Evelyn Miralles Brings Space Down to Earth
NASA engineer and virtual reality innovator talks about the importance of family and education
En español | In my work, being a Latina doesn’t give me an immediate advantage. But having had to learn to adapt to this country when I came here as a college student has given me an edge. It changes the way I communicate and the way I solve problems. My father always expected me to have a college education, to not depend on anybody else, to be the best. He worked for the oil industry for 50-some years in Venezuela. My brothers and my sister are engineers. I was the youngest in the family and I saw them excel, getting together with friends, doing all this crazy problem solving. It gave me a sense of curiosity.
My passion started with an interest in being an architect, in building something. I ended up building the space station in 3-D, so I think I accomplished that goal!
My work at NASA in the field of virtual reality is fulfilling. Seeing astronauts perform tasks up in space just as we had practiced them in my lab is an incredible feeling. Using virtual reality — basically a synthetic world — makes you believe you’re in outer space and seeing the Earth from above. That vantage point gives you the sense that we’re so small and that there are no lines or divisions or borders. It’s inspirational being a part of space exploration, even though I stay on the ground. When we explore space, we realize we’re all connected and on this planet together.
I stay connected to my family in Venezuela and to my heritage through music and cooking. I make sure that my children know the Spanish language, and that allows them to talk to their grandparents and stay connected to family. But this also goes beyond the personal. There have been studies that show speaking another language allows children to use parts of the brain that they usually don’t and to be more efficient in their thinking.
I also think it’s important to inspire all young kids to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and math. As the world evolves, we need new skills in STEM fields. And women, and Latinas, need to be a part of this, too, and have a voice. We all need to put our best ideas out there.
—As told to Katharine A. Díaz
Evelyn Miralles is NASA’s chief engineer for the Virtual Reality Lab at the Johnson Space Center. Throughout her 26-year career at NASA she has garnered multiple awards, including recognition for codeveloping DOUG, the flight software that has been used to train astronauts for every space shuttle and International Space Station mission since 2000; and EDGE software, used in research facilities across the country. The mother of two young women, Gabby, 20, and Gigi, 16, she is a firm believer in providing strong role models for girls and inspiring all students to pursue careers in science and applied technologies.