To Explain the Universe

Updated: Jun 24, 2020


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| This is the 493rd story of Our Life Logs |

There are three things I know to be true in this world.

  1. My name is Margaret.

  2. I could eat avocados until I was sick.

  3. If uninterrupted, I could talk to you about optics (which is the study of light and its properties) for the rest of my life.

Now, I won’t, of course. That would be ridiculous and we both have places to be. But I know I could. Here’s why:

Section Break-Mountains

1 | She Let Me Explore

After preparatoria, my father left Mexico to study business in the United States. That’s where he met my mother who was studying accounting. My mother didn’t know Spanish, or where Tecamachalco, Puebla, Mexico, was even located, but when they fell in love and wanted to begin their lives together, she moved to where my father was from. Years later in 1986, they had the first of their four daughters (ME).

With my sisters (I’m on the top right), 2009.
With my sisters (I’m on the top right), 2009.

I love my mother. She knew I observed the world differently—at least differently than my sisters. She told me stories of when she used to walk into our kitchen (while I was supposed to be washing the dishes) and see the way I observed the way the tiny waterfalls of the sink’s faucet would propagate. Instead of chiding me, she let me explore.

My mother didn’t know the grammar, Mexican geography, Mexican history, and had never been a fan of math in school, but she was so attentive in helping me with my homework. In fact, she sat alongside me and together we scribbled numbers and letters on scrap paper. As I learned, she did too. And because I didn’t have to take it on by myself, I think I was able to be more confident about what I was learning.

During my first years in middle school, I took a class in pre-algebra and another in the introduction to chemistry and physics. When math changed from strictly numbers to numbers and variables, I remember thinking how cool, numbers didn’t have to be restricted to just being a number. They could be a letter or whatever it wanted. “A” could mean -3 or infinity, and you would never know until you solved the equation. I remember thinking, wow, that is just so awesome.

Section Break-Mountains

2 | Physics Explains the Universe

I took physics for the first time in high school and loved it. I continued exploring numbers during the day and getting into all sorts of extracurriculars during the evenings. Everything was so smooth, really, until I made the decision not to go into business as my father had before me. Instead, I was set to study physics at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla in Mexico.

One the things I love to do is dancing. That’s me (above) during a performance with a local troupe, 2001.
One the things I love to do is dancing. That’s me (above) during a performance with a local troupe, 2001.

You know, families are different in different places. In Mexico, it’s understood that, even if you go to a far-off place for school or training, you’ll find your way back home. My small community was very family-oriented, and it was expected of me that I would simply step into a role at my father’s business. That’s just how it worked. But my father saw science in a very romantic way. I love that about him. “Physics explains the universe,” he would say. My father used to tell me that I have the mind to be and do whatever I wanted—which was really powerful. He did not push his dreams into my own. Instead, he encouraged me to ask the universe questions with numbers and variables.

And like my father, my mother always said, “I want to be selfish and have you near me, but that’s not fair.” I am so thankful that they let me explore. So, in 2004, I went to Universidad, like many do, and continued to develop a passion for science. But wait—there’s more!

Section Break-Mountains

3 | That Was the Easy Part

In 2007, we (students from the physics department) organized an international physics conference and one of the speakers was a scientist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA. I remember asking a lot of questions (maybe too many) that day. Eventually, this man looked at me and said, “Have you ever thought about an internship at NASA?” and I said, “No!”

No one had ever told me that I didn’t have the skills to work at NASA, but I had never wondered about this as being one of my options. I’m from a small town in Mexico (remember?), and while I grew up with confidence and curiosities and dreams, NASA was for “other people.” But this small conversation with a man I had just met led me to believe in something new. Maybe it is possible for me.

After that conference, I applied and was accepted. That was the easy part.

Section Break-Mountains

4 | A Person Can Fall in Love

In the summer of 2008, I began as an intern at NASA Goddard as part of the SESI (Science and Engineering Student Internship) program. Each day, I woke up early, swallowed a cup of tea, and began poking my way around the Assembly, Integration, and Testing Group in the optics branch. I didn’t have the biggest brain there, but I think I made an impression on the senior engineers and scientists because I asked. So. Many. Dang. Questions. I wanted to understand everything. How does this work? Why do we do this in this way and not in that way? What is the purpose of this, that, and the other thing? In that time, I learned that if knowledge is “king,” then curiosity is “emperor.” The more you want to know, the more you get to know. It was an amazing experience.

Ok, friends, this is where the next chapter of my story begins.

I realized that a person can fall in love with science. So, I had always enjoyed science (obviously), but learning about optical metrology was so…fun. I got along with the optics team so well, and when they heard that there was an opening in the Cooperative Program (COOP), I was encouraged to apply.

The thing is, as my school year in Mexico inched closer to graduation, I realized that there were very few universities that offered a graduate degree in optical engineering. The best place I could find was in the United States, in Arizona.

Whenever you make a move like that, it’s always challenging. But it was the only move I wanted to make. It was the only place where my dreams made sense and my questions could be answered. So, in 2010, I went to grad school at the Universi