A graduate of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Alabama A&M University has never forgotten where she came from. Learn more in the story from Daniel Boyette of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center below.
Growing up in the small city of West Helena, Arkansas, Ruth Jones never dreamed of even knowing – let alone having a career as – a physicist or NASA employee. She went on to become both and has spent her career giving back to her hometown.
“I want to inspire the next generation to discover their passion and pursue their dreams,” Jones, associate manager for the Human Exploration Development & Operations Office at Marshall Space Flight Center, said. “I want to be that person who students can relate to and see themselves in me. That’s why it’s very important to me to go back to my former schools and do a science day to let students know the importance of education and career fields in science, technology, engineering, and math. Hearing about my success can give students from my hometown hope, confidence, and determination to do anything they put their minds to by working for it.”
Jones was the first female to receive a bachelor’s in physics from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She then attended Alabama A&M University and earned both a master of science and doctorate in physics/materials science, becoming Alabama’s second African American woman to receive a doctorate in physics.
“Since my career has afforded me to be instrumental to so many people, leaving a legacy is very important to me,” said Jones, who awards two scholarships annually to students attending her home church, First Baptist Church in West Helena. “To me, LEGACY means ‘Letting Experience Guide and Change You,’ and I want my experiences to guide and change everyone I meet. That’s why mentoring is dear to my heart … which is another way I give back, not only to my hometown but to anyone I meet.”
Question: What are your primary responsibilities as associate manager for the Human Exploration Development & Operations Office?
Jones: I provide direct support to the manager and deputy manager in the execution of the office, center, and mission directorate goals and objectives. This includes supporting activities related to organizational workforce planning and budget management by providing status and elevating issues to the office’s leadership team. I also perform assessments and provide initiatives to address the concerned areas.
Naturally, I have taken on the role of motivating and encouraging our team as they work hard on our missions and projects to meet deadlines. Something as simple as a “wellness check” email message or phone call goes a long way, and I hope it shows our team members I genuinely care about them and their well-being. Taking care of our team is very important to me because if the team is healthy – mentally and physically – we will be successful.
Question: Who or what led you to pursue an education/career in physics?
Jones: I’ve always had a passion for numbers and solving problems. I took accounting and physics my senior year in high school and loved them both. My initial major in college was accounting, where college algebra was the highest level of math that I needed for that curriculum. My college algebra professor, Dr. Miah Adel, saw my passion for solving problems and understanding of math, and he persuaded me to change my major to physics. However, he failed to tell me that there were no physics majors on campus. I owe my success in my career and in a male-dominated field – physics – to Dr. Miah because he observed my mathematical skills and potential. Even though I was the only physics major on campus, he taught class as if it was a room full of students … never cutting class short and providing plenty homework assignments, tests, and labs.
Question: How big of a role did your NASA co-op play in you having a successful career with the agency?
Jones: Being a NASA co-op was very instrumental to my success. The NASA co-op program provided me an opportunity to work within different organizations, which helped me find my niche and purpose, in addition to working with some of the best scientists/engineers at Marshall, such as Dr. Donald Frazier, Dr. Sandor Lehoczky, Dr. Ching Hua Su, Jim Bilbro, and Dr. Philip Stahl. I was fortunate to gain some awesome mentors, including the late E.C. Smith, along with Jim Kennedy, Tia Ferguson, Dr. Amanda Goodson, and Angelia Walker.
During my co-op tenure, I gained experience in crystal growth; optical coatings and optical components; replicated optics; electrical, electronic, and electromechanical parts; and physics/metallurgy, which laid the foundation for my NASA career.
Question: Who or what drives/motivates you?
Jones: My family is my greatest motivation, especially my younger nieces, nephews, and cousins. I am motivated by the fact that I’ve helped make a difference in the lives of my family. Seeing the smiles on their faces and watching them grow and improve their lives makes me exuberant. I want them to know that with a good education, a solid goal, and an unfaltering determination, the sky is the limit.
I was a supervisor for four years, and the one thing that makes all of the challenges worthwhile is seeing my team grow and advance. I genuinely enjoy coaching and harnessing the potential of constructive feedback. When I am able to help a struggling employee start exceeding expectations, or a thriving team member take the next step in their career, I am always elated. That’s what sustains me at work, and it will likely do so for the rest of my career.
The gratification of overcoming obstacles is another motivator. I use the obstacles I’ve encountered as fuel to launch me into success. The feeling of accomplishment that comes with exceeding challenging goals is what drew to me a STEM career and how I have continued to succeed in a male-dominated field.
Question: Do you have any advice for those who are early in their careers with NASA?
Jones: Become the CEO of your life by having a personal board of directors – three to five people, such as a true friend, a mentor, a connector, a sponsor, and a point expert. Most people have a mentor and true friend, but rarely do people have a connector, a sponsor, and a point expert. The latter three are very important in having a successful career. Connectors know everybody and can pick up the phone on your behalf. Sponsors are your advocates and have a seat at the table; they will speak to your skills and abilities in your absence. Point experts are your go-to people, and they have all the answers and are willing to share the information with you to elevate you professionally and personally.
Also, diversify your skills by doing details and special assignments throughout the agency.
Finally, gain experience outside of your expertise by taking advantage of opportunities for improvement.