Above, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Diana Trujillo inspires female students to make their own dreams come true. 

More than 2,300 students from two dozen schools across L.A. Unified gathered recently at Francis Polytechnic Senior High School where they had the chance to interact with an all-female ensemble of NASA engineers and scientists.

“There are so many girls out there who have dreams of doing what I do now,” said Diana Trujillo, an immigrant from Bali, Colombia, who is now one of the lead aerospace engineers on the Mars Rover project. “They need role models. They need to see that no matter who you are or what you want to do in life, you can do it. Nobody can stop you.”


Click image to view a two-minute news brief on the Women in STEM event.


Trujillo was one of over a dozen female scientists and engineers who talked to students about their work on Mars Rover 2020, Juno Mission, robotic space exploration and other projects. Co-sponsored by the Division of Instruction and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the event was the first in what is anticipated to be an ongoing series in the District. Chief Academic Officer Dr. Frances Gipson addressed students during the opening session.

Francis Poly High Principal Ari Bennett and Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson demonstrate functions of a Mars Rover replica.

“I remember being in sixth grade and dreaming of becoming an astronaut, and nobody took me seriously,” she said. “I remember feeling defeated when I had trouble finding female role models. Well, that’s why we have all of these amazing role models here today. Students feel inspired to achieve their dreams no matter what they may be.”

Women in STEM began several years ago when a JPL business manager, Dennis Young, noticed stark differences in how people spoke to his son and daughter about their aspirations.

“People would offer my son Legos for building and talk about how smart he was,” he said. “Then they’d offer my daughter a Barbie doll and talk about how pretty she looked. This wasn’t right, especially since my daughter was the one who was more interested in Legos and building things.”

Young said he felt the need to increase exposure among young women to the reality he sees at JPL.

“You look at TV and movies, and they continue to perpetuate traditional stereotypes about what men and women should be,” he said. “These stereotypes don’t align with what I see in my work place every day.”

Young initially organized an event near his home in Santa Clarita, where 55 Girls Scouts had the opportunity to meet women working for JPL. The following year, he worked with the Hart Union High School District, and participation expanded to over 500 students. The event was held again the following year, and the number swelled to 1,100 students. This was the first year Young partnered with L.A. Unified, and the number of students doubled once more to over 2,300.

One of those students was Banning High School junior Vivana Gallardo.

“I can’t believe I get to meet women who are actually doing the kind of work that I want to do,” she said. “I want to study mechanical engineering and then go to work for JPL or SpaceX doing exactly what these women are doing. This is a dream come true.”

Banning High junior Viviana Gallardo takes a break between sessions at the District’s first Women in STEM event.

The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Gallardo expects to be the first in her family to graduate from college. She says she felt inspired hearing the stories of how women from many different places and backgrounds beat the odds to get the jobs they have now.

“What I see happening with these women is that they were persistent,” she said. “People had low expectations for them, but that didn’t stop them. They experienced failures along the way, but that didn’t stop them. It’s all about persistence, which is what it takes to become a successful engineer.”

Gallardo embodies the message articulated by Linda Del Cueto, superintendent of Local District Northeast, which includes Francis Polytechnic High.

“I remember years ago sitting in an auditorium like this one, and nobody was talking about women working as scientists,” she said. “That’s why today not only are we talking about women in STEM, students get to see and hear from these extraordinary women in STEM for themselves. We hope this helps students see what’s possible … that if they can think it, then they can do it, and it doesn’t matter which gender they are.”

Throughout the day, students moved about campus visiting workshops and exhibits, including a Mars Rover replica and a mobile planetarium where they learned about constellations.

The planetarium was a highlight for Branda Duenas, a sophomore from Hilda L. Solis Learning Academy, who wants to study forensic science at UC Irvine.

“I am so impressed at how these women saw opportunities and just went after what they wanted,” she said. “Being here today I am feeling like that’s a good thing, because these women ended up getting such great jobs and they have such great lives.”

Jasmine Florencio and Crystal Ferrand, both juniors at Sylmar Senior High School, also want to study to be scientists. Florencio aims to attend UC Berkeley as a pre-med major and Ferrand hopes to major in zoology at UC Davis. Having attended the Women in STEM event, both are now considering minors in astronomy.

High school students get an up-close-and-personal demonstration of how the Mars Rover works.

“Seeing the Rover robots in action was really cool,” Florencio said. “Before today, I had no idea there were so many women involved in getting these robots to Mars. And, many are women of color.”

Young indicated that it was deliberate to include engineers and scientists from as wide variety of backgrounds as possible and to show that there were many layers to their lives.

“We needed role models that students could relate to,” he said. “It was important that they see successful people who look just like they do and who have really rich and full lives.”

When Diana Trujillo walked onto the stage and greeted students in Spanish, the room erupted in loud cheers.

“As a Latina and an immigrant, I know what it means to be resourceful,” she said. “I grew up in a small town where there were more cows than people. Our culture was known for food and parties but not so much for space exploration. I got tired of hearing people tell me, ‘You can’t do this,’ so I decided to stop listening to them. I did what I needed to do to make my dreams come true.

“I am here today to let students know that I didn’t give up on my dream. I figured it out and am now living my dream. And, if I can do it then any of these students can do it too.”