Influential Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in STEM

May 20, 2022

May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and the Capitology blog is celebrating by highlighting some of the most influential modern day AAPI members involved in STEM. NASA has recognized a myriad of such members, all of whom deserve to be recognized and honored for their achievements. The several we’ve featured are just a few of the countless AAPI contributors to STEM.

1. Paromita Mitra

Paromita Mitra is the Principal Investigator for the Joint Augmented Reality Visual Informatics System project. She plays an integral role to the “Artemis Generation,” helping to design the space suit in which the first woman of color will traverse the moon.

Mitra is a stark advocate for diversity in STEM, saying “We need a diverse population of people solving those problems, so that we can make sure that when we create engineering systems for the future of our world, we have everybody in mind.”

2. Amila Cooray

Amila Cooray is a Mechatronics Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using various technology skills to maintain and upgrade the auto guided systems for NASA’s equipment. Cooray is also a prominent member of the LGBTQ community, open to answering any questions that his supportive coworkers may have.

“I don’t know if I ever thought in my early life that I would be out at work, be trans, and be the go-to resource person for anyone who has questions about what it means to be trans, what is gender, what are pronouns, and how do you use them. I try to keep an open mind and meet people where they’re at, regardless of what they think of me, knowing that they’ve come to me trying to learn something.”

3. Harsha Rayapati

Harsha Rayapati is an Aerospace Engineer for the Marshall Space Flight Center. He is currently helping to create the Space Launch System (SLS), set to be the most powerful NASA rocket ever built, allowing more weight to be carried longer distances for more fuel efficient deep space missions.

“[When] I was in 11th grade[,] I found out that a first-generation Indian immigrant was on that mission named Kalpana Chawla. Like me, she was born and raised in India. She came to the United States to do her masters and then joined Ames Research Center as an aerospace engineer, then became an astronaut. So in my mind, it solidified that there was a path for someone like me to make it to NASA… My work will be on [the SLS] when it flies and this will bring my childhood dream to fruition.”

4. Patrick Chai

Patrick Chai is the lead assessor for In-Space Transportation and Mars Architecture, ensuring the best possible conditions to create the most successful flight possible. With the help of a coding partner, he was able to create an all-new trajectory system that optimized fuel vs. distance.

“What my mentors taught me, and what I would offer to early career professionals in any industry, is to work on developing your confidence. Finding your voice can be daunting early in your career. Being able to say, ‘hey I have a different idea,’ and having the analysis to back it up can literally change the course of history! There will still be people who question everything and that’s a good thing—you also have to embrace critics and find common ground with them.”

5. QuynhGiao Nguyen

QuynhGiao Nguyen is the head of High Temperature and Durable Materials, working hard to make the items and structures that flights and astronauts need to make it through the atmosphere and function in the outreaches of space. She has consistently developed newer and better materials throughout her over a quarter century long career at NASA.

“We work with so many smart people. The obstacles will be overcome. We will achieve our goal. During training, we learn that when failure comes into play, it’s due to human responses. It’s the soft touch which makes or breaks a project. I try to be that glue or conduit, ensuring not only that the research portfolio is healthy, but the team is healthy as well. Mentally, physically, financially healthy — so that we’re balanced.”

There are thousands of AAPI people who have made invaluable contributions to STEM. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, take some time to explore the many AAPI individuals both past and present who have influenced the STEM world.

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