silhouette and night sky

They say if you reach for the stars, you might just become one.

In Moogega Cooper’s case, that’s exactly what happened. Her perseverance and passion to change the world pushed her to the top of the space exploration field, where she’s blazing trails as a real-life “Guardian of the Galaxy.” 

Cooper, sometimes referred to as Dr. Moo, is a planetary protection engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She’s responsible for keeping Mars safe from Earth’s contaminants. But her main mission is to share the world of STEM with students, especially those in underrepresented communities, and empower them to achieve their dreams. She will serve as the keynote speaker at the ASCE Virtual 2021 Convention, Oct. 6-8.

She spoke recently with Civil Engineering Source about her journey:

Civil Engineering Source: What sparked your interest in STEM, particularly in the male-dominated field of space exploration?

Moogega Cooper: Funny that you mentioned it’s a male-dominated field [because] it was a man who inspired me; that man was Carl Sagan and his show Cosmos. When I was in middle school, I was not very good at math and science. It wasn’t until I saw Cosmos that I realized there are so many things we don’t understand beyond our own planet, even on our planet.

There were two scenes that stuck out to me. In one, he was on a bicycle holding a ribbon with several zeroes showing how long a number a googolplex was. And it made me think, “Why are people thinking about things at such a large scale that they need to invent numbers this big?”

In another scene, he had an elastic blanket and an orb in the middle, representing the sun. He also had a smaller, marble-like object that he flung onto the fabric, and it spun toward the sun-like object. It illustrated the gravitational wells and gravitational pull that bodies have on one another. I thought, “This is so easy. It’s physics, it’s astrophysics but he makes it sound so easy.”

From there, I decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist and an astronaut as soon as humanly possible. So I did science fair projects and took summer courses to speed up the process. I remember, while I was in high school, taking precalculus at a community college, so that when I started college at 16, I had all the right prerequisites to start my bachelor’s degree in physics.

Source: What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Cooper: In general, the most difficult challenge I’ve had is overcoming perceptions of others. As someone who tries to keep a very positive outlook, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt because I kind of have this list [of questions] in my mind: Did they say that because I’m young? Did they say that because I’m a young woman? Did they say that because I’m a young Black woman? Or do I really need to improve this? And I default to, “I really need to improve this,” unless there are glaring signs that it’s something else.

There were times when I’ve confirmed it was the fact that I was a Black woman and certain disparaging comments were made. But otherwise, I try not to find out. I try to focus on the parts I can improve to move forward and stay in that positive light.

The reason why I like focusing on talking to middle school and high school students is because that was the time I was really changing – growing my love of science and still gaining my confidence. I was just a little kid who had a goal, but I thought, “Who am I? Who am I to want to become an astrophysicist?”

In high school, there were guidance counselors who used to say, “Well, I don’t see why she’s that smart. She’s trying to go to college early? I don’t know about that.” I didn’t hear this firsthand. This is what I heard through the grapevine, which I don’t trust too much.

But the fact is there are kids who are trying to make these crucial decisions in that middle school and high school timeframe. That’s kind of what shaped me. That was a pivotal moment of, “You know what? There may be people who doubt me, and maybe I doubt myself, but I deserve at least the ability to try. I can do it; I’ll work hard and one of these days they’ll see I’ve made it.” Even to this day, I wonder if they see any of the articles or hear any updates [about me].

But thinking back on those moments when adults have a big influence and impact in a kid’s life, I would say to them, “Make sure you remember how big your words are to these kids.”

Source: Your closing keynote for the ASCE 2021 Convention is titled “Limitless.” What does it mean to be “limitless?”

Cooper: There are times in your life where others try to set limits for you, [and] you sometimes tend to set limits for yourself. There was a point in time when I thought to myself, “Somebody is going to do this job. Someone is going to be tasked with understanding where our place is in the universe. So why can’t that be me?” That’s why you work hard, you blaze your path, you blaze your trail.

I wanted to spread the awareness that a lot of times when you have limits – sometimes they’re self-imposed, sometimes they’re imposed by others – there are ways to break through them. So I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in how to recognize what those limits are and discover the tools to break through those limits.

One thing I tell students, and it’s the same thing I’ll discuss in this “Limitless” talk, is to surround yourself with people you trust and to lean on your team. That team can be your parents, your friends, other mentors within your school – teachers, guidance counselors. Find people who have a grip on what you want to do, what your passion is, and can objectively tell you when you’re wrong in a situation. They don’t have to be supportive in a positive way, they can be supportive by telling you what their perception of the reality is to help keep you in check too. Find those people who really want to see that mission success, which is the successes in your life for you to achieve your goals, and lean on them, especially in times of trouble.

Source: Do you have any advice for those who feel like they don’t have a support system or team they can rely on?

Cooper: Not everybody has a stable household. Even the household I grew up in was fairly toxic. What helped me, and what I recommend to others who may not have someone who has their best interest at heart, is to find your own space. It may not be another person. It could be the library, stories, books, or other creative solutions.

You can find examples of who you aspire to be. If you look up to Carl Sagan, then read about his life, what he did. You don’t have to necessarily talk to these mentors to garner information from them. There are a lot of biographies. Find the people you wish were in your circle, whether in the past or the present, and read up about them. Learn lessons from them because they’ve probably gone through similar situations.

When I talk to kids who may not have anyone they trust, especially those where you know their situation is much more difficult, I mention that in the household I grew up in, my parents divorced when I was young, there was domestic violence, there were all kinds of things happening. And there are times when it might seem bleak but understanding that you are a part of something larger gives you a little bit of hope to get through that situation and have more control of your life. Not everybody grows up in an easy household. And I want those kids who maybe come from broken families, or who are going through a lot of horrible things in their life, to still care and see that this is something that might help shift their lives.

Source: How can engineers and those in related fields empower young students – especially girls –to pursue a career in STEM?

Cooper: I had the same conversation with an astronaut, and she noticed that a lot of young girls tended to gravitate toward medicine because they felt they could change the world by making lives better. But if you use your discipline and say, “I’m a civil engineer. I make these bridges and roads so that they’re safe,” you’ll save lives in a sense. Doing your job correctly has a positive impact on society.

Translating the purpose of what you do and why you’re doing it will reach kids, young girls, young women, to say “It’s bigger than just doing XYZ, assembling, or building something.”

As kids go through their life, they’ll experience all types of scenarios that’ll help shape them. But I feel like I have a duty and an obligation to go to schools, to spend time with kids, and share what I do and some fun things that’ll hopefully get them interested in, not specifically what I do, but something in STEM.

I think it’s every engineer’s duty to at least reach out to one school, give one talk, do something that’ll change one child’s mind to think, “there’s something else bigger than my current situation, than this school I’m in and the classes I’m taking.” I think if every engineer did that, this world will be a better place.

I was fortunate as I was going through my science communication journey. I like speaking to schools, mostly informally. But because I was on a show called King of the Nerds, Curtis Armstrong, one of the hosts, took me under his wing. That’s how I received the offer to speak on How the Universe Works. That led me to being on Bill Nye Saves the World.

One thing always leads to another. That’s one bit of advice I got from one of the co-writers from Cosmos – Gentry Lee, who is now a colleague. He said, “You have to trust your opportunity sensor. If you feel like there’s something out there that you want to take a risk on, trust that opportunity sensor. Make that leap. Who knows what it could lead to?”

Learn more about the ASCE Virtual 2021 Convention and register today.