Pamela Denkins

Sector: Government

Field: Science

Occupation: Toxicologist

Can you give a brief overview of your job responsibilities and what your role entails on a day to day basis?

I am a Life Sciences Aerospace Technologist and Researcher currently in the Human Health and Performance Directorate (HHPD) at NASA.  I serve as the Deputy of the Human Systems Academy and as a technical lead for several research initiatives involving Tier 2 and Tier 3 Universities.

As the Deputy of the Human Systems Academy, I am responsible for the planning, coordination, management, and support of the development and implementation of HHPD initiatives for the maintenance of its core competencies. Serving as the technical lead for research is one of those initiatives.    It is the most rewarding aspect of my job and involves interfacing regularly with  underserved and underrepresented universities on research-related activities (i.e., providing technical guidance and making recommendations on research topics and direction, advising on the acquisition of funding to further research, proposal reviews, etc.).

You began and established your career in the industry sector before deciding to continue your education and pursue a career at NASA. What were the most challenging hurdles you faced when making this shift and what advice would you give to professionals who are considering making a similar change?

I actually began working for NASA after graduation from high school and continued through the completion of my BS degree in 1973.  It was after completing my undergraduate studies that I decided to take a job in industry where I worked locally and internationally over a span of 17 years.  With an interest in returning to grad school and having worked for NASA, I knew that returning to NASA in 1990 would enable the successful completion of my education goals (achieving a M.S. and a Ph.D.).  I returned to graduate school while my youngest, a daughter, was in high school.  Because of her schedule and because I had been out of school so long, I only took one class per semester for the first two years.  After she graduated from high school, I increased my course load significantly. Over a span of eleven years, I worked, went to school, and cared for my family including my parents.   Life will continue to happen–no matter what you are doing.  You have to decide what’s important, when and how you’re going to address and manage things, and ‘press’ on.   Somehow, it can all work out.

In a previous speech, you stated “assure you are well prepared” when overcoming obstacles. How do you believe early-career professionals can best assure they are well prepared for success, outside of academic achievements?

Your lifestyle has a lot to do with your ‘preparedness’ for overcoming obstacles.   One must believe in him or herself—first.  Be realistic about the commitment you are making and what it may take to achieve your goals.  Minimize distractions and dead-weight and ‘de-clutter’ your life.  Focus on health, supportive and encouraging relationships, and spirituality.

You have also spoke to the growing concern over the ability to supersede the ageing STEM workforce. What career advice would you give current STEM students/early-career professionals as well as established/retiring professionals, to combat this impeding deficit?

Yes, within the Federal government, the workforce is an ‘aged’ workforce and many are retiring.  Recruitment efforts to replace the talent have been minimized or marginalized and focus only on certain institutions and/or groups.

As for the deficit in STEM professionals, I don’t feel that it’s real.  I do believe and have witnessed the failure of government and industry to capture the minority STEM talent at minority STEM universities in favor of focusing mostly on majority institutions for minority STEM majors.  Fact 1: Minority STEM majors have a difficult time of getting employed in STEM fields if they are not from majority institutions.  Fact 2: Minority STEM majors at majority institutions are often ‘weeded out’, thus adding to the ‘dismal’ statistics for STEM majors.    I have observed, also, that perpetuating the dismal statics for U.S. STEM graduates gives industries opportunities to recruit from overseas.  Further added to the perceived deficit is the reality that many minority STEM graduates are employed in non-STEM fields.  They do so because of the limited STEM opportunities for minorities.   While these individuals may continue to seek STEM opportunities, often times and dependent on the time spent in non-STEM fields,   they are not being hired because employees will say the lack current skillsets.

For anyone, being under-employed, unemployed, or “refused-employment” is a difficult position to be in.  To combat the perceived “impending” deficit, I encourage current STEM students and early-career professionals to get advanced degrees in their field of concentration to increase their competitiveness and participate in the recruitment activities that are at their institutions and in their local areas; do internships and participate in Cooperative Education programs; and network (especially professional conferences) – just to name a few. Established/retiring professionals are encouraged to counsel and mentor.   Some are returning to the classroom.

What are some of the most exciting changes you’ve experienced with working at NASA since you first started?

I have an interdisciplinary background and, as such, I’ve experienced a number of exciting changes and accomplishments during my tenure with NASA.  First, during my Undergraduate years  (1968 – 1973) as a Cooperative Education student, I participated in the first studies conducted to understand  the radiation environment experienced by the astronauts during space missions.   As a Data Security  Engineer, I received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Award, for the establishment and certification of the NASA Sensitivity Level 3 Security Environment for the Space Station Software Support Data Processing Installation.  The Software Development Facility was to be the ‘hub’ of a NASA-wide network for the development of highly sensitive software and the certification confirmed that the environment was ‘free of known vulnerabilities’.  This was the first certification of this nature for the Agency.  I, later,  completed my M.S. in Mathematics and Ph.D. in Chemistry/Environmental Toxicology and, as a Researcher,  led an experiment that flew on SpaceX-3 and was conducted onboard the ISS in April 2014.   With a research team coming from five minority institutions, it was NASA’s first ISS Tier 2/Tier 3 university research project. The research was formulated by the team and the focus involved testing novel compounds that reveal restorative properties for immune cells and inhibitive properties for cancer cell proliferation exposed to radiation and microgravity.  The effort received Agency as well as Congressional recognition.

Was there a key decision you made or moment that led you to your current career path?

My love of math and science (especially physics) and a desire to work for NASA were the impetus for my current career path.