Pathfinder

Marla Pérez-Davis in the NASA Glenn Hangar, 2017.

Pathfinder

A space engineering pioneer, Marla Pérez-Davis is eager to show young people the way.

Marla Pérez-Davis, PhD ’91, has a compelling message for young people considering a STEM career. First, she says, it’s within reach—and she should know. Her journey to the top ranks of the nation’s space agency began in a tiny coffee-growing community in the hills of Puerto Rico.

 

Second, she preaches, the effort is worth it. That degree in science or engineering can lead to a career filled with challenge and discovery, especially now, with a new space age underway.

 

“We’re going to have a space economy. Students are going to have options. It’s going to be a different world with endless possibilities,” she says. “More than anything, know that it can be done.”

 

Pérez-Davis will receive a Meritorious Service Award at Homecoming 2022 in tribute to her impact as a space engineer and her effectiveness as a role model to students, especially women and minorities. She retired in June after nearly 40 years with NASA, the last two as director of the NASA Glenn Research Center—the first Puerto Rican to lead a NASA center.

 

Pérez-Davis grew up in Adjuntas, where she exceled at science and math. She credits her mother for getting her to the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez to pursue her dream of becoming a chemical engineer. A NASA job fair brought her to NASA Glenn and she began as a researcher in 1983—one of the few women and Spanish speakers at the center. She rose through the engineering ranks to become director in late 2019.

 

Pérez-Davis also earned her doctorate at Case while working and raising two sons. For that, she credits mentors like Professors John Angus and Donald Feke ’76, MS ’77, her thesis advisor.

 

“Dr. Feke and Dr. Angus hold a very special place in my heart,” she said.

 

She helped prepare Glenn for roles in NASA’s Artemis Program, which aims to place an orbiter “Gateway” around the moon and the Artemis Base Camp on the surface as early as 2025. The project will also send the first woman and first person of color to the moon.

 

Pérez-Davis is not sure what he future holds for her, but she is not ready to quit.

 

“It’s time for me to explore what is out there,” she said. “One thing I know, whatever I do, I want to keep giving to the community.”

 

The Homecoming awards program begins at 6 p.m. Friday, October 7, in Strosacker Auditorium and will also be live streamed. Learn more and register at casealumni.org/homecoming.

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Marla Pérez-Davis with her mother and sons Gerardo (top) and Miguel. 

Marla Pérez-Davis greets children at the Timberlake Girl Scout Camp in 2017

“We’re going to have a space economy. Students are going to have options. It’s going to be a different world with endless possibilities

— Marla Pérez-Davis

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