How a restless but intelligent African-American girl and Louisville native went from first-grade troublemaker to NASA engineer. And no! This is not that movie.
Young children who are restless, inattentive and act up in school are often categorized as “discipline problems,” get treated as discipline problems and – what a surprise! – end up as discipline problems.
Then there was little Tracy Williams. The first grade teacher at Wheatley Elementary School told Eddie Mae Williams that her six-year-old daughter, Tracy, was causing trouble, talking constantly – “I mean, constantly!” – and being generally disruptive.
However, this Louisville teacher decided that Tracy was not a discipline problem, that she was simply bored and too intelligent for the first-grade curriculum. So she recommended moving the youngster up to an advanced program.
All of which led, eventually, to a “disruptive” first-grader becoming a flight systems engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Proving that if good primary education is not rocket science, it’s not entirely unrelated.
If you’re beginning to see a similarity between this Louisville youngster and the little West Virginia girl in the beginning of the movie, “Hidden Figures,” you’re not entirely wrong. In the movie, smart, caring people in Katherine Johnson’s young life channeled her prodigious math abilities and she ended up plotting navigation charts for NASA’s Mercury program, including John Glenn’s 1963 orbit around the Earth.
So, is this life imitating life?
Now in her thirties, Tracy Drain laughs. (She was married to fellow NASA worker Ted Drain in 2003.) “Well, I wasn’t exactly a math prodigy,” she says. “But I was interested in a lot of things, and outer space did hold my interest.” Growing up in Louisville, she went to all the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” movies with her mother, and they watched all the shuttle launches on TV.
Of course, if every child who went to see “Star Trek” with her mother ended up working at NASA, the facility couldn’t contain them all. Drain was fortunate in that, after her sophomore year as a Mechanical Engineering major at the University of Kentucky, she landed an internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. “And I was hooked!” Drain says. “I still had no idea what I wanted to do there, but I wanted to be a part of it.”
So she went on for a masters degree at Georgia Tech, with a still-unformed idea of what her role might be in the space program. “I thought I’d help build space shuttles,” she says.
What she has become is a systems engineer, a coordinator working with all the various teams that build spacecraft, making sure all their different parts are fitting together and working efficiently.
“It’s the creative-thinking, problem-solving part of engineering,” she explains. “I love solving technical problems. If I’d known that job existed, it would have been exactly the kind of job I’d have been interested in all along.”
There’s another part of the “Hidden Figures” story that Drain identifies with. As an African-American woman, she knows the hurdles and misconceptions that can discourage youngsters like her from pursuing high-tech careers. While Drain never had to run to another building in the rain just to use the “colored” bathroom, she did have to prove herself in a mostly male, mostly white environment.
“Ever since the movie came out,” she says, “I’ve been getting more requests to speak to minority students and female students, because people feel it’s important to have a role model these kids can relate to.”
The pillars of her message are twofold:
One, find your passion. “I tell them science and engineering need not be boring and stuffy,” she says. “My job is also crazy lots of fun. But the challenge to all of them is to find out what they think is fascinating, what gives them pleasure and excitement, and then pursue it.
“I hear so many kids – especially older kids – say they’re hunting for a career path that feels right to them. But when I talk about my life, I can see it happen in real time as they realize they can have jobs that are exciting to them. I get a lot of satisfaction from that.”
And two, you needn’t be perfect to aim for the stars. “I tell them I had my own rough patch in fifth grade, getting D’s and F’s,” she says. “In fact, I also got some D’s in college. Is there anyone who can never make a mistake? That’s ridiculous – you’ll make plenty of mistakes, all along the way. But you have to persevere and keep going, try harder. You can do it.”
Drain sees herself as “a mold-breaker.” Female, African American, irreverent and fun (she once went to a NASA Halloween party, with friends, as the Spice Girls), “I know I don’t fit the mold of a NASA engineer. But you know what? There are a bunch of us out there, just like me. So, clearly, the mold must be wrong. Or maybe it’s just obsolete.”
CELEBRATING KENTUCKY: THE LOUISVILLE NON-PROFIT THAT SHOWCASES INDIGENOUS TALENT
Tracy Drain made one of her motivational, inspirational appearances in her very own hometown in June, courtesy of the organization Kentucky to the World. She addressed a group of 150 middle-schoolers that morning at the Kentucky Science Center, then a young-adult audience at Copper & Kings Distillery in the evening.
As a native Louisvillian, Drain is typical of the speakers Kentucky to the World (KTW) has brought home since its 2013 founding. The KTW mission statement, developed by president Shelly Zegart, is “to showcase outstanding men and women with strong Kentucky ties . . . to promote a positive narrative about Kentucky.”
The KTW speaker series, sponsored by Republic Bank Foundation in collaboration with Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, began in 2013 with Devin Emke, a sound engineer on Saturday Night Live. Since then, featured speakers have included husband-and-wife New York Times journalists Sharon LaFraniere and Michael Wines; General Motors automobile designer Bill Porter; New York transplant surgeon Dr. Sander Florman; Emmy Award-winning composer Jonathan Wolff; D.C. political writer Perry Bacon Jr.; the medical/legal/beauty-marketing Booth sisters; and others, all Kentucky natives.
Drain, however, was the first in KTW’s new Modern Thinker Social Series, aimed at a younger audience.
“It’s a natural extension of our main program,” says KTW producer and cinematographer Tommy Johns, who came up with the Modern Thinker concept. “We’re looking to appeal to a broader, slightly younger, demographic.”
In addition to the speaker, says Johns, the festival-like series will include other experiential components, like food, music, art and interactivity. For the Tracy Drain presentation, KTW partnered with the Louisville Astronomical Society, setting up solar and lunar telescopes outside the facility to introduce attendees to the vastness of the space around them – the space Drain is working to explore.