Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: Erika D. Rodriguez, Ph.D.

Rodriguez was recognized for groundbreaking research in mission-critical spaceflight materials; for advancing SWE’s scholarship initiatives; and for inspiring young people — especially women and girls — to pursue engineering.
Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: Erika D. Rodriguez, Ph.D.

The Society of Women Engineers is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month September 15 - October 15.

Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: Erika D. Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Erika D. Rodriguez, Ph.D.

Erika D. Rodriguez, Ph.D., of Jacobs Technology at NASA Ames Research Center received the 2017 Distinguished New Engineer Award from the Society of Women Engineers in 2017. She was recognized for groundbreaking research in mission-critical spaceflight materials; for advancing SWE’s scholarship initiatives; and for inspiring young people — especially women and girls — to pursue engineering.

Erika D. Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a materials research and test engineering team lead for Jacobs Technology at NASA Ames Research Center’s (ARC) thermophysics arc jet facility, which simulates planetary entry environments. She researches mission-critical hardware and materials for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and analyzes post spaceflight materials and components.

Born in a small farming community in Fresno, California, Dr. Rodriguez obtained her bachelor’s degree in engineering science from Smith College, the first all-women college in the country to have an engineering bachelor’s degree program. In her sophomore year, Dr. Rodriguez led a team of five classmates to custom design an apparatus to test plant growth in microgravity environments, critical research for human habitation in space. Her team was selected for the highly competitive NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program and flew on the KC-135 aircraft, which simulates microgravity environments, to test their apparatus. The experience introduced Dr. Rodriguez to engineering design — a process that proved to be the keystone of her academic and professional career.

Dr. Rodriguez received her M.S. and Ph.D. in aerospace and mechanical engineering, with a specialty in materials science, from Syracuse University. Her graduate research focused on developing polymeric materials exhibiting a “shape memory assisted self-healing (SMASH)” response.

In 2012, she joined ERC Inc. at NASA ARC as a post-doc and was promoted to a full-time research scientist two years later. She was instrumental in designing and executing material extraction from the Orion heat shield for postflight analysis — the first time in NASA’s history that such a large material extraction and analysis was performed on a flown heat shield. The only Hispanic female engineer to take on such a critical operation, Dr. Rodriguez attended the Orion EFT-1 launch at Kennedy Space Center to witness the successful launch of the capsule’s heat shield. A week later she traveled to San Diego to witness the crew vehicle recovery.

In 2002, Dr. Rodriguez received a SWE/Bechtel scholarship from the SWE Golden Gate Section. This award set the course for her service to SWE. She joined the collegiate section at Smith, served as treasurer, and organized Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. She was scholarship chair of the Hartford Section and set up its high school scholarship program. When she joined the Santa Clara Valley Section, Dr. Rodriguez again served as scholarship chair, this time pushing for and establishing need-based scholarships. In the past five years, Dr. Rodriguez has helped award $45,000 in scholarships. She is currently the vice president of career guidance for the Santa Clara Valley Section, responsible for professional development and scholarship programs.

Her humanitarian work includes volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank in San Jose, California; organizing the building of an accessible playhouse for an 8-year-old Hispanic girl with spina bifida; and raising $2,500 for Habitat for Humanity.

Dr. Rodriguez always finds time to mentor students and encourage them to pursue engineering. She created and spearheaded a new NASA ARC summer research program aimed at the Seven Sister Colleges to increase the number of female scientists and engineers at NASA.

A newlywed, Dr. Rodriguez married Dr. Richard Baker on Oct. 7, 2017, in Mexico. Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Baker reside in the Bay Area.