to do things.”