Why I gave up my job at NASA to become a nun
[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s space issue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Click here to find our other stories that are out of this world.]
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. I was standing in the control room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland on June 11, 2008, with my fellow engineers and scientists, counting down the final seconds until the launch of our satellite. “Please, God,” I begged. “Let this work!”
Six. Five. Four. Wearing heels and a sculpted black skirt with just a hint of pink, at 25 years of age I was the youngest person in a room filled with slacks and ties. “What am I doing here?” I marveled. “How can I be talking on a headset to Cape Canaveral?”
Three. Two. One. Lift-off. I was glued to my computer monitor, simultaneously watching the vital signs of the satellite and a live-stream video of the launch pad in Florida. As one of the systems engineers, my role was to find and fix problems and to be a connecting point among the other engineers. I sighed in relief as smoke billowed out of the engines and the rocket disappeared from the frame. Now the real work could begin: the operations in space that the satellite was designed to perform.
Most people only hear the last 10 seconds of the countdown before a rocket launch. In reality, it lasts for hours and requires multiple days of rehearsal. The few exhilarating minutes are preceded by months of tedious work. My journey from being an aerospace engineer to a religious sister followed a similar timeline. There is no 10-second version of my vocation story. It included years of questioning and groundwork, culminating in a few magical minutes of clarity, followed by the actual operations, when a million yeses must be given repeatedly after the initial commitment to religious life.
Most people only hear the last 10 seconds of the countdown before a rocket launch. In reality, it lasts for hours and requires multiple days of rehearsal.
Shortly after the 2008 launch, I found myself working at a slower pace at a NASA subcontractor in Phoenix. The pace was slower, filled with meetings and cubicles. I began to feel restless, and after two years I decided to go to Kenya with an organization called Mikinduri Children of Hope to help provide medical, dental and vision services in a small village. I was assured that even without any medical training, I would be busy; and after countless hours staring at an unmoving, metal satellite, I was eager to work with people.
I fell in love with Kenya. The countryside was lush and green in some places; there were bright colors painted on the simple tin buildings to advertise Huggies and condoms. I saw in the Kenyan people what it means to radiate God’s love. This was something I had not seen or felt in Phoenix. Before leaving Kenya, I resolved to quit my job, give up the comfortable and steadily growing salary and take a year off to seek joy.
After a year of family time, scrapbooking, yoga and road trips, I started working as an engineering professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. For six years I mentored students as they discovered engineering design, while earning my Ph.D. I returned to Kenya every February and involved my students in the trips as much as possible so they could develop their skills while helping people who were truly in need.
My journey from being an aerospace engineer to a religious sister followed a similar timeline. There is no 10-second version of my vocation story.
I became more involved in church and was active in a new diocesan young adult group. We went to Mass, gathered for meals and debated theological issues. But I saw this Catholic side of myself as something I did on weekends. I considered my religion and my profession as two distinct parts of me, rather than an integrated whole.
In 2015, I took a weekend road trip with a few friends from my church’s young adult group, including a sister of the Congregation of Notre-Dame. We spent a night in rustic cabins in Meat Cove, Nova Scotia, with no electricity or running water, surrounded by an ocean filled with whales and a sky filled with stars. Sitting on the porch, attempting to solve the problems of the world, the discussion moved onto the topic of ministry. But I had never felt like the word applied to me. When I expressed my frustration with the word, my friends looked stunned.
“Your life is a ministry,” they said.
I balked: “I teach engineering, that’s all.”
As if seeing me for the first time, the religious sister asked, “Do you know what we do?” When I did not reply, she explained that “liberating education,” the charism of the C.N.D.s, encourages sisters to empower and educate in any form that frees the human spirit.
The notion of liberating education and the potential promise it held for my future as a religious sister shook my whole world.
For a few exhilarating seconds, I saw my whole life clearly integrated. I realized that I did not have to evangelize or mention God at work, as I was ministering to my students and coworkers simply by loving them and treating them as worthy, holy individuals. We had lift-off.
The notion of liberating education and the potential promise it held for my future as a religious sister shook my whole world. After nearly two weeks of feeling intense joy, I decided this was more than just a retreat high. I appeared at the sister’s door and asked her to “sell me on this nun thing.” She laughed, we talked, and I walked away with answers to my questions. Nearly four years later, I am nearing the end of my novitiate and will be making my first vows this summer.
This is when the real work happens, after the exciting final seconds of the count down. In addition to prayer, classes and ministry, my chores have been atypical: fixing toilets, replacing sinks, installing floors and painting walls. Before this, I felt ashamed both when I was at church (because I was not doing more for God’s kingdom) and when I was at work (because they might think I was trying to proselytize).
Though I was never discouraged from talking about religion at work or school, no one else ever did, so neither did I. When we worked around the clock in the final months before the launch of the satellite in 2008, none of the other engineers asked for time off on Sundays to attend church, so I never did either. My self-imposed censorship meant I sacrificed sleep in order to find a service during my few hours off. During my final semester as a Ph.D. student, I had to justify why I was not presenting at the student research conference—a prerequisite to graduation. I was too embarrassed to say that I was going on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, so I mumbled, “It’s a religious thing.” Religion was such a taboo topic in the department that the issue was dropped without another word.
The void where shame once sat is now an open vessel, slowly filling with spiritually scientific pursuits, allowing me to delve into both science from a spiritual perspective and spirituality within a scientific frame. Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Ilia Delio, O.S.F., and Kathleen Deignan, C.N.D., were my first teachers in this integration and have given me a new way to sit in awe of the universe. While in the novitiate, I discovered scientists who examine their beliefs as if under a microscope, exploring how their faith informs their science and their science informs their faith. I read every book the library could offer on quantum physics, to better understand the unfolding grand design by our invisible but palpable God.
I have learned that belief is not unique to those who consider themselves religious: I believe in a god of love, and quantum physicists believe that their specific theory is true, whether string theory or quantum loop theory, though they have no concrete evidence for either.
Often, people are intrigued about the transition from working on satellites to the novitiate, but the journey has felt natural to me. I have always trusted that God has given me both the compass and the tools that I need—and sometimes a hearty shove in the right direction. As a paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin said, “God is at the tip of my pen my spade, my brush, my needle—of my heart and of my thoughts.” For me, I can now comfortably attest that God is the tip of my whiteboard marker, my space bar, my wrench, my headset—of my heart and always of my thoughts.