Meet the Filipina Engineer Who Struggled in Math But Now Works at NASA

Science wasn't always her first choice.

by Christa I. De La Cruz
Jan 6, 2019

(SPOT.ph) While most five-year-olds have big dreams of becoming a doctor or making it big in Hollywood, Filipina engineer Josephine Santiago-Bond took the more practical approach: "As a child, I always knew I would go to college, get a job, try to earn enough to afford the things I need and want, but I had not envisioned a particular profession," she reveals in an interview with SPOT.ph. Turns out, it was enough to bring her halfway across the world: The halls of the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, one of the 10 National Aeronautics and Space Administration sites, where she now heads the agency's Advanced Engineering Development Branch.

As the chief of her department, Santiago-Bond is responsible for "[supplying] engineering support to research and technology development projects at Kennedy Space Center." Sounds like a mouthful, but it basically means she chooses which people are brilliant enough to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). "I’m leading very diverse groups of people to bring their whole selves to work while executing NASA’s mission, which ultimately benefits humankind," she explains.

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It may not sound as cool as actually going to outer space, but it’s definitely a very important role in the grand scheme of things. "I get dizzy easily so I feel very contented working with my feet on the ground," Santiago-Bond quips.

Josephine Santiago-Bond and her husband Chris stand next to the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer propulsion structure at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"Which Dr. Santiago?"

Born in the United States but raised in the Philippines, Santiago-Bond never thought that she would one day work for an international space program. Her family moved back to Antipolo, Rizal, when she was two months old; and the country’s own space program (or lack thereof) isn’t really what you would call a source of inspiration for a young girl to get into astronomy. She didn’t even think of going into the sciences, even though she came from a family of scientists.

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"I would answer phone calls and have to ask the caller 'Which Dr. Santiago?' because my parents and later, both my sisters, were doctors of some sort. Their curiosity and work ethic most likely rubbed off on me, but their professions did not speak to me," she tells us. With this background, it was only a matter of time before she attended Philippine Science High School where she took more units of science and math than the average high school student. Still, she had no intention of taking up an engineering course in college until an older schoolmate swayed her into applying to the University of the Philippines’ Electronics and Communications Engineering program.

A young Josephine attends her father's PhD graduation in 1979. Courtesy of Josephine Santiago-Bond
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She interned at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in 2005. Courtesy of Josephine Santiago-Bond

Taking part in the Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program in 2012 Courtesy of Josephine Santiago-Bond
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Math "got exponentially more difficult" as she advanced into the five-year program. "I had to crawl my way through some of the courses, but I wasn’t going to give up on [Electronics and Communications Engineering] because of a few bad grades," she narrates. Clearly, math can be unforgiving even to the best of us.

"In between my fair share of socializing, I practiced solving math and engineering problems until I was either confident enough to take the test or ran out of review time. There were lots of sleepless nights, but strong friendships were formed, and my persistence eventually paid off," she continues about her life in college.

"I had to crawl my way through some of the courses, but I wasn’t going to give up on [Electronics and Communications Engineering] because of a few bad grades," she narrates.

After graduation, she moved to the U.S. and started earning her Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from South Dakota State University. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, in 2003, when her graduate adviser gave her the option of working for the summer at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (K.S.C.). "I had zero knowledge about space shuttles, and did not even know that there was an International Space Station orbiting above us. I was just happy to take a break from South Dakota," the engineer confesses. But that summer break turned into a graduate cooperative internship, which allowed her to alternate semesters of studying and working at KSC until she graduated in 2005. By then, she was ready to take on a full-time job at the space center.

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She graduated from the University of the Philippines - Diliman with a degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering in 2001.

Hidden Figures No More

"Engineering is still male-dominated at NASA if we go by statistics, but I do not feel the gender and racial segregation that was portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures," Santiago-Bond explains, referring to the 2016 biographical drama film about the often ignored female mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s. According to her, most men and women at the agency advocate the advancement of women in their technical workforce.

"I see myself like Dorothy Vaughan who, upon learning of the installation of electronic computers, taught herself programming and trained her co-workers. I proactively look for gaps that I can fill, I am responsible for continuing my professional development, and try to elevate others around me through mentorship," she continues about her responsibility at the Advanced Engineering Development Branch.

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Testing Mass Spectrometer Vibrations in 2015 Courtesy of Josephine Santiago-Bond

I proactively look for gaps that I can fill, I am responsible for continuing my professional development, and try to elevate others around me through mentorship.

Standing in front of Space Shuttle Discovery in 2007 Courtesy of Josephine Santiago-Bond
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If any, it’s an inherent Filipino trait that proves to be a bit of challenge—"the feeling of hiya, which poorly translates to a sense of shame, shyness, and/or embarrassment in the context of what is socially acceptable." She further explains that what’s often socially acceptable and expected behavior in the U.S. is different from what she was accustomed to in the Philippines. "With training, coaching and practice, I now feel more comfortable delegating, giving directions, holding my employees accountable for their work, having difficult conversations, and disagreeing with my superiors, if necessary. Even if certain actions are innately uncomfortable for me, I am reminded of my mom telling me that there is no need to feel hiya if I am doing the right thing," the chief adds.

Reading to kids at NASA KSC Child Development Center for Diversity Outreach in 2017

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#LifeGoals

As someone who deals with all kinds of people on a daily basis, one can count on Santiago-Bond to have the right pep talk:

"Dream many big dreams, and explore challenging opportunities along the way. Push your limits, get out of your comfort zone, and pick tasks that are harder than what you’re used to. Go for growth. Do things that you’re not already good at. Realistically expect that not all of your dreams will come true, at least not the first time you try, but give each try your best anyway. Regularly assess your strengths, sharpen the saw, and find positive ways to use your strengths to achieve the next step toward your dream."

We've all heard of famous people who were no strangers to rejection, dropped out of school, or came face to face with failure in one way or another. But Engr. Josephine Santiago-Bond's life story is a bit more familiar: A young Filipina who struggled to figure out what she wanted to do in life, and ended up achieving what most of us can only dream of—being one step closer to the stars.

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