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Blacks in STEM Interview Series: Interview with NASA’s STEM Coordinator

April 16, 2021 New Classrooms

Continuing our interview series on Blacks in STEM, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Circle spoke with John Dedeaux Davis of NASA on his influences and overall experiences. New Classrooms is taking Black History Month to highlight the contributions and accomplishments of Black people working in science, technology, engineering, and math. See our first feature for an interview with Mikeal Vaughn, Founder and Executive Director of Urban Coders Guild, a non-profit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that provides underrepresented and underserved communities with STEM education. In our second feature, Kenya Carter talks about how broad a field STEM really is, and how much she relies on her science and math knowledge as she works in fashion and hairstyling. Read our interview with John Dedeaux Davis to hear how he began working for NASA and what keeps him inspired.

NC: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this; I really appreciate you lending your perspective to this interview series. I know that you work for NASA, but for this particular interview, I am not asking you to represent NASA, per se, but I’d like to know about your overall experience as a Black man working in a STEM profession. Tell me how you got started. 

JDD: Even as a young child, I was always interested in flight, aircraft, and celestial bodies. I’ve always been that way, so working, now, at NASA within the Office of STEM Engagement seemed like an inevitable part of my journey because of my passion for space and exploration. 

NC: Cool. There are so many movies about space and NASA, even cartoons, so I am sure that many students of all ages know about it. I am interested in what type of background you needed in order to get started within this field. 

JDD: I worked for about 14 years as a Science teacher. I taught robotics and pre-engineering design. I even served as the Chess Club sponsor at one time! But after a while, I was looking for something a little bit different than being in the classroom, but my passion was always around Science education. So I wanted to make sure that I stuck close to that, so I went back to school and received my masters degree in STEM Curriculum & Instruction. From there, it just seemed like the gates opened, and I ended up at NASA as a STEM Education Coordinator.

NC: What an interesting journey from the classroom to NASA! With the path that you have taken to where you are now, I am sure that you have noted that African Americans are often underrepresented within STEM careers. Given that, I am wondering if you believe that representation matters within this industry and your reasoning behind why it does or does not matter.

JDD: I would say that it absolutely matters. I am in my third year of my PhD program, which is currently focused on issues of equity. And in that, I am very interested in studying underrepresented groups, typically Black and Brown students and the underlying factors as to why many of them choose not to enter into STEM majors. I believe that often many people don’t go into certain careers or don’t chase their dreams and, instead, settle for other careers or goals because they don’t see others who look like them doing that. So, yes, representation matters. I have even felt this as a STEM professional at NASA. When I first arrived, one of the managers approached me, probably because of the look of excitement on my face, and said, “Yeah, you look like you’ve found your tribe.” And he was right. I had. All of the so-called nerdy things that other people would poke fun at were suddenly cool amongst my colleagues. So even that sort of representation matters–the idea that the way that you think, the way that you dream, is celebrated and represented in your career–that also matters.

NC: I love how you broadened the scope of representation within that answer. You mentioned finding your tribe. I am also wondering who were your inspirations within this field?

JDD: This is a very interesting question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question, so my answer might sound a bit non-traditional. I would say that George Lucas and the Star Wars franchise really influenced me as a kid. As I said earlier, I was always intrigued by space and loved things that could fly…even paper airplanes. They were always exciting to watch. So even though I knew that Star Wars was fantasy, it made me think more about space and what was or could be possible. I would also say that my parents, though they did not choose to enter into STEM professions, they were very interested, personally, in Science. And I believe that their fondness for Science influenced my sister and I to go towards STEM-based careers.  So all of those things strongly impacted my path into STEM.

NC: So many people credit their parents with helping to shape their career paths. I always find that interesting because I think it likely has to do with the messages, spoken and unspoken, that parents send their children. To that point, I’d like to know what messages you would like to provide to other, younger African Americans looking to get into this field.

JDD: I would say that this field is wide open, so you don’t have to limit yourself to what you think a traditional STEM professional would have to do. You don’t have to be an engineer to work at NASA. They hire people from accountants to food scientists. You just have to be passionate about the work. This reminds me of something that my undergraduate Physics professor told me. It’s a message that many people have heard from a mentor type. He said that if you find something that you’re passionate about, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. That would be my advice. Follow your passion because that will lead to your purpose, which will always feed you, so you won’t feel starved from work. Instead, you will feel empowered.

NC: Alright! Well I feel empowered after hearing that–very sound advice. One last thing. When they write your life story, what do you want them to say about you.

JDD: I want to be remembered as someone who cared about the well-being of others.

NC: That’s awesome! I appreciate you and all that you do. Thanks again for sitting down with me for this interview, and best wishes to you and your work.