Maria A. Pena-Guerrero

Mission Systems Scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute

And - Astrophysicist


Failure is part of the lesson. Do your best always. You will get there.

What do you do?

I am an astrophysicist. I work in the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), one of the four instruments that will be onboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This telescope will be launched to space on 2021, so stay tuned. Specifically, I am part of the team that is writing the code to calibrate NIRSpec for the very first time it is up and running in space. Another part of my job is to write a lot of code to make sure that the science data taken with NIRSpec during regular operation is processed correctly and accurately, so that it is ready for researchers all over the world to “do their thing”. I also get to do research, mostly in topics related to determining the chemical composition of the interstellar medium - that is all the gas and dust in between and surrounding stars and galaxies.

Why did you choose this field?

I was always very curious, like any child, but I always needed to understand why and how things worked the way they did and my mom always encouraged me to keep on asking questions and often explained things with a book, no shortcuts. Then, there was a total solar eclipse when I was about 10 years old and I was lucky enough to watch it with my grandfather. Seeing first-hand an event like that is something absolutely indescribable. In a matter of seconds, everything is in perspective: our place in the Universe, our size as humans with respect to the Moon and Earth and the Sun. It blew my mind that I saw the Moon passing in front of the Sun. I needed to know more and understand all the whys and hows I could think of. This led me to physics and astronomy. But I still think that I could have been happy studying any science. I just find it amazing to understand why and how things work the way they do.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Failing is part of the lesson. You do not need to be in the top of your class to know that this is what you want to do. Grades do very little after school is over. Grades just get you over the crossing line, the rest is all the other skills you learned or are willing and able to learn. Do your best always. You will get there.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I believe science leads the way. I know I am still an idealist, and most likely will always be, but this is something that keeps me going even on dark days when world politics get in the way. Our job is to push the boundaries of what we know. I believe that understanding why and how is more important than any other thing that gets in the way.

Best advice for next generation?

Do not be afraid to try things out. If making an instrument seems interesting, reach out and get involved. If it is medicine, chat with a medical doctor. If it is robotics, get your hands dirty. Go try it. It is the only true way to know if you like it or not or if you are passionate about it or not. And it is perfectly fine to learn if it is not what you like. Try something else. The road is not a straight line so take one step at a time. You will get there.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

My role model for the longest time was Jodie Foster in Contact. I loved the book and the film. During College, my role model became my thermodynamics professor, she was all that I wanted to become. As I grow older, I realize that my first and most important role model has been my mom. I want to be that for my kids.

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