Meet The 22-Year-Old Rocket Scientist Who Rejects Impostor Syndrome

Estimated reading time ~ 7 min

While it requires hard work, succeeding in your career isn’t exactly rocket science. Unless, of course, you’re an actual rocket scientist. Though she hasn’t even graduated college yet, MIT senior Tiera Guinn has already been working with aerospace company Boeing and their partner NASA for two years.

And people around the country are beginning to take notice. Inspired by the film Hidden Figures, which focuses on the under-credited Black female engineers responsible for launching the first U.S. astronaut into orbit, Birmingham’s local Fox news team included Guinn in a broadcast segment on the modern-day “hidden figures” of NASA. Word of the bright, confident and amiable wunderkind took off, and Guinn’s story was soon featured in publications like Essence and The Huffington Post.

“I still have trouble believing it,” Guinn admits. “If I start to type my name into a search engine, it just pops up without me even having to put in my last name. That is very surreal for me.” Well, Tiera, it’s about to get just a little bit more surreal for you, because we’re going to add one more article to your page of Google results. Glassdoor’s Emily Moore was lucky enough to chat with Guinn recently about her career path thus far, impostor syndrome, diversity in the STEM field, and how she plans to help get mankind to Mars within the next decade.

Glassdoor: You said that “One day I saw a plane fly by, and I just had this realization, ‘huh, I can design planes. I’m going to be an aerospace engineer.’” It’s pretty amazing to have figured this out at such a young age — what made you stick with it? Did you ever doubt yourself along the way?

Tiera Guinn: Since about the age of 5 or 6, I had a passion for a bunch of positions in the STEM field — I wanted to be an architect, or an inventor, or a scientist, or a mathematician. It only continued to expand, especially when I learned the fundamentals of engineering applications and concepts. And learning about that as well as aerospace history and the future, going to Mars… all of those things came together as an interest in aerospace engineering. It was quite steady, actually. Even in middle school, I would go to summer camps that catered to aerospace engineering, and the high school that I chose had an intro to aerospace engineering course so I continued to stick to it. One thing that I was a bit confused about was what exactly I wanted to do as an aerospace engineer because I didn’t fully realize how broad of a field it actually is. Now, though, I’m doing design and analysis.

Glassdoor: You’ve cited your mom as a very influential figure in your life. What impact has she had on your career? Is there anyone else who has played a big part as a role model or a mentor?

Tiera Guinn: I’ve always had many mentors in my life, and I feel really blessed for that. With my mom, in particular, she was a major in mathematics in college and now she’s an accountant. Growing up, she’d always be the one to really teach me the fundamentals of mathematics, why it’s important for everyday life, and how I can benefit from learning about it. My father also had a huge impact. He’s a construction worker, so he’d teach me about the actual application of mathematics in regards to measuring various objects or calculating the area around the house, or anything of that sort. It was kind of like Mens et Manus [Mind and Hand], the motto of MIT. And, of course, there were also the teachers and professors that I’ve had along the way. The one who taught the engineering courses I mentioned at my high school has been a huge influence — he really taught me about all of the different fields of engineering and how I could pursue my particular dream. And even moving on from that, I’ve had many mentors in regards to spiritual mentors, my mentor at NASA Goddard, my mentor at Boeing… it goes on and on. I have a plethora of mentors that I value so, so much.

Glassdoor: As an MIT student, you’re surrounded by the best and the brightest. Have you ever faced impostor syndrome? If so, what’s helped keep it in check?

Tiera Guinn: I’ve always had confidence because my parents have built it in me in regards to my academic strength, but once I got here it was definitely humbling. I’m among the most brilliant engineering minds in the world at MIT — even from the first time I stepped on the campus, I had to question, “do I actually belong here?” But I realized that I had to believe in myself and open my own doors before anyone could open a door for or believe in me. After I found that out, that’s when I really started to just go ahead and go for it.

You’re not the smartest person in the room here, and you probably won’t ever be for any class that you take, but you need to realize that you have strengths in areas others don’t. You can’t compare yourself to someone who’s not you because at the end of the day, you are who you are and you have the capabilities that you have. You’re the only one who can promote growth in yourself, and that’s what I had to tell myself coming in here.

Glassdoor: How did you start working at Boeing and NASA? What’s the coolest thing you’ve worked on there so far?

Tiera Guinn: Boeing came to MIT for a career fair in the fall of my sophomore year in 2014. I was talking to a representative, and we just connected. Of course, we talked about academics, but we also talked on the level of understanding the person that I am, because that’s what Boeing looks for. I had an interview the day after, and from there it was history.

I ended up going to Boeing Huntsville starting off in research and technology, then, in the summer of 2016, I entered the SLS [Space Launch Systems] program, which is NASA’s program that Boeing supports, and I’ve been working there part-time ever since. The Space Launch System is the largest, most powerful rocket in history — it spans over 300 feet tall and it’s a monster. The mission is to discover what’s on Mars and beyond with humans eventually. And when I say eventually, I don’t mean in the next century. I mean in the next decade, or even the next few years or so. With all of the satellites and the rovers we’ve put out, it’s very possible.

Glassdoor: What’s been the biggest triumph of your career so far? What about your biggest challenge?

Tiera Guinn: The biggest triumph has been working on the program itself, in particular the exploration upper stage, which is part of the next phase of the Space Launch System. It’s a very powerful propulsion system — it would go into the deeper part of space. Just having the ability to work on something so powerful that’s going to get us so far away is so magical because there are so many things yet to be discovered there.

The most challenging thing has been that there’s a steep learning curve. The work I do is not easy, of course. It’s rocket science [laughs]. It’s been pretty challenging — as far as structural analysis, I still consider myself to be a beginner in it. I’m still learning and trying to develop and grow so that one day I can be a technical lead or even as far as a CEO. But I’m just taking each challenge one day at a time and growing from it.

Glassdoor: It’s no secret that women (and particular women of color) are underrepresented in STEM fields. What do you think needs to change in order to increase that representation? What would you say to young women who are interested in following in your footsteps?

Tiera Guinn: I would say promoting diversity within the company. That’s what many companies have been doing, but it has to be even greater with more representation at each level — not just the entry level, but also as high as those executive positions, including CEOs and CTOs.

I would tell young women to not give up. There are going to be plenty of challenges and there’s no use getting stuck on them, because if they do, they’ll just be hindering themselves from achieving their dream. I’d tell them to go ahead and define their goal and just continue to reach for it and never retract back.

Glassdoor: You recently got to meet Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book that Hidden Figures was based on. How exactly did that opportunity come about, and what was it like for you? Did you see the movie and if so, what did you think of it?

Tiera Guinn: MIT hosted a screening of Hidden Figures back in December, and she was there to have a Q&A session with all of the students following the movie. As I was on my way outside of the theater to go and grab a copy of the book (because I didn’t get it before the movie), I ran into her prepping for the Q&A, and of course, I had to speak to her! I was the biggest fangirl, telling her how excited and thankful I was that she discovered this story that’s been hidden for over half a century. We took a picture together and I cried — it was a beautiful moment, because she really has exposed a truth that many of us did not know.

Glassdoor: What do you think the future holds for you? Is there any one type of project or field you want to work on in particular?

Tiera Guinn: Immediately after graduation, I’m getting married in July to a fellow rocket scientist. Then in August, I’ll be working full-time as a rocket structural design and analysis engineer, and moving on from there I definitely want to start a nonprofit organization to reach youth who are low-income and low-motivation. [I want] to promote the betterment of the younger generation, whether they want to do STEM or any other field that they’re interested in. There are so many brilliant minds out there that have yet to be molded and groomed to their fullest potential.

This post is by Emily Moore and originally appeared on Glassdoor. It has been lightly edited and republished here with permission.

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