Malaysia-born Nasa scientist Florence Tan credits family, govt support and ‘Star Trek’ for her success


Florence Tan is chair of the Small Spacecraft Coordination Group at Nasa Headquarters and the deputy chief technologist for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate. – Malay Mail photo

GEORGE TOWN (Aug 7): United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) scientist Florence Tan may have been involved in launching multiple missions to Mars, Saturn, Titan and the Moon, but one of her proudest career moments was winning her almost five-year battle for a breastfeeding room to be set up for new mothers at Nasa.

The Malaysia-born scientist said she had asked for a lactation room when she was pregnant with her first child in 1994 but her request was rejected.

Instead, she had to pump breastmilk in the bathroom, and it was a difficult 14 months for her as she was also working on three flight missions concurrently.

“I was working on three missions, and I was also nursing a baby so it was a difficult time,” she told Malay Mail during an interview recently in Penang.

She said she joined the women’s advisory committee and fought for the room to be set up, but it was not easy.

“They kept saying no. I fought from 1994 until October 1999, and only after I stopped nursing my second child, did they finally approve the first room to be set up,” she said.

She said the first breastfeeding room was furnished with excess furniture. It had a sink, a fridge, lockers for mothers to keep their pump equipment and two hospital-grade pumps.

“I put together a plan to make sure they keep the room because it was a pilot programme, so they might take it away,” she said.

At the time, the room was called the “Lactation Lab” and Tan went on to write a users’ guide and an orientation guide and share her vision to see a lactation room in every building at Nasa.

She said what spurred her to push hard for the room was when she saw another pregnant woman at Nasa and realised that the woman would face the same hardship she had when she was nursing her children.

Today, there are 16 lactation rooms at the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre (GSFC), where she was based for 32 years, and each Nasa building has a lactation room.

“I am very proud of this, but of course, I am proud of all my hardware that has gone up in missions too,” she added.

At GSFC, Tan designed, built, integrated and tested, and held operational roles in eight mass spectrometers.

Seven of these mass spectrometers were launched to destinations such as Mars, Saturn, Titan and the Moon.

Tan was also the electrical lead engineer for the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument on Curiosity Rover that was sent to Mars, the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) on Maven and the Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) on Ladee, a moon orbiter mission.

Despite spending most of her adult life in the US, Tan comfortably switched to Hokkien when she talked about juggling her responsibilities when she was involved in building SAM while at the same time working on Maven and Ladee.

“I was holding a lot of things. I cannot ‘pang chiu’ (“let go” in Hokkien), as I was the intellectual lead for the mass spectrometers,” she said when asked if she made many return trips to Malaysia.

She said her trips back were few and far between due to work commitments but she did take time off to visit her grandmother in Cheras in 2010 after she fell and broke her hip.

“At the time, we were building the Curiosity mission, the rover to Mars, but I knew I had to come back so I took about a week off to come and see her,” she said.

She visited her grandmother twice that year, in May and again in July, and she was glad that she did as her grandmother subsequently passed away.

The Muar native said she is still very much a Malaysian at heart and could still converse fluently in Malay and Hokkien, which was almost similar to the Penang Hokkien dialect, which she attributed to her grandmother who was from Penang.

“If anything, I am a product of the Malaysian government’s investment in my education and I will always be grateful to the government because they enabled my education pathway and because of that, my success is their success,” she said.

Tan was accepted to Kuantan MARA Junior Science College (MRSM) at 13 years old and managed to secure a government loan to continue her studies at Western Michigan University in the US before she transferred to University of Maryland where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering.

“Actually, it takes a whole village to put things together. When I left for the US, my entire family and relatives showed up at the airport to send me off.

“Every time, my relatives, even though they were not well off, they would give angpao and this is the strong support that I am very appreciative of,” she said.

When asked what sparked her interest in a career in aerospace, she said she was a Star Trek fan and she had always believed that space sparks the imagination.

“I wanted to be an aerospace engineer so when the guidance counsellor told me I can become an accountant because I was good at mathematics, I asked him if I could take computer science instead,” she said.

Tan originally took computer science at Western Michigan University before switching to electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at University of Maryland.

“The condition of the loan was that I had to take a course related to my original course, so I took ECE,” she said.

She believes that it was luck that she was accepted to MRSM and that she received the loan to further her studies in the US.

As for getting her initial internship at Nasa, Tan said it was due to her knowledge of Maxwell’s equations.

“In the internship interview question, I was asked to derive Maxwell’s equations and I could do it, so he hired me based on that strength of the one equation that you learned in college,” she said.

Tan said this showed that it is important to be good at everything and to learn it well.

“You never know at what point someone is going to ask you to do this and you don’t know when opportunity will knock,” she said.

She said there was some luck in her getting that interview for an internship at Nasa but there was also some level of preparation and networking to make it happen.

“Students have no reason not to aspire to reach a position like me in Nasa. They just need to prepare for it. My advice is to network and get your skills in order,” she said.

She said communications and teamwork were also important factors in propelling her towards success in her career.

“We have a world-class team at Nasa. We can’t work alone, so if you want to be successful, you must be able to communicate with your team and work together as a team because it is not about you. It is about your project and coming up with solutions to work on the project together,” she said.

She attributed the successes of the missions she worked on to the strong team that worked with her.

“I did not do it alone, so I was quite taken aback by the sudden interest in me. I am not someone special,” she said.

Tan is one of only a handful of Malaysia-born scientists who are working at Nasa currently, but she said any Malaysian student can aspire to work there too as long as they prepare for it.

She is chair of the Small Spacecraft Coordination Group at Nasa Headquarters and the deputy chief technologist for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.

She has conducted outreach programmes for students on behalf of Nasa for over 20 years and travelled to various places, including India and various parts of the US.

She was back in Malaysia recently for the International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS) 2022 at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and she also gave a talk at Universiti Malaysia Perlis. – Malay Mail