Yes, sometimes I believe there is a perception that to be admitted to a school like MIT and land a dream job at NASA you must be a genius. Or that there is a recipe for "success" that, if followed, will produce the perfect candidate for these institutions. The reality is that behind the good grades and success there have always been sleepless nights and rejections. Social media often shines light on the positives in our lives but talking about our failures and missteps is a good reminder that at the end of the day we are all only human. I never thought working for NASA possible. Work in space? No one I knew was doing anything close. It felt out of reach, unattainable. And once I got to college and decided to study aerospace engineering, it suddenly became a possibility. So you can imagine my disappointment when I applied to be an intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab —the dream job for my burgeoning love of space — and got rejected. And not just once, but twice. I never landed the internship and part of me was ready to accept that I would never be good enough for a place like JPL. But the other part of me I was ready to fight for my dream. Believe in myself, be confident. Keep trying and never give up. Well, I didn’t give up and look how far I've come.
Do not be afraid to take chances. I always grew up a big fan of fiction. I read the Harry Potter books, played games like Zelda and Pokemon and loved anything fantasy. I realized that a common theme of these stories is that the hero must always make a choice to start their adventure. Harry decided to go to the Wizarding World with Hagrid even though the prospect of getting on a flying motorcycle to learn magic with a giant he had never met before may have terrified him. Ash decided to leave his home to pursue his dream of becoming Pokemon master even though his first Pokemon, Pikachu refused to get in the ball, the most basic skill of a trainer! If you don’t pick up the sword in your own story because you are afraid of what may happen next, you risk not having a story at all and instead falling into the background, watching the Harry and Ashes of the world live their dreams. Applying to your dream college or job can be nerve-wracking. What if you are rejected? What if you are not good enough? We allow potential negative outcomes to drive our decisions when the positives and possibilities could be our inspiration. What if you get in? What if you are good enough? The sky is truly the limit when we believe in ourselves. Do not be the roadblock to your own dreams. Take a chance on you.
The best part about working in space is that you can’t do it alone. I remember feeling terrified on my first day of work. I am driving to the lab and pass a sign that says “Next Exit NASA JPL”. I immediately start having thoughts of regret — what will I do when they find out I am not as smart as they think I am? The panic followed me through orientation and on my way to meet my team. I arrive to a desk with “Welcome Janelle” written on the white board and a team of friendly faces waiting to greet me. Little did I know how these people would change my life. The Cassini mission to Saturn was my welcome to JPL. Some of the people on the team had been working on the mission for longer than I had been alive, but they still treated me as one of their own. I was given the opportunity to operate the cameras that would capture breathtaking images of the planet, its rings and its moons. And when the Cassini spacecraft had run out of fuel and the Grand Finale began, I quickly learned that it was not just the end of the mission that we were gearing up for, but the end of a team and its legacy. And while Cassini will be remembered for its historic contributions to space exploration, what I will remember it for is the team it brought together.
I am most passionate about giving back to the community I came from. Since moving to California I have immersed myself in outreach. Locally, I am involved in the Glendale and Pasadena YWCA where I get to advise STEAM programming for girls from disadvantaged background. I also speak at schools and universities about my journey to JPL and how it all started with a nondescript pamphlet in the mail (true story). I have earned a few technical awards in my time at JPL, but by far my most meaningful one is the Bruce Murray award, which was given for, “inspiring students to engage in STEM, quenching their thirst for knowledge, and sparking a curiosity greater than the stars in the sky”. I am a strong believer in contributing to the future that I want to see, and that future is more accessible, more inclusive, and more diverse. Increasing the diversity of STEM fields can feel like a daunting task, but every step in the right direction truly does make a difference and should be celebrated. There is nothing like giving a student the boost of confidence or inspiration they need to realize that they are capable of achieving their dreams.
The most exciting and fulfilling part of the my job is that I am able to work on projects that benefit humanity. When people think of the space industry they picture Mars rovers, probes to the sun, and the outer reaches of our solar system. What they may not imagine is the great body of work being done to study our own home — Earth. Working on missions like the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, which will measure particulate matter in cities around the globe, will allow us to do epidemiology studies to determine what types of pollutants are causing human health issues. To be able to come to work each day and know that my contributions are helping to protect our planet make me incredibly grateful to have my job. As a member of the SCUBA diving community, there is a natural urge to protect the oceans and ecosystems we are able to explore so peacefully on a dive. I am thankful to have a job that allows me to commit myself to that responsibility.
Janelle Wellons graduated with her B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is currently working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an instrument operations systems engineer. She has won various team and individual awards in her time there, with the most recent being the JPL Bruce Murray Award for “inspiring students to engage in STEM, quenching their thirst for knowledge, and sparking a curiosity greater than the stars in the sky”.
Her job consists of planning, generating, and validating the commands to operate scientific instruments in-flight, as well as monitoring their health and safety. She also works to develop instrument ground data systems and concepts to be used in operations. Her current projects consist of the Earth observing Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, Sentinel-6, and SWOT, the Moon observing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and and the now ended Cassini mission to Saturn. Additionally, she serves as the President of the Black Excellence Strategic Team, one of JPL’s Employee Resource Groups.
She spends her free time doing outreach for communities traditionally underrepresented in STEM through various organizations such as the Glendale and Pasadena YWCAs, Los Angeles County Engaging Girls in STEM, NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars along with classroom and conference visits for K-12 through university. When she isn’t working, you can find her scuba diving, cosplaying, reading, traveling, playing video games, and enjoying the outdoors.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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