Meet Nagin Cox, a Systems Engineer For NASA

Nagin Cox, once fascinated by Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a little girl, is now a Tactical Mission Lead on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover.

Growing up in an environment where women were perceived as “useless,” as a Muslim teenager, Cox became determined to dismantle the stereotypes cast on her and chase her childhood dreams of working at NASA.

And with March marking Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day, and Muslim Women’s Day, Muslim Girl is honored to sit with Cox and talk with her about her story and how she made it to where she is today.

Muslim Girl: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

Nagin Cox: I am currently a Tactical Mission Lead on the Curiosity Rover and on the Perseverance Rover. That basically means I help our team figure out how to make robots on Mars work and drive around and search for clues and information about the planet.

Working at NASA was my dream ever since I was a little girl. I‘ve now been here for over 20 years, and I’ve held leadership and system engineering positions on interplanetary robotic missions including the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Kepler exoplanet hunter, InSight.

I was born in Bangalore, India, and grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My experiences in a Muslim household inspired me to do something that brings people together instead of dividing them. The space program helps the world “look up” and remember that we are one world. 

Nagin Cox
Cox as a young woman with her mother in 1983

I’ve been lucky enough to be honored for my work too. I received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals. I’m also a U.S. Department of State STEM Speaker, and I’ve spoken to audiences around the world on the stories of the people behind the missions. Finally, my coolest fun fact: I have an asteroid named after me, 14061 Nagincox.

Muslim Girl: What has been the most enjoyable component of your experience as an engineer?

Nagin Cox: For me, the most enjoyable part of being an engineer is that I’ve had so many chances to work with really smart people on things that are really hard. There’s always this assumption that people in science and engineering are working alone and isolated in some lab somewhere, but solving these problems usually requires large teams of people working together.

NASA's Systems Engineer
Cox driving the test rover Scarecrow in 2013 at JPL

I’ve found these opportunities to share knowledge and skills with such talented professionals to be incredibly rewarding.

Muslim Girl: What has your experience been as a woman in a male-dominated field, and how have you combatted those challenges?

Nagin Cox: One of the challenges I can clearly recall was noticing the different ways the genders typically communicate. I was part of the teams that were developing both spirit and opportunity. We had three years to develop two rovers, which was an incredibly tight time frame. A usual rover project would involve developing one vehicle over five to seven years.

In situations of high stress like that, people sometimes respond reactively. And one thing I noticed was that some of the men we were working with would raise their voices to ensure their points were being heard. The women on our team, like many women everywhere, were socialized to not shout.

That created a dynamic where it felt like not all the ideas were coming to the table. Even though I really don’t think anyone intended any disrespect, it was clear that these two communication styles were at odds with each other.

The more senior women on the project met with a few of our peers and we talked about how we all were noticing the same thing. We confirmed and validated each other’s experiences – which was extremely important in allowing ourselves to feel that what we were experiencing was real and was not just us imagining or taking things too personally.

And we all made an agreement with each other that we would maintain our focus on the mission and ensure our opinions were heard. 

What’s funny is that confirming each other’s experiences was the most important part of that whole process. Just by virtue of allowing ourselves to feel heard and seen, we were able to respond and react much more effectively when those situations arose.

Rather than just immediately solving the problem – as engineers sometimes want to do – the act of coming together in the community to hear each other out empowered each woman to manage the problem in the ways that she thought best.

Nagin Cox
Photo courtesy of Nagin Cox

Muslim Girl: How have you felt your Muslim identity has affected both your work as an engineer and your dealings with patriarchy in the field?

Nagin Cox: I should be clear in noting that, while I do not identify as part of a particular faith community now, being Muslim was a major part of my foundational identity and shaped much of my lived experience.

Sadly, growing up, some of my family’s cultural views, particularly those of my father’s, meant that there was a certain standard for my brothers and then a different standard for me and my sisters.

This isn’t the case with all Muslim families, but it was for mine. It was the kind of situation in which I felt very trapped, and so I needed something big enough to believe in to get me through it, and for me, that was working in space.

After I saw the Apollo missions as a kid, I knew that was big – big enough to give me hope – and so I decided that’s what I would do. 

So, unlike a lot of people, who decide on a career based on what they like or what they find interesting, I had a vision of the career I wanted and who I wanted my future self to be and worked backward from there.

I became so dedicated to this goal that I didn’t even think about the stereotypes of women not being good at engineering. I didn’t even notice slights or setbacks that may have happened because of my identity. I was singularly determined to be where I am today, and I am thankful to my younger self for being that way. 

Nagin Cox
Cox at the age of 25 during her Air Force year

Muslim Girl: Have there been any assumptions concerning your identities as both a Muslim and a woman that you have felt you needed to fight as you progressed in your career?

Nagin Cox: The main assumptions that happen to me usually are because of my name, particularly my maiden name. Because it is Muslim sounding, I think people often develop an assumption that I am going to look a certain way. I don’t appear like the stereotype of someone who comes from a Muslim background, and so people get confused when they meet me for the first time. 

I’ve gotten comments to the effect of, “Wait, you’re not a woman of color,” or “You’re not Indian,” or so on. It’s created some questions for me surrounding my identity; mostly, what does it mean to be a woman of color when you aren’t perceived as a woman of color? It’s led to me thinking about when or whether I need to “prove” my Indianness or my heritage or my cultural background to have a valid seat at the table for certain conversations. 

The other interesting assumption that happens because of my name is that people who are unfamiliar with this kind of a name because they are from English-speaking backgrounds, immediately assume I must be a man, given the field that I’m in.

So again, it creates confusion when people meet me, and I often find myself trying to give clues in hints in emails as to my identity because I don’t want people – or myself – to feel awkward when that face-to-face interaction happens and I’m not who they expected.

Muslim Girl: Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your schooling and career leading up to this point?

Nagin Cox: Not at all. I am so glad I chose the path to be an engineer. It’s something I struggle to communicate sometimes; just how useful it is. It’s essentially the perfect steppingstone for a range of opportunities. You can go to medical school, law school, into the humanities – anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say an engineering degree didn’t give them the right background to eventually do whatever they wanted to do. And that’s really empowering.

For me, all I had to do was spend four years of undergraduate study and a year and a half of master’s study to qualify for working in the field of my dreams – space. And that seemed like a small trade-off. Yes, the math and the science were hard, and I had to really work at it, but it was so worth it for me and opened up so many opportunities that I think a lot of my peers didn’t have. 

Muslim Girl: What advice would you give to an aspiring Muslim woman engineer?

Nagin Cox: The extent to which you conform with what is expected of you is your choice. That means that you can choose to be a more conservative Muslim and embrace those values if you want to. Maybe you don’t feel that challenging those norms is your battle.

But maybe you feel that you want to go outside of what is typically expected from you in your societal structure as well. That’s ok too. It’s 100% your choice. 

Nagin Cox
Cox on a 2013 State Department STEM diplomacy trip

There are many powerful forces that will try to claim authority for owning how you think or how you should behave, whether that’s politics, religion, your family, your friends, social media, whatever.

But none of those forces are you. You get to decide how to run your life and what thoughts are in your head. Don’t let anyone else make those choices for you.