“Find what you are interested in doing and find what you want to pursue. After 20 years I am still passionate about what I do.”
Dr. Zainab Nagin Cox is one of the leading scientists involved in NASA’s mission to explore Mars. Nagin graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering and a BA in Psychology and was commissioned as an officer in the US Air Force. She worked in F-16 Aircrew Training and received a Master’s degree in Space Operations Systems Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. As a captain, she served as an Orbital Analyst at NORAD/Space Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs. In 1993,she joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and has since served as a systems engineer and manager on multiple interplanetary robotic missions including NASA/JPL’s Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Exploration Rover Missions and the Kepler telescope mission to search for earth-like planets around other stars. She is currently on the mission operations team for Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover.
ITGirls team had the chance to meet this inspirational woman in April this year, when she visited Sarajevo. Dr. Cox revealed to us how NASA uses Computer programming to explore space, but also how she personally feels about coding.
When did you decide you wanted to be in the space industry and how did you go for it?
I knew that I wanted to work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on interplanetary, robotic missions when I was 14. Growing up in a ‘religiously restrictive’ household made me think: “Why can’t I do what boys do?” And so, I started exploring to find something that brings people together instead of dividing them. When I was a little girl, Star Wars and Star Trek were extremely popular. For a while, I wanted to do something related to science fiction, but then I realized there’s a real space programme and that was something that one could be involved in, but it was also about something peaceful and for the whole of humankind. I wanted to do something for all the humanity, so I set my mind on becoming a space engineer.
What do coders do in NASA? What is the connection between space operations and writing a code?
The rovers that travel to space are computers you make do what you’d like them to do. The interesting thing about writing a code for space ships is that the code is far away. We don’t write the shiniest, fanciest codes, that’s not the goal. The goal is an understandable, reliable code that does what you want it to do efficiently. Writing code for rockets, for space ships, is more about working with other software developers, so that your code interfaces with what other people write. I don’t need a coder who is going to sit in their office and never talk to anyone. The new coders are the ones that can communicate, have social skills, write good code and are modest enough to understand that that code needs to be well-tested, reliable, and – here’s one that’s always tough – they need to be decent writers. You need to be able to document your code. Some of the space missions last for number of years, it’s important that the coders are able to write down what the code does, in case there’s a bug and the developer is not available at the moment.
What is unique about your job?
I start every day by looking at new images from Mars that most humans have never seen. Also, I wear two watches on my wrist – one showing the Earth time and one showing the time on Mars.
What would be your message to inspire young girls to pursue a career in coding?
Girls are already interested but the key is to keep them from thinking “that’s not feminine, that’s not girly“. One of the things that I have noticed about coding and apps is that there is almost a set of products that are about how to write a code that enables you to have a better system for organizing your jewelry, or a code that will turn a bar in your closet so all your dresses show up. These things show that coding is also used for what is ‘traditionally’ considered feminine projects. What I want to say is, just find what you are interested in doing and find what you want to pursue. After 20 years I am still passionate about what I do.