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STEM Spotlight: Tracy Drain Discusses Respect and Confidence

In today’s STEM spotlight, we will hear from Tracy Drain on how to cultivate respect in your position and gain confidence along the way.


Now a systems engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tracy Drain was a recent college graduate and brand-new engineer in 2000. Having been hired to work in a department with systems that were unfamiliar to her, she had no idea what would be expected of her, she says. But she quickly found out. “It seemed to me that I would spend a very long time in a purely learning, supporting role, basically doing grunt work for whoever I was working with most directly on any project.”


Luckily, Drain soon learned that at JPL, “the more senior engineers and scientists actually wanted to have input from newer engineers. They clearly recognized the benefit that could come from having a fresh perspective on designing a system, from someone who wasn’t steeped in traditional methods. Everyone encouraged me and the other new hires to think outside the box, and to not be shy with any ideas.”


Drain says she never actually sensed any extra pressure or need to earn the respect of her male colleagues, who significantly outnumbered the females. “But there are a few things that I have realized help to earn the respect of everyone,” she states.


What Drain learned were these lessons:

  • Cultivate respect for others, as this is hugely important to building a smoothly running, efficient team.
  • Be willing and eager to learn as much as possible about the work problem and any related background for it. (Also recognize when others already have a deeper understanding and can help you learn the details.)
  • Be sure to let people know when you don’t know something, and that you plan to do your best to fill a knowledge gap.


Establish a reputation for dependability, Drain advises, by asking enough questions to clearly understand your responsibilities in any task you’re working on (versus reaching a schedule milestone only to find that you haven’t covered everything that your boss or coworkers expected). Keep people posted on your progress on the tasks and let them know early on if you need help or think you won’t reach the original milestone.


“It’s hard to claim that increased experience hasn’t played the largest role in gaining respect from my fellow-engineers,” admits Drain. “While a fresh, untrained perspective is indeed valued, more emphasis is still placed on what you have learned through experience. “But,” she says, “I think one of the biggest reasons that I have a great working relationship with the people on my current project, and with nearly everyone I’ve worked with in the past, is the way we each try to understand the other’s various points when we have dissenting technical opinions, working toward understanding the differences so we can come to the best decisions.”


Karen Purcell

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