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Delia Santiago-Materese: Never underestimate how much you are a role model

April 6, 2022

Dr. Delia Santiago-Materese is the lead Program Officer for NASA’s Solar System Workings research and analysis funding program in the Planetary Science Division (PSD). She also initiated and implemented Dual-Anonymous Peer Review among several funding programs in PSD. Dr. Santiago-Materese has a background in biological sciences and earned her Ph.D., in Earth Sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She focused her doctoral studies on understanding the atmosphere of Mars using models and experiments. She spent several years in the Planetary Systems Branch at NASA Ames Research Center before moving to NASA Headquarters. NASA recently honored Dr. Santiago-Materese with the 2022 NASA Excellence in Innovation Award, in part for her contributions to improving the proposal review process. Congratulations! Below is our interview with her.

How did you first become interested in planetary science? What’s your specific research area?

When I was younger, I was always drawn to Biology, and was interested largely in being a veterinarian. I studied Biological Science in undergrad at Stanford University, and in my junior year I happened upon an elective called “Astrobiology and Space Exploration”. Little did I know that the lectures would be from legends in the space sciences from NASA Ames Research Center, which was just down the road. I had always loved space, but never saw it as a realistic future possibility. Until I took this course, I thought space was mainly for engineers or astronomers.

After college, and after a short time working at the San Francisco Zoo (great life experience), I reconnected to the lead for that class and got a job at NASA Ames supporting life science experiments, in relation to gravitational space biology (what happens to life in a microgravity environment). It was all very interesting, but I found myself drawn to the destinations NASA was exploring, more than the area I was working in. I then entered graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the Earth Sciences department (which later became the Earth & Planetary Sciences department—most of “Planetary” science is rooted in the sciences developed to study our Earth!). I joined a climate model group and became acquainted with both Earth and Mars climate models. I left with my M.S. degree and returned to NASA Ames and worked on some amazing innovative projects, but I decided to return to science and complete my degree. For my Ph.D., I studied Mars water-ice cloud formation processes, doing both experimental and modeling work. So I consider myself a planetary atmospheric scientist, but I have a diverse scientific background. After my Ph.D. I supported a few analog and life detection projects, but I consider planetary atmospheres my main area of expertise.

Who inspired you?

So many! I’ve been so lucky to have many wonderful mentors. I tend to be most inspired by folks I have met in real life. I was amazed to work with Nobel Laureate, Baruch Blumberg, while I was at the NASA Lunar Science Institute. It was inspiring to see that someone so smart, who touched so many lives, was a real and kind human who was so humble. My late Aunt Janet was a also huge inspiration. She worked in the fashion industry, was always her own person, and refused to just do what was expected of her. She also just lived life to the fullest and savored every moment. Life should be rich and enjoyable, and those who have inspired me really lived that.

How did you choose your current institution?

I am at NASA Headquarters in the Planetary Science Division (PSD). I was hired here formally in September of 2021, and before that I detailed here for about three years, as a NASA Ames employee. I was fortunate to be hired at NASA Ames as a Pathways student. Pathways is a work-study program, and it was wonderful to be able to work on my doctorate as an employee of NASA; I feel so fortunate for that opportunity.

How did I pick NASA Ames? I’ve been a Bay Area gal most of my life, and what can beat NASA in the Silicon Valley? (except NASA Headquarters, of course!)

What have you negotiated when considering accepting a position?

Knowing your worth is so important, and pursuing what you are capable of is such an important thing in one’s career.

There was one time that I put my foot down in the salary negotiation, and I actually had the offer rescinded. While this might sound bad, it wasn’t. First, the potential organization truly was undervaluing me (the total benefits package was less than the position I was currently in). Second, the organization with the right position, which I was slowly pursuing in the background, came to me with an offer 30% higher, with no negotiating, and it was a much better fit career-wise. I obviously had a lot of privilege in this situation, for which I’m grateful, but it led me to a better outcome overall.

I have also negotiated, or perhaps persuasively pursued, more responsibilities in several positions. This led to me supporting international partnerships while at the NASA Lunar Science Institute (now the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute) and leading efforts for Dual-Anonymous Peer Review (DAPR) in PSD in the Science Mission Directorate here at NASA Headquarters.

What do you do for fun?

I love being outside for walks and hikes, or a trip to the zoo. I have little ones, so enjoy things we can all do together to experience the wide world. I love cooking when I can afford the time to make something a little special! Pre-kids (and pre-pandemic), I did martial arts and loved exploring cultural spots. I do enjoy watching my science fiction as well—it’s such a treat!

What else should we know?

I have children, and of course it’s challenging to have this stage of life coincide with a demanding career (during the pandemic no less), so I have to be very intentional with all of my time. Drawing boundaries with work is how I make sure to make the most of family time, and it helps me prioritize at work as well. Sometimes being busy gives you the clarity you need in how to use your time.

During the pandemic, I’ve had the kids at home while doing work, so I’ve also learned to never ever underestimate how much you are a role model even when you don’t think you are. My oldest has an artistic flare, and many interests, but I did not have a sense that she wanted to be a scientist. When she graduated pre-K, her class slideshow showed that… she wanted to be a scientist! Just like her parents. Even though she never verbalized it, she observed her parents working and wants to be like us. Realizing that I’m my little girls’ role model makes me want to do everything better.

Please share any advice you have for students and post-docs just starting their career in space science.

It’s okay to not know exactly where you want to end up! Some of my most exciting positions have been ones I didn’t even know existed when I was younger. Keep your mind open to new opportunities, and always strive to learn more skills and try new things. Also think about the type of work you like: do you enjoy lab work? Coding? Working with others? or just being by yourself a lot? There’s something for everyone, but think about what you enjoy and what you feel a sense of accomplishment about. My path has been very winding, but I’ve had many incredible life experiences in the work place. There is always more to learn and more to do!

Also, remember that being smart and working hard is important, but you are never too smart to be kind to people. Work can be a point of many joyous returns, but there is more to life, and to who you are, than succeeding at work.

Learn more about Delia!

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