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'I never imagined I would be here': Director of Cleveland's NASA Glenn Research Center retires after nearly 40 years with agency

Marla Perez-Davis was the first Puerto Rican director for a NASA center anywhere, pioneering space engineering for women and Hispanics.

CLEVELAND — She was the first Latina woman to lead NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

After nearly four decades of exploration, Marla Perez-Davis is saying goodbye.

The wonder of space has sparked curiosity through the generations. When Perez-Davis was a young girl growing up in Puerto Rico, she never imagined her dreams would take her beyond the sky and help shape the future of space exploration.

"As a little kid, I wanted to be an engineer," Perez-Davis said. "That's all. I just wanted to be an engineer."

We asked if, when she was young, she ever looked up at the big, blue sky or the stars at night and had a certain fascination specifically.

"Who doesn't look at the stars?" she answered. "Who doesn't dream about going to another planet? Who doesn't dream about, you know, how planes fly, right? How do they stay on the earth?"

A NASA recruitment trip lead Perez-Davis to Ohio. It was her first time visiting the states, and she stayed and earned a master's degree from the University of Toledo, followed by a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University.

"I didn't know what I was signing up for," Perez-Davis told us. "It was really, you know, one of those things that you said, 'NASA.' I finished my degree. I [had a] wonderful opportunity. I was a little bit intimidated. A new place, new language, new culture—everything that I knew was in Puerto Rico."

Trying to climb the ranks as a woman in an unfamiliar place, the 1980s posed another challenge.

"There [were] not that many females in the field of engineering," Perez-Davis recalled, "so you add that other element in terms of, you know, there was a lot of proving. I had to prove myself over and over."

GIRLS IN STEM: Reaching for the stars at NASA

Perez-Davis attributes her success to mentors who helped her pave her way to the top. She went on to serve as the director of the aeronautics research office and chief twice, once for the project liaison and integration office and a second time for the electrochemistry branch.

In 2020, Perez-Davis was named the director of the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be leading a premier organization," she says now.

Recognizing the research she's helped lead for almost 40 years, Perez-Davis' focus is shifting to the future of exploration.

"We have accomplished so much," she stated, "and with an agency that has a mission. So beautiful, right? Going back to the moon, this time to send the first woman to the moon, [and the] first person of color.”

So, why retire now?

"One or two people said, 'You would know when it’s time,'" Perez-Davis responded. "I really want to find out what is out there, kind of 'How can I help develop the next generation of leaders?' Because if I did it, there's others that can and should go for, you know? Reaching to the stars.

Perez-Davis says while she will spend her retirement living in Cleveland, she also plans to travel and volunteer with kids.

BOSS LADIES OF CLE: NASA Glenn Director Marla Perez-Davis

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