Two former Amelia Earhart Fellows reach new horizons in their careers

On 26 November, Aline Zimmer sat in Pasadena, California with her colleagues in quiet anticipation, waiting to hear confirmation that the Mars InSight lander had successfully made contact with the surface of the planet.

When the lander reached the surface, Mission Control burst into cheers and hollers and team members jumped from their chairs to hug and congratulate one another.

"The moment you get confirmation that the spacecraft is safely on the surface is a combination of pure joy and excitement but even more so, I find relief," Aline said.

Aline is a Systems Engineer for the Entry, Descent and Landing team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars InSight Mission. Also anticipating the success of the landing was Farah Alibay, a Payload Systems Engineer at JPL.

Before the launch, Farah worked to guarantee all of the different instruments would work well with the lander and Aline was part of the team that ensured the landing process would be successful so the data could be collected on the surface. They currently are both continuing their work within the mission post-landing.

Besides both playing a crucial role in the mission, the two women share something else in common – they are both former Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellows.

Aline became a Fellow in 2011 and Farah received the Fellowship in 2012 and 2013.

The Amelia Earhart Fellowship was established in 1938 as a way to support women interested in aerospace-related sciences and engineering. Through the fellowship, US$10,000 is awarded annually to 30 women pursuing PhD./doctoral degrees in this area.

After completing their studies, Aline and Farah both soon found themselves working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Even though Farah has worked at JPL for five years, she said it is still an incredible feeling to do the work she does every day.

"I am just as close to the science as I would be, almost, as if I was there in person … So we feel like explorers even though we’re not there in person," Farah said. "It is still very surreal. Some days I am like, 'Am I really going to work tomorrow to operate a spacecraft on another planet?'"

Since receiving the Amelia Earhart Fellowship, Farah said she has discovered a supportive community among the other fellows.

"It is pretty incredible how many women I know … who have had the Fellowship too," she said. "I've gotten to meet a lot of incredible women and for me, that’s been a wonderful opportunity."

Aline said she appreciates that the Fellowship continues to highlight the importance of women in these fields year after year and has seen an increase in the amount of women in the aerospace field.

"I think it is still very important to encourage girls and women to pursue these careers, and the fellowships, like the Amelia Earhart Fellowship, are one way to achieve that," Aline said. "I always feel like you cannot imagine it unless you see it, unless you see other women in aerospace … The Amelia Earhart Fellowship comes into play there as well because you see these women who have been in the field longer and say, 'Oh, that could be me.'"

This is a sentiment Farah echoed as well.

"Being in STEM in general, but even in aerospace, it is kind of an alienating field sometimes for women," she said. "There are often not women or people that look like you in your management and sometimes it can be discouraging. So meeting this group of women that are highly accomplished in their own fields and careers, to me, has been the greatest gift that I’ve gotten from this fellowship."