From NYU to NASA: Women in STEM

Have you ever heard of Space Barbie? She flew from NYU to NASA

student outside of NASA's globe

NYU Women in STEM alumnae: they’re out of this world. In Tanya Gupta’s case, quite literally. In childhood Tanya began a lifelong obsession with space, taking inspiration from Barbie and the Rockers—Barbie’s band that gave concerts in outer space, of course. This obsession culminated in her attending NYU and obtaining a coveted internship at NASAs Armstrong Flight Research Center. Thus, Space Barbie was born.

Women in Stem artwork
In addition to being an Engineer, Tanya Gupta is also an artist

Following her work at NASA, Tanya has continued to break the stereotypes that women in STEM are too often labeled with. She obtained a patent for a virtual reality tool that she helped build at NASA, graduated from NYU with a degree in mechanical engineering, and currently works at IBM as a developer. Take that, Barbie.

Tanya also started creating and sharing her artwork on Instagram, already gaining an impressive following. Her art certainly lives up to her love of outer space, featuring aspects of the cosmos, physics, and other scientific paraphernalia.

Tanya's artwork of an astronaut
Tanya's artwork of a witch and UFO

I spoke with Tanya about her experiences as a woman in STEM alumna from NYU, and her early experiences in the field. In this interview we discuss her decision to attend NYU and the opportunities she found there, and her advice for the future women in the field currently facing the same obstacles that she did.

Tanya at her STEM internship at NASA

Hi Tanya, congratulations on your new role at IBM! What drew you to studying and working in the STEM field?

I have a funny story for you. It began with a 1987 tape of “Barbie and the Rockers: Out of This World”—aka the VHS my mom threw into the TV whenever she needed her toddler distracted for an hour. Barbie and her rock band gave the first concert for world peace in outer space. An international pop sensation and astronaut? I was captivated. Who wouldn’t be?

Sure, Barbie made me desperate to experience applying bright blue eyeshadow in zero gravity. But she also sparked a passion in me to pursue space exploration in my own way. It was during my first visit to Johnson Space Center in Houston at age nine that I realized how my dream of being “Space Barbie” really was tangible. Who would have thought that a little over a decade later, I’d be working at NASA? Each time I recall this story it cements my belief that children are truly little experience-absorbing sponges. I’m lucky to have parents who always encourage me to chase my dreams—the bigger and more out of this world, the better.

Did you face prejudice at school for wanting to study engineering?

Oh, yes! I will never forget, it was the first day of my sophomore year of high school. I was excited because I had enrolled in my first ever engineering class that year. Wearing my favorite dress, I spent extra time in the morning curling my hair and getting dolled up. Unfortunately for me, my high school had installed a brand-new wing for STEM courses. This led me to get lost on my way to class and be late for the bell. 

Finally, about seven minutes late, I arrived at the drafting room. I peeked around—not a single girl in sight. My teacher turned to me and said, “Sweetie, do you think you might be in the wrong room?” He and my other classmates chuckled while he flipped to his attendance list to find that I was, indeed, in the right class. I held my head high, pink notebook and all, and took my rightful seat. The redemption of this story is that my teacher ended up taking some of my portfolio work to conferences to showcase some of his most promising students. I’ll bet that was the last time he judged an (albeit very feminine) book by its cover.

What are some of the stereotypes young women interested in STEM face? Do you think NYU challenges those stereotypes?

Every woman in STEM can tell you stories of microaggressions experienced at school or in the workplace. However, I feel my specific experience at NYU was not, broadly speaking, one where I felt I was in the minority. This is much to NYUs credit. NYU had a much higher percentage of women in STEM in my graduating class (40 percent) than the national average (22 percent). So many of my best friends and classmates through college were fellow women in STEM. I recognize, however, that my college experience is not the norm. My high school experience prepared me to be the only woman in the room, so it was incredibly refreshing to be able to learn in a far more comfortable setting.

What led you to NYU when exploring colleges with strong STEM programs?

The city! The glitz, the glamour! Just because I’m in STEM doesn’t mean I don’t still live for the drama! Like many other NYU students, I’ve always been totally enamored of New York City. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, so I thought I was familiar with the metropolitan lifestyle. But nothing compares to actually living in the non-stop hustle and bustle of NYC. I narrowed my acceptance letters down to a handful of equally-rigorous engineering programs. Ultimately, none of the other contenders had the liveliness, cultural diversity, and opportunities for women in STEM offered by NYU.

What opportunities and internships did you pursue while at NYU?

After my first year at NYU, I watched as my peers accepted internships at some of the most reputable companies. I grew concerned that I was going to graduate with little to nothing on my résumé that would help me stand out. The summer before my senior year, I sent out over 150 job and internship applications. With my lack of experience, I was willing to start anywhere.

In the process of writing dozens of bespoke cover letters for each role, I thought I’d also try my hand at applying to the most ambitious places I could think of. Months passed by, and then one day in the middle of studying for finals in the Tandon engineering library, I received a phone call that would change my life forever. I was offered a co-op position at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. It was a dream come true any way you’d slice it, so I took the job and I have never looked back. I became a NASA operations engineering lead. My academic adviser was enthusiastically supportive and encouraged me to pursue this opportunity. NYU allowed me to spread my final semester over the course of a full academic year. This allowed me to devote the better part of a whole year to my startup, Curtain Call.

Could you speak a little bit about how you founded Curtain Call?

Looking back, I notice that I always seemed to have a million things on my plate in college. It’s almost as if I couldn’t function without being up to my neck in responsibilities. During my junior year, among all my academics and working as a Resident Assistant, I co-founded an all-woman startup called Curtain Call with two fellow mechanical engineers, Laura Ahmetaj (Tandon ’18), Quinn Robertson (Tandon ’18) and a music business major, Carissa Estilo (Steinhardt ’20). We entered the NYU Stern 300K and managed to become semifinalists! This started the nearly three-year-long journey of really doing the whole startup gig. Though I completed my time at the company just before I graduated, it is still perhaps the most valuable experience I gained during my time at NYU.

What was it like visiting the NYU campus for the first time?

When I came to visit NYU, my dad and I were given a tour of the campus by an incredible Admissions Ambassador, Whitney Mulhern. She was pursuing a double degree from the Tandon School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Science. I was absolutely captivated by her—a fellow woman engineer, living my dream of attending NYU. Whitney had a big part to play in my choice of attending.

Fast forward to my first year at NYU. After the long and rigorous interview process of becoming an Admissions Ambassador, I landed the job. Who did I get assigned to be my mentor? None other than Whitney herself! It felt like fate, the way things came full-circle. NYU has a tendency to provide magical experiences like that, if you look in the right places.

Finally, I would like to ask you: what is one piece of advice you have for young women interested in STEM going through the college selection process?

Entering college is a new, exciting, and uncertain experience. I think it’s important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You will likely encounter some discomfort in and out of the classroom wherever you choose, but part of what makes it a learning process is the opportunity to grow out of your comfort zone and into a unique person—aka, grow into you! It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to find yourself immediately, but remember that it is a marathon, not a race. You will continue to evolve well beyond college too. Life is a constant journey of growth, and attending NYU was the catalyst for my personal journey. I hope the same for those of you who choose NYU.

student graduating in Washington Square Park
Thank you so much to Tanya Gupta for taking the time to chat with me. It is wonderful to see there are many opportunities for Women in STEM out there, and I’m thrilled so many can be found here at NYU. So whether you’re interested in physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, or any of our other wonderful STEM programs, we hope you consider applying to NYU. We would love to help get where you need to go—even if that’s outer-space!