Q&A: Beyond the Stars with Katya Echazarreta

The Mexican-American Electrical Engineer and First Mexican-born Woman in Space Talks About Being a Role Model, Representation in STEM, and Why She Relates to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Mexican-American electrical engineer, astronaut and STEM education advocate Katya Echazarreta became the first Mexican-born woman in space in 2022. Photo Credit: Katya Echazarreta

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

February is National Women Inventors Month, a time when women innovators in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are commemorated for their contributions to the world.

Katya Echazarreta is a perfect example of someone to celebrate for her efforts in her field, electrical engineering, and for bringing a spotlight to Latinos in STEM.

Echazarreta is most known for making history last year as the first Mexican-born woman in space, traveling with a Space for Humanity flight as a citizen astronaut on June 4th, 2022. Beyond this incredible first, Echazarreta has a resume built of a strong work ethic and perseverance that began in childhood.

From immigrating to the US at 8, to working towards the goal of becoming and electrical engineer and being in space, her development into a woman in STEM and an inspirational icon for Latinos everywhere is commendable.

As an advocate for engineering education for all, Echazarreta knows all too well the barriers and lack of diversity in the engineering fields, and with her story hopes to be an active and vocal inspiration for all those that want to reach their goals. Beyond being involved in STEM work, she works in science and engineering communication, and has a presence on YouTube on her own channel KatVoltage, as well as hosting duties on Netflix IRL.

Recently we had an opportunity to speak with Echazarreta, who teamed up with Marvel Studios on the eve of the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, to talk about her own story of reaching for the stars, what her newfound spotlight means to her, and how she relates to a certain female engineer in Marvel’s latest.

The newest Ant-Man film continues the story of the loveable thief Scott Lang, who by chance steals a suit that can make him shrink and grown on command. He eventually becomes one of the Avengers, and is thrust into a world of engineering, science and superpowered technology. In the newest installment, Lang’s daughter Cassie (Played by Kathryn Newton) creates a device that can communicate with the quantum realm, but its power is greater than the protagonists could have expected, which leads to adventurous superhero hijinks.

Since it’s Women’s National Inventors Month, I was wondering why you personally think it’s important to highlight the women creators and inventors in STEM fields.

It’s no secret that representation is and will continue to be incredibly important for the generations in the years to come. And a very big reason for this is there’s that phrase which says, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” And although I don’t believe in it 100%, I do believe that for the vast majority, it is very true.

I know that there are still going to be a few people that do things anyway, such as my case where I became the first Mexican-born woman in space. But I also understand that it was so, so difficult for me to even get here. And 40 years have passed since the first Mexican-born astronaut before I came along. And so even though it did happen, still for 40 years, that is a very long time for people to feel like something like this is not possible for them.

And had this come sooner, how many more potentially could we have had, from people growing up and seeing this as more of a possibility? So representation is and will continue to be one of the most important ways that we have at the moment to be able to increase the amount of people in different fields and in different positions in general.

Like you said, the last Mexican-born person in space was 40 years ago. As you yourself progressed in your career, did you at times feel like you were paving a path that hadn’t been done for many Latinos, much less ever for a Mexican-born woman?

I think that has always been a very natural leader, and it’s never really scared me to hear the words “it’s never been done.” Actually, it’s the opposite. I get very excited about it because I’ve always really loved reading and watching movies about explorers. “We’re exploring something new. We’re doing something for the first time.” I’ve always been very attracted to that.

So even as a child, I remember in elementary school, I would go back to kindergarten and tutor them, mentor them, and help them out. And then in middle school, I would go back to elementary school. So for me, it was always very important to have that leader factor, but also that humanitarian, giving back factor to everything that I was doing. Because I understood even then that if I’m going to be the first, I certainly do not want to be the last. And the way that we do that is by extending that hand out.

How does it feel like to be an inspiration, knowing that there’s a lot of not only children but people from all walks of life that are looking at you as inspirational for what you’ve achieved as a Latina and a woman?

I think it’s been very strange because I’m an engineer. Engineers don’t usually get this kind of attention. It’s always been very common for me to see, for example, children and little boys, little girls dressing up as marvel characters. That’s something that we see as more normal. But for me to see last Halloween, little girls dressing up as me, that is something that I don’t really fully think I can grasp yet, and I’m not sure if I ever will, because it’s just not something that you expect out of your life.

You grow up thinking that it’s going to be very hard to even just make it to an ounce of what it is that you’re dreaming of, especially as a Latina and especially seeing the history of how little amounts of people that come from your backgrounds have been able to achieve what you want.

And so you kind of just get put in survival mode where you’re trying to create this life for yourself. You’re trying to change the life that your family has been living for so many years. You’re trying to get an education; you’re trying to make those sacrifices your parents made worth it. And really the last thing on your mind is that you’re going to end up as a figure for others.

But I understand why. I understand the reason. I know that in me doing something that, for me was just something I really, truly wanted to do, and it was my dream. But in achieving it and actually going out, achieving it is so inspirational for so many people from our background, because they have never seen this before. They have never seen somebody so young that comes from their same communities, that looks just like them achieve something in this way. And so I understand that it’s a great responsibility that I have to them right now.

Who or what was your inspiration while you were growing up to go into engineering?

I think it’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited to be partnering up with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, because I have a very similar story to Cassie Lang, who is Ant-Man’s daughter. She grew up watching her dad and all the things that he does, and he also happens to be an electrical engineer, which is the same type of engineer that my dad is and that I also am as well. And so I can really relate to her story of seeing her dad and all the things that he was working on, because that was me. That was my story growing up.

I would come home and my dad had his office in the garage, and so I would go in the garage. That’s where all of us had our offices as well. We had kind of like a homeworking area way before it was cool! My brother had his little desk here, my sister here, then me here, then my dad had half of the garage, and I would go in there to get help on my homework, and I would see a soldering iron, and I would see a circuit board, and I would see all these different components, and I would ask about them.

“What is that? What is this?” And so to be able to have had that exposure since I was a little girl was really important for me because so many little girls, especially Latinas, do not get access to any of these things or even answers to what this field even is. So to be honest with you, if I hadn’t had that exposure from childhood, I don’t know whether I would have followed this career because I probably wouldn’t even have known what it was.

So I heard you identify with Cassie Lang, the talented teenage engineer and daughter of Ant-Man?

I think that the scenes that I’ve seen with her have really spoken to me a lot because it is definitely that experience that she goes through of having this invention and having this thing that she’s really proud of, but it ends up being the reason why they get stuck in this other realm. She accidentally opens up a portal.

I think that aspect is really important because engineering is not always going to be beautiful. It’s not always going to do the right thing. It’s not always going to do the thing you’re expecting that it will do. And especially as a female character, to be able to show that aspect of a female engineer is really important because female engineers throughout history have not been allowed to make mistakes.

They’re not forgiven so much for their mistakes, and they’re not really given that freedom to grow as much as male engineers. And so even though that side of it is not very obvious to any female engineer that is like a breath of fresh air, to be able to see that female engineer, that is not a super genius, not perfect.

Thank you, Katya, last question. If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice as a child wanting to reach the stars, what would it be?

I would probably say to keep going because I am just so proud of the child that I was. I have always been a very confident and secure child, not in my own self, because I was very shy, but in what I wanted and in what my dreams were. That was one thing that I wouldn’t compromise on. I always knew that I would achieve it.

Even back then, the words that I was saying were, “I’m going to go to space, I’m going to be an engineer, I’m going to get to NASA. If you’re telling me that they’re only opening up one position for the type of engineering I want a year, then there’s my shot. I’m going to be that one.”

And even though when you’re little, it’s so much easier to say a lot of these words because you don’t truly understand the reality of real life yet, I think that it’s so important to be able to be that child that is just so sure, because you can go back and think about those moments when you’re now an adult and you’re realizing, “oh, you know what? It’s actually not as easy as just saying, ‘I’m going to do it.’”

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is now in theaters.

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