NASA engineer Dr. Moogega Cooper inspires Yakima students

YAKIMA, Wash. — Hundreds of students from the Yakima Valley had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Moogega Cooper on Wednesday, a NASA planetary protection engineer whose work has earned her the unofficial title of real-life “Guardian of the Galaxy.”

Cooper served as the planetary protection lead for NASA’s famed 2020 Mars mission, working to sterilize spacecraft so they wouldn’t contaminate the environment on the other planet.

As the second speaker in the 2022-2023 Yakima Town Hall speaker series, Cooper spoke about her passion for science and the challenges she’s faced in her career.

Cooper said one of those challenges was growing up in an environment where women were often told to be quiet and feeling like she wasn’t welcome to share her thoughts or opinions.

“Especially when I face opposition, I have to remember like oh, no, my voice deserves to be here and I’m not just an impostor,” Cooper said.

Cooper said while representation for women and people of color in science has improved since she entered the field, there’s still a long way to go.

“We just have to continue infusing more women more diverse people into this field, so that things just become normal,” Cooper said.

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Cooper said her goal with speaking to students is to help them realize that they can do whatever they set their mind to, including going into STEM careers, which can seem like a daunting task for young people, especially if they’re from an underrepresented community.

“I want to be that person that makes their way there and says you know what? You can do this too,” Cooper said. “I’m one example. You could be the next example.”

That’s what she told West Valley High School junior Magnus Fulton and La Salle High School senior Annika Richardson, two student reporters with Unleashed who interviewed her backstage before the event.

Fulton said he looks up to Cooper and has seen her on TV and in newspapers. He said it was intimidating, but exciting to be able to interview her in person and to hear her advice.

“It was like internships, internships, internships and finding somebody you can like look up to and guide you,” Fulton said.

Richardson said the piece of advice that stuck with her the most was Cooper telling them not to be afraid of failure and to embrace those instances with a new perspective.

“It’s not a failure if you turn that into one more step toward what you want to do,” Cooper said.

Richardson said as a young woman who’s thinking about pursuing a career involving science or math and a person who doesn’t like making mistakes, that advice is something she plans to remember.

“I don’t like messing up, so just kind of knowing that like it’s okay if I mess up, it’s part of the learning process and I should keep going if I like something,” Richardson said.

The next speaker in the Yakima Town Hall speaker series is exoneree Amanda Knox, who will be speaking at the Capitol Theatre in March, followed by historian Jon Meacham in April.

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