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Outer space dreams lead to NASA


Space inspires a universal curiosity that many may ponder, but few delve deeply into.

Through hard work, Katya Yanez was selected to visit NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center as part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars.

Katya found the program online while searching for internships and programs related to space exploration and physics.

Yanez was born and raised in El Salvador and moved to the United States at 17 years old in 2000. To learn English, Yanez attended West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills, California. A former student of Pierce College in 2001, Yanez came back to Pierce in 2014 to pursue a career an education in science.

Yanez received letters of recommendation from multiple instructors, including professor of
physics and planetary sciences Eric McKenny, assistant professor in speech communication Yeprem Davoodian, mathematics instructor Theresa Johnson and English instructors Sarah Mortimer-Boyd and Curt Duffy.

Yanez was a student in Mortimer-Boyd’s English 101 class and stood out with her impressive writing skills.

“She displayed ability to question, inquire and think,” Mortimer-Boyd said. “Her thinking process was sophisticated.”

Duffy had Yanez as a student in his English 28 class and was happy to write her a letter of recommendation.

“She was exceptional in class, a very diligent student,” Duffy said. “She was very disciplined and extremely confident. It’s great to hear that a Pierce student has gone on to achieve such a high profile activity.”

In her home country, there was no space program or a strong science field, so she never considered it as an option until she started at Pierce.

Yanez has an associate degree in business from Corinthian College in Henderson, Nevada, so she appreciates the jobs and opportunities to work and feels that it can tie into her passion for science as well.

“It’s a strong basis for anything you want to do in later on in life,” Yanez said. “There’s business even in science.”

Yanez met her husband, Joao, at Pierce College in 2001 and married him in 2005. Yanez moved back to California in 2007.

Once her son Paulo reached toddler age, Yanez wanted to set a good example for him and went back to Pierce in 2014.

One of the classes that would help her decide that science was her passion was an astronomy class during the 2014 winter session.

“I was so amazed at how of it I understood it. It was very difficult,” Yanez said. “A lot of times there this fear of success, but in order to get into science, you have to get a doctorate so I just take it one day at a time,” said Yanez.

To qualify for the program, Katya had to take an online class and maintain a good GPA.

“The online portion didn’t guarantee the selection to go onsite for NASA, and let me tell you, that was hard,” Yanez said.

She said the first five weeks included information pertaining to previous missions and projects completed by NASA and a 90 percent was the minimum acceptable score for the quizzes.

A mission proposal had to be made for a Mars robotic mission as part of the online training.

During her time in the three-day NASA program, Yanez was one of 240 students to be selected. The students were divided into four teams and Yanez took initiative that led to her selection as team leader.

Simulated missions given by NASA instructors challenged the students with thought-provoking activities.

The students had the opportunity to get tours and meet people in NASA, who gave words of wisdom and encouragement.

By the end of the program, Yanez was selected as the MVP of her team and received a medal from the Engineering of Curiosity.

Mortimer-Boyd said she was not surprised that Katya went into the science field.

“She’s a leader and her character is humble, kind, and personable,” Mortimer-Boyd said. “She will do well in the world.”