Growing up in the suburbs of Cairo and watching her father fix his car’s engine, little Tahani Amer discovered her unwavering passion for engineering.
Getting married at the age of 17 and still chasing her dreams with all the growing responsibility — even passing her first advanced calculus class with an “A” without being acquainted with English, this Muslim woman has been defying the odds since the second she stepped into the U.S. With her three simple yet empowering principles, Amer has become one of the leading Muslim women that are laying a solid foundation for many Muslim girls to unapologetically break into STEM and chase their dreams.
As we head into Muslim Women’s Day, we sat with Amer to talk about her journey as one of the Muslim women of NASA: how she got there, what inspired her to pursue her career path, and how she currently navigates her life as the Program Executive for the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
Muslim Girl: How did you end up working at NASA?
Tahani Amer: NASA is my dream job. I have been working at NASA for over 30 years. I started when I was an undergraduate at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. I collaborated with NASA during my senior research project. It was a great opportunity and an exciting experience to work with the best talent in the world to advance aeronautics and technology.
The Virginia Space Consortium supported my entry into NASA programs by providing grants to excelling women engineers and scientists. I was the first woman to be selected for the program. After I successfully completed my project and graduated, I applied for a job at NASA.
Muslim Girl: What is a typical day for you in the work that you do?
Tahani Amer: When I first started as an engineer, I worked in a laboratory developing instruments for wind tunnels to measure drag on the fuselage of airplanes to improve aerodynamic performance. After that, I worked in different positions at NASA that expanded my love of science and NASA’s goals. I worked in the Technology Development Mission Directorate, the Independent Program Assessment Office that evaluates other NASA major programs and wind tunnels experiments; and in the Computational Fluid Dynamics Project (CFD).
Currently, I am the Program Executive for the Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. I lead and serve as the technical and programmatic expert for complex agency programs, supporting the Earth Science Division. My projects are very important to NASA and to our planet Earth. My missions are Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb), Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT), and Atmosphere Observing System (AOS).
Muslim Girl: What’s your favorite part of what you do in a day?
Tahani Amer: My favorite part of the day is when we solve a problem on a project, or when we come to an agreement that a certain path is the right one. It is a challenge working on multiple projects with different time zones and several parts of the world with our international partners to acquire scientific knowledge to understand our home planet.
Muslim Girl: What else do you like to do when you’re not focused on NASA engineering stuff? What are some of your other interests?
Tahani Amer: I live by three simple principles: 1) Please God and you will please all. 2) Education is the key to opportunity. 3) Serve others with compassion and kindness. The third principle inspires me to volunteer a great deal. My favorite is volunteering to support mosques activities and conduct outreach education to schools, synagogues, and churches to share Muslim women’s rights.
Muslim Girl: Who inspires you?
Tahani Amer: I have so many, but the first and perhaps most important was my father, Reffat Ayoub. He is the one who gave me my backbone and my confidence. He encouraged me to do everything I wanted, within the limit of the values of our religion.
Muslim Girl: What are your deepest values and how as a Muslim woman? Does your faith impact your career?
Tahani Amer: My faith not only impacts my career but the structure of my whole life. I live by the guidance of my faith and I wouldn’t do it any other way. Faith gives you a structure, it gives you inspiration, and it gives you a purpose.
For me, there’s no conflict between faith and career because if you have faith, your career is going to excel automatically. Faith encourages you to do your utmost in everything.
Muslim Girl: Do some people think that there’s a conflict between having faith and being somebody in science? What do you say to that kind of thinking?
Tahani Amer: Scientific discoveries are confirmed by faith. The more knowledge, I acquire in a scientific sense, it only reinforces what I’ve already known to be true from a spiritual sense.
Muslim Girl: What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? In some countries, such as France, wearing the hijab or headscarf at work has been prohibited by the law. As a brilliant woman that proudly wears the hijab, if ever, how did it affect your career?
Tahani Amer: It does happen, unfortunately, and I think a lot of it comes from a lack of awareness and understanding. September 11th, for example, affected all of us, and my goal during that time was to reach out to the community around me to provide education and develop a relationship of trust, showing people I — and people like me — are part of the mixing pot and the fabric of America.
Muslim Girl: Do you feel that you’ve ever had any challenges specifically you’ve had to deal with that you don’t think a man would have to deal with?
Tahani Amer: Luckily, we’ve seen lots of great strides for women over the past30 years at NASA, I always felt very fortunate because we work hard to have an environment of inclusion and diversity.
Muslim Girl: What are some changes that need to happen to make science more attractive to women and get more women in the field?
Tahani Amer: Encourage girls and women; support their interests, help them to develop their skills, and have fun with STEM. For Muslim countries, in particular, I try to communicate that in Islam, it was never said that women don’t work. The Prophet, peace be upon him, used to work for a woman — his wife. She was a businesswoman. So where did we get this notion that women shouldn’t work? I try to emphasize there’s a difference between religion and culture.
Muslim Girl: What is a funny or memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
Tahani Amer: One of the funniest moments is when I got stuck in a wind tunnel. I was installing a probe in the tunnel, so I was crawling around inside it when all of a sudden my scarf got caught on the wall of the tunnel and a whole team of people had to stop what they were doing and come help me get unstuck.
Muslim Girl: What is your number one piece of advice to young Muslim girls that you would pass on?
Tahani Amer: I have my own Equation of Success: (IP3 + R) / T. The explanation of the equation is Imagination, multiplied by the three P’s of Passion, Perseverance, and Planning, plus Relationships over Time, equal Success.