In celebration of National Hispanic / Latinx Heritage Month, Sept. 15 - Oct. 15, we recognize Wyant College alumnae, Dr. Margaret Dominguez (MS, 2014 & PhD, 2019). Today, Dr. Margaret Dominguez is the lead optics engineer for the Roman Space Telescope Wide Field Instrument Grism component for NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, MD.
Please tell us who you are in less than 20 words.
I am an optical engineer who loves to build/work on space telescopes, which help enhance our understanding of the universe!
What and/or who influenced your academic and career choice for optics/photonics?
I was born and raised in Mexico, which is where I completed my undergraduate degree in physics, at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla. When I was there, I volunteered to help organize a physics conference. One of the invited speakers was a NASA astrophysicist, Dr. Jonathan Gardner. During his visit, he asked me if I would like to do a summer internship at NASA. Being born and raised on a pig farm in Mexico I had never even considered working at NASA, so I was very excited at the opportunity. I applied, was accepted, and ended up being placed in the Optics branch at NASA Goddard. I immediately fell in love with optics and decided I wanted to learn as much as I could about optical engineering. My boss back then was an OSC alumnus and recommended I apply there. That same year, I finished my undergraduate degree in Mexico and applied to the PhD program at OSC.
Please tell us about your career path, including your position today?
After a few years at OSC and after completing the prelim exam, I decided I wanted to finish my PhD program remotely while working full-time at NASA. I spoke with my adviser and proposed to him the idea of working full-time at Goddard with my work there being on a project suitable for a doctoral dissertation. He agreed (being a little wary that I might not finish as most of the people he had known to work full time during their PhD did not finish) and so I left Tucson. Finding a topic took a while but what took even longer was finding the time to work on it with all my other job responsibilities. However, during that time, I was able to learn so much; I even became a National Institute of Standards and Technology associate. That allowed me the opportunity to work at their Maryland campus and I got certified to work in the NIST Center for Nano Scale Science and Technology. During my time as an intern at NASA, while still enrolled at OSC, I was able to work in different NASA optics groups: design, components, fabrication, alignment, integration and testing, they all gave me the chance of learning different software and hardware. All the skills I learned as an intern, PhD student and full-time engineer have allowed me to have the job I have today as the optics lead for the Roman Space Telescope Wide Field Instrument Grism component.
WiO, the ambassadors, Newman Center and SACNAS all gave me a support network, where, in some places, I was able to speak Spanish and celebrate Mexican traditions, which was comforting, especially during high stress times, like prelims.
During your time at OSC as a student, what resource(s) did you most appreciate? What would you have wished to be available at that time?
During my time at OSC I was very involved with WiO (Women in Optics) and the OSC ambassadors. Both efforts allowed me to do a great deal of outreach and I loved every moment of it! I also really enjoyed Industrial Affiliates, being able to network with hiring managers and other professionals in the field was a wonderful resource and learning opportunity for students as they prepare to enter the workforce. I hope students at OSC still use all of the resources the college offers, especially on professional development.
I also really have great memories of office hours with many professors: Mansuripur, Greivenkamp, Binder, Jones, Milster, Kupinski, to name a few. I especially remember Jim Burge and DaeWook Kim, my co-advisers for my thesis who gave me great advice. All great professors, who made being at OSC a wonderful opportunity.
What advice would you offer current optics students and early-career professionals? (in particular as related to your experience as an Hispanic student and early-career professional, yourself)
During my time at OSC I was involved with organizations outside the college, such as SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) and the Newman Center. I think that all of these organizations together were instrumental to my success at OSC. When I arrived in Tucson I had only ever lived with my parents (or near them) in Mexico. I had never studied in the US and even though I had learned English in Mexico, I was not very comfortable speaking it, reading nor writing it. WiO, the ambassadors, Newman Center and SACNAS all gave me a support network, where, in some places, I was able to speak Spanish and celebrate Mexican traditions, which was comforting, especially during high stress times, like prelims. I recommend students look for their own network, so they can provide themselves with a support group, which is instrumental during challenging times, especially if they are far from home. This way they can still maintain that connection to their heritage all while still focusing on being great optical engineers/ scientists.
Finally, I encourage the students to ask for help when they need it. I know it might sound obvious, but it can be intimidating, especially when you think other students are thriving and you seem to be struggling (in reality we are all struggling at different times, but some are better at hiding it). So do not be afraid to ask for help, more often than not, people are willing to help!