Written in the Stars: How Myra Nawabi followed her heart and a non-traditional path to become an Afghan-American Pioneer in Technology

Myra Nawabi ● Senior Project Engineer   Lockheed Martin

Myra Nawabi ● Senior Project Engineer   Lockheed Martin

“Hey Elon Musk, if you’re looking for a COO for SpaceX, I’m the woman for the job.”

Myra Nawabi grew up reaching for the stars. As a young child growing up in Afghanistan, some of her earliest memories are gazing up at the night sky and thinking about what life would be like on the moon. She was not deterred by the adults around her claiming nobody lived up there and she asked, “what if there is a young girl up there who is invisible? How can we know for sure?”

That passion was a constant guide, helping her navigate some challenging times in her life. (And there have been more than a few!) The first one being when she was 6 years old and the Russians invaded her home country. Myra remembers that, “even during the war, the night sky was my constant.” After enduring several years of turmoil, when she was 10 years old her family fled to Pakistan and then on to New York. Her dreams of building products to explore space and the moon propelled her to pursue an undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering at Arizona State University.

Unfortunately, as she was about to complete that program, she succumbed to intense pressure from her family to get married. On the positive side, that decision brought Myra to the Bay Area and within a few years she found herself back at school, pursuing a BA and a teaching credential from Cal State East Bay. As circumstances in her personal life took another turn, it was with the help of an academic advisor that she received financial aid and was able to complete her program.

After graduating, Myra went on to teach middle school math for a few years. It was through that experience she participated in a summer fellowship program with IgnitEd, that helps classroom teachers get hands-on STEM knowledge by working in industry. What started as an 8 week internship at Lockheed Martin has turned into a nearly fifteen year career.

“Every intern (65 people in my cohort) made a presentation to a roomful of executives. They talked about what they learned and what they were taking back. In a “do or die” moment, I announced that my district was laying off teachers and I had no idea what was in store for me. But I did learn ethics at Lockheed Martin and I was going to teach it in my classroom to middle schoolers.”

This out of the box thinking caught the eye of an executive at Lockheed Martin Space. He encouraged her to apply for a position with their IT department and she’s been building her career there ever since.

At Lockheed she is closer to realizing her childhood dream of exploring the moon. She is most proud of building Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). The GLM is a satellite-borne single channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that has been placed on the GOES-16 satellite in a geostationary orbit. This orbital position allows for GLM to measure a dedicated region that includes the United States with continuous views capable of providing lightning detection at a rate never before obtained from space. GLM detects all forms of lightning during both day and night, continuously, with a high spatial resolution and detection efficiency.

Myra has been recognized as a leader in her space, being named Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence in 2016 and receiving Women in IT Awards, Business Leader of the Year Award in 2018.

Her resiliency has propelled her forward through difficult circumstances.

Myra’s advice for others is “shut down the voices in your head. We all have voices, we’ve picked up along the way. We internalize them.”

Quieting those voices has been a key part of Myra’s success. She has developed a unique strategy which she calls the 8Cs — 4Cs that act as a barrier and 4Cs which she uses to build a support system of mentors, sponsors and advisors. (Keep an eye out for a guest post from Myra on her 8Cs.)