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NASA's First Puerto Rican-born Director Aims for a Moonshot

Jillian Kramer
Ben Gallegos
July 15, 202010:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

The second flight Marla Pérez-Davis ever took lifted off in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and touched down on an August night in Cleveland, Ohio.

It sounds, by any account, like an unremarkable flight. But for Pérez-Davis, it marks an important vector, both literally and metaphorically: That flight brought her to NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where she worked for more than three decades before the administration would, in January of this year, name her the center’s director.

(The Puerto Rican native had never been to the United States before that flight in 1983. Her first flight, she tells Supercluster, brought her from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, where she celebrated her senior year of college with friends. Cleveland, she admits, was snowier than she expected.)

Pérez-Davis’ rise in NASA’s ranks comes as the administration plans to level the moon’s gender playing field — a parallel that is worth noting: Pérez-Davis, the first Puerto Rican-born director of any NASA center, will help ensure the first woman arrives safely on the surface of the moon.

In fact, Pérez-Davis’ promotion came just before the center began tests on Orion, the spacecraft that will take NASA’s next astronauts to the moon on its planned 2024 Artemis I mission.

“It's just re-writing books, right?” she says.

“Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, people are going to be reading about what we're doing today, the same way we read about Apollo.”

They’ll be reading about Pérez-Davis, too.


Foreign Affairs

Pérez-Davis grew up in Adjuntas, a town with fewer than 20,000 residents in the mountains of central northwest Puerto Rico. Her mother insisted Pérez-Davis and her two sisters get a good education. An education was something Pérez-Davis’s mother worked for herself, while raising three girls alone.

Pérez-Davis’ textbooks were often worn, faded, and missing pages, she recalls—but, “there was no negotiations with her [my mother] about education, having good grades, and always being very goal-driven,” Pérez-Davis says.

She continues, “[My mother] always said, ‘I cannot leave you anything, because I really don't have anything, but I can leave you with an education, and no one can take that from you.’”

When Pérez-Davis left home for the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, her mother moved to the city with her, along with her sisters. They were a strong unit, Pérez-Davis says, supporting one another and keeping each other focused on school. 

At an organized job fair during her senior year in college, Pérez-Davis met with NASA staff, who had attended the job fair for years in the hopes of recruiting students to its ranks. Impressed with her strong academics and fuel-related research, they offered her a job—the job that would take her to Glenn Research Center: conducting research into nickel-hydrogen batteries

Trigger Happy

At Glenn Research Center, Pérez-Davis has served as chief of the electrochemistry branch, chief of the project liaison and integration office, director of the aeronautics research office, and deputy director of the research and engineering directorate. And she’s won NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal and the prestigious Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executives. 

Most recently, Pérez-Davis served as Glenn Research Center’s deputy director, working with now retired Janet Kavandi. Even so, being promoted to its director wasn’t something she anticipated. “I never, never in my wildest dreams was expecting to be in this position,” she says. 

Something else Pérez-Davis says she never considered was the responsibility of being the first Puerto Rican-born director of any NASA center — and a female one at that. “I never thought about that until a friend of mine texted me and put it in writing, and suddenly I realized it,” she says. “For one second, I was so overwhelmed and it was so heavy, this weight.” But in the calm, Pérez-Davis thought, “You also have a great opportunity to really motivate others in what they can achieve,” she says. And that’s something Pérez-Davis has been doing for a long time, both working with students and faculty through NASA’s Administrator Fellowship Program, and throughout her career as she encouraged those she considers mentees to go after bigger goals.  

Mentoring is important to Pérez-Davis, in part, because it took her so long to be “comfortable in her own skin,” as she puts it. She speaks with a thick, beautiful accent that can, at times, make it challenging to understand her. It’s something she recognizes about herself—and something that, for many years, she worried over. Sometimes the bias was real, she says, and other times, it was something she perceived. “You become more defensive than anything else,” Pérez-Davis says. 

But, “you have to make sure that you know what your triggers are,” she says. “People are going to think what they are going to think. They have their own filters, their own bias. We all have that.” That perspective, Pérez-Davis says, allowed her to help herself and others. “Because with that, I became more inclusive, and able to listen more than trying to be ready to jump into something else. You have to listen first, and try to understand where people are coming from.” 

Getting Personal

Pérez-Davis is disciplined. Before the novel coronavirus swept the country and closed down gyms, Marla kept a dedicated work-out schedule.

The 58-year-oldwoke upat 5 a.m., five days a week for CrossFit.

And on weekends, Pérez-Davis biked through Cleveland’s Metroparks, something she enjoys especially in the fall, when she can see the changing colors of the leaves. The time outside allows her to relax, she says, “and kind of attune with my inner self, and also with the environment.” 

But Pérez-Davis also knows how to have fun. She loves to cook, and in the summer, she makes paella outside for her friends and two sons.

“Every summer everybody asks, ‘when are we going to have our paella get-together?’” she laughs, adding that means it must taste good.

With exercise, she enjoys the challenge. “You've got to know your abilities and your limits,” she says, “and then you have to tailor for that.” But cooking is therapeutic — “trying to mix things, and do things, and then the satisfaction when people start tasting things — and they go crazy.” she says. “I love that. It's very rewarding. It's kind of instant gratification.”

Jillian Kramer
Ben Gallegos
July 15, 202010:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)