How this young scientist overcame doubt and worry—and why she believes anything is possible.
Posted in , Dec 26, 2017
One thing I do a lot of, as a structural analysis engineer working at Boeing for NASA, is perform calculations to verify the strength and durability of parts for the Space Launch System. Because women—and in particular, women of color—are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, I’m often asked about my own strength and durability, my own trajectory. How did I get here? How did I become a rocket scientist?
I guess you could say it all started in the grocery store.
When I was a little girl, growing up outside Atlanta, I looked forward to Saturdays. Mom, Dad, my brother, my sister and I would get up early and go grocery shopping, but never to just one market. My mom was an accountant, and she saw finding the best deals as both a mathematical and spiritual imperative. As she explained it, God expects us to be good stewards, and therefore, we should spend our money the wisest way possible.
Mom studied the store circulars for sales and clipped coupons, tucking them in our organizer. We’d go from store to store, finding the best deal on each item on our shopping list. “Tiera, I need you to calculate how much we are going to save,” she’d tell me. She’d noticed early on how much I liked puzzles and Legos, so she saw these grocery trips as a learning exercise. I’d figure out in my head the sale price of each item, minus the coupon, plus the tax, keeping a running total as we walked up and down the aisles.
Dad took care of pushing the cart. Even though he was a construction worker and got up every morning at four or five to work, he never sent Mom, my siblings and me to the store without him so he could sleep in. Mom had been Dad’s high school sweetheart, and he never stopped seeing her that way. He just wanted to be wherever she was. Grocery shopping on Saturdays wasn’t a chore; it was special family time for the five of us.
When we got to the register, I’d give the exact total. My parents wouldn’t gape in amazement and announce to everyone in the store what their daughter could do. They’d just say, “That’s great, Tiera. Try it again at the next store.” That was Mom and Dad: not really cheering me on as much as pushing me forward. It worked. I fell in love with math at age six, and my confidence in my abilities grew.
As I got older, life got busier. You name it, I did it. Every day, Dad would pick me up from school and take me to music lessons (piano, saxophone, violin, xylophone) or athletics (softball, dance team, jump rope club).
Sundays were for church. I learned my Bible verses, taught Sunday school to the little kids with Mom and helped with plays and a dance ministry. I liked being active, and I wanted to do absolutely everything. In fourth grade, I wanted to be a scientist, a mathematician, an inventor and an architect!
I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to become all of these things I dreamed of. Mom taught me how important mathematics is for everyday life; Dad taught me other practical applications—measuring objects, calculating the square footage of different rooms in our house. One day, I saw a plane fly by and the thought struck me, I can design planes! I told my parents, and they’d sign me up for aerospace engineering or robotics camps in the summer.
But despite my success and the positive reinforcement my family and friends gave me, in middle school I started doubting myself. Could I really do all the things I wanted? Could I really grow up to be whatever I put my mind to? Elementary school had been fun—I’d even had Mom pack a math activity book in my backpack in case I ran out of work at school. But my middle school’s gifted program was much more rigorous. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed.
Whenever she sensed me doubting myself, Mom would have me recite one of our favorite Bible verses, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I believe God put mentors along my path to do just that, strengthen me academically, mentally, spiritually. My middle school science teacher, Mr. Newsome, was one of them. He pulled out my creativity and taught me to be solution-oriented. He kept animals in his classroom—snakes, birds, tarantulas—and really opened my mind and made science fun.
Once, in eighth grade, I was asked to give a speech. I was terrified. Dad said, “Never give up, never give in, never give out. Tiera, I want you to remember that as you take all these hard classes. In high school, in college and in your career, there’s no reason to ever give up.”
I got through the speech, and I tried to hang on to Dad’s advice and the promise of Philippians 4:13. But high school was even harder—and not just academically. I was terribly self-conscious about my skin. I’d had severe eczema all my life, and as a little girl, I hated to play outside: I was embarrassed to wear shorts or short sleeves in the Georgia heat because of the spots and scars on my arms and legs. The other kids called me Cheetah Print.
I’d never minded being called a nerd; I knew my nerdiness would help me become something someday, but when boys told me I had the ugliest legs they’d ever seen, that stung. Mom did her best to make me feel better. “Those boys are doing you a big favor,” she told me. “Someday, you’ll find the one who will love every piece of you, and these boys are saving you time by showing you they are not the one!”
I went to a magnet school that specialized in science, math and technology. Academics were more challenging than ever. I kept reading my Bible and putting my trust in God. Sometimes you can get so lost in your own mind that you forget there’s something greater than you. I’d pray, “Lord, I am giving myself to you, releasing myself to you, submitting myself to you.”
I had to remember that I couldn’t control everything, that my plans might not be his. And God sent people to lift me up. When I was preparing to take my AP Calculus exam, I was so stressed. My engineering teacher, Mr. Williams, reminded me, “Tiera, you can do this. Don’t waste your energy worrying. Use that energy to prepare for the exam.”
Getting into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my dream school, was a joyous experience. It was also humbling to be among the most brilliant engineering minds in the world. At first I wondered, Do I really belong here? Then I realized that even though I might not be the smartest person in the room—and I probably never would be for any class I took at MIT—I still had my own God-given strengths to bring to the table. I had to believe in myself before anyone could believe in me. That meant going for it even if I might fail.
Once again God brought people into my life to help me develop my strengths. Take structural mechanics, for example—which is a make-or-break course for engineering majors. I was struggling. So was everyone else. Professor Radovitzky stepped in to lead the class and talked through our questions with us. Even though this man had a full load of his own classes to teach, he took us on too. How could I let him down?
I pushed through my studies. I also did internships, including one at Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama, in the summer of 2015. That’s where I met Myron Fletcher, a rocket propulsion engineer. He was the one Mom had told me about all those years before. No, she hadn’t known Myron personally, but she’d told me that the right one would love every part of me, spots and all. Turns out, that person was Myron. Like me, he loves the Lord and rocket science. Like Dad does with Mom, Myron always wants the best for me. We fell in love.
When my internship ended and I went back to MIT, we stayed committed long-distance, doing daily joint devotions, growing closer to each other and to God. The summer of 2017 was a big one for us. Myron graduated from Duke in May with a master’s in engineering management. I graduated from MIT in June with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering. And in July, we married at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center here in Huntsville, under the Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the moon.
Now I’m part of NASA’s Space Launch System, working with a group of rocket scientists—including my own husband—toward the next great frontier in space: sending humans to Mars. How did I get here?
There are so many variables that influence a person’s trajectory. God has blessed me with incredible mentors who have helped me make the most of my abilities and soar, starting with my parents at the grocery store. The biggest obstacles I’ve faced have been my own doubts. But like my dad taught me, I won’t give up, give in or give out. Can we make it to Mars and even beyond? I believe we can. I believe that, with a firm foundation, all things are possible.
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