NCCS Celebrates National Hispanic American Heritage Month

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Left image: Clockwise, from top left: Max Guillén; André Avelino Paniagua; Ramón Ramírez-Liñán; Carlos Cruz; Jarrett Cohen (Martinez); and Jordan Caraballo-Vega. Right image: NASA-inspired school children from the Artemis Generation and New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (center) celebrate the New Horizons spacecraft’s closest flyby of the Kuiper Belt object known as Arrokoth (Powhatan/Algonquian for ‘sky’). The group celebrated the farthest rendezvous of a spacecraft and a celestial object in history on Jan. 1, 2019. Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA.

A computer scientist inspired by a chef. A computational mathematician inspired by an astronaut. A mechanical engineer inspired by a high school English teacher. These are only hints of the diversity within NASA, within Hispanic America, and in particular, within the Hispanic American NASA staff featured here. These unique individuals represent only a fraction of the hundreds of dedicated Hispanic Americans whose wide-ranging talents and key contributions continually help NASA achieve mission success. By presenting their stories, we honor and celebrate National Hispanic American Heritage Month and the impact and diversity of six staff members with Hispanic American heritage making history within the larger NASA story.

The people and ideas that inspired these NASA staff to get involved with science are unique. The countries and cultures in which each person was born and raised are diverse. Each path they used to get to NASA is totally distinct, and they have chosen to study and ultimately to specialize in a wide range of fields. What all of these staff have in common, beyond their shared yet diverse Hispanic heritage, is their dedication and joy in helping support and accelerate science using the agile, continually evolving resources of the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

André Avelino Paniagua in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Hometown: I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, but my hometown is Bayamón, Puerto Rico. I spent most of my childhood in Illinois, Louisiana, and Virginia Beach, Virginia. My father was in the Navy, so we moved around for about 12 years, and now I am back in Bayamón.

A Google Earth view of the location of André’s hometown, Bayamón.

What was your career path to NASA? I attended the Inter-American University campus in Bayamón to complete a bachelor’s degree in computer science. I’ve been in the Information Technology (IT) field for 10 years. I started out in user services, then I moved into Unix system administration. Before joining NASA in mid-2021, I moved into DevOps.

[Editor’s note: According to Amazon Web Services, DevOps is “the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that increases an organization’s ability to deliver applications and services at high velocity: evolving and improving products at a faster pace than organizations using traditional software development and infrastructure management processes. DevOps is a model in which development and operations teams are no longer siloed. These two teams are merged into a single team where engineers work across the entire application lifecycle, from development and test to deployment to operations, and develop a range of skills not limited to a single function.”]

What is your current role at NASA? My role is to help manage Amazon Web Services (AWS) IT infrastructure resources in the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) Science-Managed Cloud Environment (SMCE). These resources are used by NASA scientists to conduct research.

How has NCCS supported your research/career? NCCS is providing me with the ability to apply and build upon my IT skills in a useful way, allowing me to use my ideas and creativity and collaborate with a great group of people.

What especially inspires you? It inspires me to know that the research and the work that’s being done at NASA makes a real and tangible impact for people. For example, the aerosols from Saharan dust storms that plague Puerto Rico on a yearly basis are tracked at the University of Puerto Rico campus in San Juan by using several NASA tools and sensors. I was definitely inspired by the famous and beloved baseball player Roberto Clemente. I actually had a chance to meet his widow for a school project I did on Roberto Clemente. I'm super grateful she was so down-to-earth and gave a kid like me the time to talk to her for that so many years ago.

This animation shows the path of aerosols in the Saharan dust plume from June 15-25, 2020, created from the Suomi NPP OMPS aerosol index. Scientists at the University of Puerto Rico use an array of NASA tools and sensors to track aerosols – which can include liquids, gases, bacteria, viruses, and volcanic ashes, in addition to dust — and warn people on the island when the air quality will be bad. Credits: NASA/NOAA/Colin Seftor.

Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? After college, I worked with several talented and hard-working people in Puerto Rico who have marked and guided my career. For example, several years ago, back in the capital city of San Juan, I worked with a colleague in my first professional job during college, Iván Pérez. Iván became an influential role model and encouraging mentor for me, and I noticed how diverse he was in the IT field. Iván showed me, perhaps without knowing it, that I can and should expand and grow in the field as much as possible and that I was capable of development, system administration, and networking.

I was not a programmer before working with Iván and had no real interest in programming at that time. But while working with him, I saw that it was a useful skill to learn, even if one wasn't necessarily a professional developer. I intentionally broadened and enhanced my IT skills and experience because Iván showed me what is possible in my field if one continually learns new things.

After the company that Iván and I worked for started downsizing, I was left unemployed. Iván hired me for a few projects in his side business. That experience motivated me to keep working in the IT field, since my mentor considered me good enough to work for him. As a new person in the field, that was very encouraging. I also copied his “lifelong learner” behavior in my future endeavors. After that experience, I started to learn about programming. In future positions, I was able to apply my those new skills and develop tools that my coworkers found useful. That motivated me to expand my skillset even further. I probably wouldn't be at NASA today without Ivan’s influence.

What challenges have you had to overcome? I’ve had to overcome financial obstacles and limited job opportunities here on the island. But each challenge has been a valuable learning experience.

How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage? I would suggest that the technology sector actively scouts the raw talent in the Hispanic community that is waiting to be found and developed.

Is there anything else that you would like to mention? In the few months I’ve been working with NASA, this has been, by far, my most pleasant and fulfilling work experience. I appreciate the quality of the people I work with here at NASA.

Hometown: I was born and raised in the mountains of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, the historic “City of Sugar” located on the southeast part of the island.

Career path: I studied computational mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Humacao. My classes were taught in Spanish, but my books were all written in English. In my freshman year of college, I became a NASA Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) scholar. After that, I worked for the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) as an intern, and later as a subcontractor. In 2020, I converted to the civil service via NASA’s Pathways Program.

A Google Earth image of the mountains of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.

An aerial view of the UPR campus in Humacao. Photograph by Zeuss universal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Current role: At NCCS, I help accelerate and support the research of NASA scientists by working on the development of artificial intelligence, IT security, and high-performance computing software.

How has NCCS supported your research/career? My professional career outside of academia started, and continues at, NCCS. Many aspects of my career would not have been possible without their support, which includes providing career advice, funding, and a wide network of colleagues.

What especially inspires you? I am inspired by the fact that our work at NASA can be used to improve human lives and to better understand and preserve Earth, while also inspiring current and upcoming generations. This motivates me to continue the hard work that we do at NCCS.

Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? Yes. I met astronaut Joe Acabá during a school trip when I was a teenager. Since that day, Joe’s story and career path has been of great impact in many of my personal and professional decisions. For example, Joe mentioned that there were opportunities for minority students online, and encouraged us to search for them and apply. I applied to the MUREP scholarship when I was in my senior year of high school.

Joe also inspired me to participate in extracurricular activities to practice how to teach STEM-related topics to non-technical people. So, in Puerto Rico, I volunteered at “Nanodays” by organizing research talks and symposiums, providing assistance to new students, and teaching material science and computer science topics to K-12 students. I also participated in a program called “TechnoBoomers,” teaching non-technical people how to use computers and cell phones. I often get invited back to my university, UPR, and to NASA panels here on the mainland to talk about my education and experience and how I got to NASA. My most recent volunteer outreach experience involved serving on the NASA Goddard Early Career Network’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) panel.

[Editor’s note: The inspirational science and math teacher-turned-astronaut Joe Acabá was the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to be named as a NASA astronaut candidate. Acabá taught one year of high school science at Melbourne High School, Florida, and four years of middle school math and science at Dunnellon Middle School, Florida. As an astronaut, Acabá has logged a total of 306 days in space on three flights, first as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-119 mission in 2009 and twice aboard the International Space Station (ISS) during Expeditions 53/54 in 2018. He was recently selected as an Artemis Program astronaut, which will bring crews back to the Moon for scientific discovery, exploration, and inspiration for the Artemis Generation.]

Above: In this image, NASA astronaut, Expedition 53/54 Flight Engineer, and former teacher Joe Acabá holds a children’s book about planets from aboard the International Space Station (ISS). As part of NASA's Story Time From Space STEM outreach program, astronauts read a STEM-related book aloud and demonstrate simple science concepts and experiments for students aboard the ISS.

What challenges have you had to overcome? My entire college degree and early professional career has been full of challenges: college strikes, hurricanes, earthquakes, huge political instability, and now the pandemic. These experiences have significance for me — they taught me the value of life and Earth’s resources and the importance of access to education.

How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage? Always be open to humbly share your experience and knowledge with individuals of all ages, and in all forums. In many cases, information does not reach many locations because of inaccessibility, thus volunteering for school talks and other activities is a great way to encourage individuals to be mindful of the vast number of opportunities available in the STEM field.

Jarrett Cohen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) in the background.

Hometown: I grew up in and around New York City, where my mother had settled upon arriving on the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico.

Grand Study Hall, New York Public Library. Photograph by Alex Proimos, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Career path: While an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, I heard about supercomputers for the first time from a friend who worked at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). During the second semester of my junior year, I secured a student job at NCSA. By then I was majoring in journalism and immediately got to apply my skills to writing for the university’s Access newsletter and other projects.

NCSA had an opening for a public information officer when I graduated, so I applied for and got the position. It was a fantastic first job but also a ‘baptism by fire’ that initial year, because I was handling major media visits and press conferences mostly on my own at 22 years old! A few years later, I learned about a communications position with a NASA supercomputing project. My skillset meshed well with what they were seeking, and they hired me. I have been at NASA ever since.

Current role: My primary NASA role is supporting communications for NASA’s High-End Computing (HEC) Program and the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS). Activities range from story development (in a variety of formats) and social media to website management to conference and event planning.

How has NCCS supported your research/career? The HEC Program and NCCS have allowed me to be creative and branch off into sometimes unexpected projects, such as working with interns on interactive kiosks.

Former NCCS intern George Roros tests the connection between an interactive kiosk and a “hyperwall” at NASA Goddard. Photograph by Heidi Dewan, NASA Goddard.

What especially inspires you? I am inspired by seeing kindness in others. Reading great books. Singing in, and listening to, choirs.

Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? Without question, my biggest influence was my mother. That formidable woman raised my brother and me largely by herself and made sacrifices I only began to fathom as an adult. She demonstrated grace in the face of trials. So much of my character stems from her example and guidance.

What challenges have you had to overcome? Bouncing back from a major surgery in 2016 was tough but also a blessing in bringing clarity to my life and priorities.

How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage? A good place to start is providing learning experiences and mentoring for young Hispanics. NASA Goddard does quite well in this regard with its Hispanic Students Goddard Internships Program, which has a large contingent from Puerto Rico. I have been amazed by the caliber of those interns!

[Editor’s note: Jarrett is a multi-award-winning journalist, including recognition from the Apex Awards for Publication Excellence, the Communicator Awards, the Society for Technical Communication, and the Telly Awards.]

Carlos Cruz at the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Background image by Zettasnap via Pickupimage.

Hometown: I was born in the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador. My new hometown is in Alexandria, Virginia, where I have lived for over 20 years.

A Google Earth image of the country of El Salvador looking east at the continental margin where the Cocos Plate subducts under the Caribbean Plate, with an inset of the location of the city of San Salvador.

Career path: My undergraduate degree is in Physics, and I earned a doctorate in Climate Dynamics, both from George Mason University. I joined NASA as a contractor in April 2000. Before NASA, I worked for the Census Bureau, and before that I was at CACI — in both places, working as a programmer.

Current role: I am the lead software engineer for the NASA-Unified Weather Research and Forecasting (NU-WRF) project, one of three major Earth system modeling systems funded by NASA’s Modeling Analysis and Prediction (MAP) program. I also work with scientists supporting the GEOS Chemistry Climate Model (CCM) project. I am also an Adjunct Professor of Computational and Data Sciences at George Mason University.

What especially inspires you? I am inspired by honest, hard-working people and by anyone that has overcome adversity.

Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? Sadly, I cannot name anyone of specifically Hispanic heritage in my field that has influenced me. I have always loved science, and I decided early on to become a scientist. One of the first books that I read in high school was Red Giants and White Dwarfs by Robert Jastrow, who I later learned worked at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). That book inspired me to become a physicist. During my academic career, I learned about many scientists. In particular, noted theoretical physicist Richard Feynman greatly inspired me. He wasn’t very serious, and he made science inviting.

[Editor’s note: Robert Jastrow, a noted astronomer, planetary scientist, and prolific writer was the founding director of GISS and its head until 1981. Dr. Jastrow was Chairman of NASA's Lunar Exploration Working Group from 1959 to 1961, an exciting period in NASA history described in his book Journey to the Stars.]

Left to right: The book that inspired Carlos Cruz; Robert Jastrow and Richard Feynman (NASA photos), and the Feynman Lecture Series.

What challenges have you had to overcome? I came to the United States at age 15, leaving all my family in El Salvador. It was tough getting used to a new culture without the support of my family, although the cousin that I lived with treated me well. I also had to work my way through college, full-time, which made my college experience very stressful.

How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage? The STEM sector should provide more support for people of Hispanic heritage, perhaps through scholarships. However, in general, I think that the sector is doing the best they can.

Is there anything else that you would like to mention? I feel that I am lucky to work at NASA — it is such a great place to work!

Max Guillén at the Salinitas Beach in El Salvador. Background image by Jenpq123, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hometown: I was born in San Salvador, El Salvador. However, I lived for the first 8 years in the United States in what I consider to be my new hometown — Hyattsville, Maryland.

Left: The Complejo Financiero World Trade Center in the city of San Salvador. Photo by JMRAFFi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: A beautiful sunset in the metropolitan area of San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo by José Alejandro Álvarez Ramírez (JOSAL), CC BY 3.0, vía Wikimedia Commons.

Career path: While attending the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) for mechanical engineering, an opportunity became available to interview for a computer operator job at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Current role: I am in charge of several support servers for the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS), including a helpdesk ticketing system and monitoring software. I am also the main system administrator for NCCS databases.

How has NCCS supported your research/career? The NCCS has furthered my education in database administration. I am now a PostgreSQL Database Administrator — this is an open-source relational database management system.

What especially inspires you? I am a hardware kind of guy, so a new extension to the Discover supercomputer’s Scalable Compute Unit (SCU) installation really pumps me up!

Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? No, not really. My German-born high school math and science teacher really believed in me, supported me, and encouraged me to go to college. Miss Whitesel, my English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, taught me how to stay calm and not panic when I didn’t understand someone, which helped me in college. In order to help improve my English, I have immersed myself in English-language culture, music, language, television, and newspapers. I still read news articles every day. [Editor’s note: Max’s self-taught English mastery is exceptional.]

What challenges have you had to overcome? My biggest challenge was the language barrier I encountered when moving to a new country in high school and learning a new language at the same time. Also, I’ve always been more of a hands-on, mechanically-inclined, self-taught kind of guy, so programming has been a challenge for me over the years, since that was not my passion in school.

How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage? The technology sector could reach out more to people in Hispanic communities and take more chances on hands-on guys like me — turn them into computer support personnel and not concentrate too much on geeks that can “hack the planet.”

Is there anything else that you would like to mention? In my 21 years at NASA, I have moved into different positions due to the faith that managers had in the abilities they saw in me — before I knew I could actually do the job!

Ramón with his three children with the NASA Goddard Visitor Center in the background. NASA photo.

Hometown: I was born and raised in Sevilla, Spain. This is the same city where the Royal Palace of Seville (Reales Alcázares de Sevilla) was built for King Peter of Castile, and where the Game of Thrones television series was filmed. I moved to the United States in 2002, and I consider Maryland my new barrio.

The Queen's baths in the Royal Alcazar of Seville, Spain. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Career path: I achieved a bachelor of science degree in computer engineering at the University of Seville. Later, I worked for another government contractor at several positions at NASA and NOAA. I have been a developer, a system administrator, a cloud architect, and a high-performance computing (HPC) system administrator. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to help scientists by accelerating their adoption of those new technologies that can make a difference to science. That is when I decided to start a company, which, like me, is now a NASA contractor. When I came to NASA, I brought several years of experience in the technology field.

Current role: I am the lead cloud solutions architect for the Science Managed Cloud Environment (SMCE) team. I focus on making sure that NASA scientists who use NCCS resources to conduct research are familiar with all the technology options available in the cloud. We help scientists with their computing architecture and, when needed, accelerate the adoption of those technology into their projects.

How has NCCS supported your research/career? Working on the SMCE project has given me a deeper understanding of how business problems that I find in other fields translate to the scientific field, where the pain points are for scientific researchers, and which problems are worth solving. I also get to find out what scientists are able to finally accomplish with the technical tools that we provide, which is the most rewarding aspect of working at NASA.

What especially inspires you? The people that I work with inspire me because working with them and sharing the same goals helps me understand the meaning of my new nationality, American. I became an American citizen 11 years ago for practical reasons. My wife was an American citizen and my children were born here, so it made our lives less complicated. After I became a U.S. citizen, I started thinking what the meaning of being American was all about. I had been Spanish my whole life, and all of a sudden I had a new label. I really couldn’t fundamentally understand the meaning of what “nationality” is.

As I continue my life in the U.S., I have come to realize that, when I feel proud if my kids’ school wins the state science fair, when our hockey team [the Washington Capitals] wins the championship, and when our team at NASA [SMCE] gets awarded or congratulated for our work, then I understand what nationality is. The feeling of belonging to a group starts when you participate in your community, when you participate in your kids’ school, and when you want to help your colleagues, because their success is the success of your group.

Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? I am a big admirer of Chef José Andrés Puerta (Chef Andrés), a famous chef who emigrated to the U.S. from Mieres, Spain in 1990. He came to the U.S. empty-handed, but he had a vision for a business that has now become very successful. Even though Chef José Andrés is not in the technology sector, he is an entrepreneur with a passion to make this a better world.

Chef Andrés, invited United States Department of Agriculture speaker, in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Bob Nichols, USDA.

After becoming a restauranteur, Chef Andrés had a vision to give back to American society in particular and to the world in general. He founded a not-for-profit organization, World Central Kitchen (WCK), responding to the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake. Chef Andrés inspired me to believe that anything can be accomplished with a vision and determination. I became a business owner, and I, too, hope to one day start a nonprofit that helps children.

[Editor’s note: Chef Andrés owns almost two dozen restaurants: several in Washington, D.C. and a few in other major American cities. WCK provides healthy food to people in the U.S. and Puerto Rico affected by natural disasters that include the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.]

What challenges have you had to overcome? As a non-native speaker, English has been a challenge for me. My strong accent has led me into numerous funny situations — and sometimes not so funny ones — but I have always overcome those with good humor. As an entrepreneur at heart, I have also had to endure the opinions of naysayers, but that has only made me more determined to follow my passions.

How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage? NASA has a huge impact, not only in the U.S., but across the globe. NASA is a factory of dreams where everything is possible, an inspiration for many children around the world. I would like to see NASA and the U.S. government in general incentivizing technology companies and scientists to share their passion with the Hispanic community within schools and throughout the community in general. You never know when a scientist, a technical talk, or a demonstration in a school environment is going to change someone’s life and be the motivation needed for a kid to overcome challenging times and set a life’s goal.

Sean Keefe, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center