Powtawche Valerino is mixed Mississippi Choctaw and African American Mechanical Engineer
Powtawche was on the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Reserve to her Choctaw Mother and African-American Father. She spent her early years on the reserve and was enrolled as a member of the tribe.
When she was ten her family moved to New Orleans. After watching the Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion on TV she became very interested in science and technology.
Powtawche studied and earned her Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. She would later earn her Masters and Doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from Rice University.
This made her the first Native American to earn a Ph.D. in engineering at Rice University.
It was a childhood dream for Valrino to obtain a graduate degree in engineering with an emphasis in space applications. Further motivated by her research experience in the NASA-Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (NASA-SHARP) and the NASA-Undergraduate Summer Research Program (NASA-USRP), she developed strong relationships with mentors who offered wonderful guidance and encouragement.
Valerino learned about the GEM fellowship from her undergraduate advisors at Stanford University. Knowing that she was fascinated by research and the space industry, her advisors felt GEM was a great opportunity for her. At GEM she gained industry experience while obtaining a graduate degree,
She worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA as a member of the Cassini Navigation team. Cassini is a spacecraft that is currently orbiting Saturn and its thirty moons. Scientists believe Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, resembles a primordial Earth. As such, the major objectives of the Cassini spacecraft are to study Titan, by use of the Huygens probe that descended onto Titan’s surface in 2004, and continuously observed Saturn, Titan, and other moons until the main mission ended in 2008.
As a member of the Cassini Navigation team, she was one of six maneuver analysts who designed and provided analysis on orbital trim maneuvers that allow the Cassini spacecraft to stay on its reference trajectory.
After 13 years on the Cassini project, she now works on the PArker Solar Probe spacecraft mission. This is scheduled for launch in the Summer of 2018.
Powtawche has worked to help recruit, and, encourage ethnic minorities to pursue careers in STEM. She also helped 21st Century Fox promote the 2017 film “Hidden Figures”.
According to her;
“Living on the reservation provided an environment that has encouraged my love for the outdoors as well as deep space, stars, and constellations. Since the reservation doesn’t have a lot of light pollution, I could observe the stars more than I could’ve in the city. Being on the reservation also helped me develop my respect for nature and my surroundings.”
On the advice to aspiring women on working at JPL, Valerino says;
“I recommend having a solid foundation in the academic field that you’re interested in pursuing. If you are interested in working at JPL, review all the different research topics conducted at JPL and read the most recent conference papers that have been published. You should become aware of the latest and greatest type of work that’s been completed within a technical group at JPL.
From there, you’ll be able to decide if you want to align your work interests with JPL’s activities. If there’s a good match, reach out to a HR recruiter or to any of the contacts in the research areas to see what work opportunities are available. Moreover, try to participate in one of the JPL summer programs, and make sure you have a mentor to help guide your career.”
On where she hopes her work will take her in ten years, Valerino avers;
“I hope that in 10 years, I would have continued my navigation work activities by supporting a number of missions.
I also enjoy volunteering in STEM outreach activities, so I regularly talk to a lot of students from different age levels about my work at JPL. I could easily see myself teaching a class during some point of my career.”
The Choctaw Indian Tribe lived in the American Southeast for about 1,800 years. They migrated from modern Mexico and Western-America and settled in the Mississippi River Valley area. This area included parts of present-day Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. They were a matriarchal society, meaning they placed importance on roles of women within the tribe and showed gender equality. Males served in leadership positions, but women were considered for input and advice. Males also joined the wife’s family at marriage and status in the tribe was generally earned by works that benefited the entire tribe.