The tech industry is known for its fast-paced, rigorous environment that demands a fervent commitment to keep up with evolving technologies. Programming and engineering are typical fields to enter, but designing software for NASA’s spacecraft and some of the nation’s top minds? That’s just an average day for Marijke Jorritsma, User Experience (UX) Designer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Jorritsma is part of the User Centered Design Group at the JPL OpsLab, where she collaborates with teams to develop efficient technologies at the core of mission flight operations.

We had the opportunity to chat with Jorritsma, where she discusses navigating her career, her favorite projects at JPL, and her thoughts on approaches to promote gender equity and diversity in the workplace.

Tell us about your background.

I have a BFA in Film from the San Francisco Art Institute; however, at the end of my studies I took mostly digital studies classes where I could do things like learn Max/MSP and read and write about culture and technology. For grad school I got a Masters of Science from NYU’s Integrated Digital Media program in their Tandon School of Engineering.

Take us through your career journey. How did you get to where you are today?

I started messing with electronic music while I was in art school and when I graduated I started putting out releases and touring. I didn’t just want to be a full-time musician so I also worked as a media educator in schools and non-profits. I chose education because I wanted to inspire young learners to fall in love with learning the way I constantly am.

While I was working in these environments I saw how much needed to change at a systemic level in order to create a sustained environment of self-motivated learning in students, and I started to feel really overwhelmed. I felt like there was no way I could make all of the changes that needed to happen all by myself.

At the same time I was getting teachers to use the visual programming application Scratch in their curricula. I showed them how a decentralized learning environment where all the kids could learn at their own pace and from each other could be really successful. The classes went really well, the teachers loved it and changed the way they were teaching, and the learning went almost viral with the kids.

While researching the origins of Scratch, I discovered that the originator of Scratch, Mitch Resnick of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab had done research and written a book on teaching kids about decentralized systems. His theory was that by giving kids the tools to build and play with such complex systems, they would be able to understand them. At that moment I realized that the way you design software can not only teach challenging concepts through play, but that it can have the ability to affect social change on a very large scale.

So I quit teaching and pursued a career in User Experience Design.

What is it like to be a UX Designer at JPL?

The best part of being a UX designer at JPL is that I get to design software to help some of the world’s smartest scientists and engineers do their jobs better. Often times, this means creating tools to help them collaborate so that they can do as much science in space as possible. As someone who loves learning, this is a dream job because my user research includes developing a base-level understanding of the science and engineering that my users are doing so that I can better empathize with their goals and pain points.

One of the challenges of being a UX designer at JPL is that designers are a fairly new addition to the lab and people aren’t always sure what it is that we can do for them. As an engineering-centric environment that prides itself on its ability to solve unique problems, being a designer at JPL involves showing engineering teams what taking a design thinking approach to problem-solving can look like.

Image of facial music controller.

Companies, including Kadenze, are making efforts to encourage women and underrepresented communities to pursue careers in STEAM. Which efforts resonate with you?

I really like it when you can tell a company has made an effort to diversify its workforce or content or programming or whatever it’s doing without calling attention to that effort. It’s kind of the “fake it till you make it” approach until you’re actually not faking it anymore. For example, make sure your blog posts are 50% women, or that you’re recruiting representative amounts of women and people of color into your resume pool.

Be a leader in making the world what it should look and feel like! The strategies that a company will have to develop to make that happen will forge an understanding of the problem space that is deeper than putting together a “Women in Tech” marketing campaign.

Jorritsma tests out ProtoSpace, one of NASA’s mixed reality projects used to visualize spacecraft models, including the rover designs for the upcoming Mars 2020 mission.

What techniques have you witnessed or participated in that can actively reduce inequality in the workplace?

I attended a presentation in the last year by the Yale sociologist and technological anthropologist Janet Vertisi on how to diversify spacecraft teams. She cited a study which found that minority groups that have less than 30% representation in a company or lab bare undue stress and burden because of a myriad of proven stressors that go along with being a minority: tokenism, imposter syndrome, etc. If companies want to make the work experience more equitable for their employees, they need to actively seek out ways to bring up the numbers of underrepresented groups in their company. This should be considered in a company’s recruitment strategy.

What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on in your career?

When I first got to JPL, I worked on a tool that allowed a group of Mechanical Engineers to collaboratively interact with an augmented reality version of their spacecraft design years before it would be built. This tool is really transformative in that it allows engineers to collaboratively problem solve spatial design issues in a way they could not have done before. I loved working on this project because there was very little precedent for designing and interacting with holographic UIs outside of science fiction, and because I got to spend a lot of time observing spacecraft engineers crawl around the floor looking at holograms.

AR and holographic technology allow scientists to explore the most recent data returned from the Mars rover in a true-to-scale and embodied way.

Can you give us a sneak peak of any upcoming projects you’re excited to work on at JPL?

I’m currently working on the Europa Clipper mission which is scheduled to arrive at the Jovian moon around 2025 with the hopes of discovering life-supporting conditions. Due to Jupiter’s radiation belt, the spacecraft cannot orbit the moon continuously without frying all of its electronics, so the mission consists of only 42 fly-bys of Europa while staying in Jupiter’s orbit. In order to make the most out of this narrow window of science observation opportunity, I am working on software that will help the science teams respond as quickly as possible to the data that they get back from the spacecraft.

What do you see as the benefit of more women getting involved in STEAM?

The world has a lot of hard problems to solve and we need as many brilliant minds as possible to solve them.