Breaking Into STEM

Kevin Gonzalez

Going into the STEM fields isn’t easy — especially if you don’t have role models. Mentors can help, and Northrop Grumman has employees on both sides of that equation. Here are two of their stories.


Seeking to inspire students to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Generation 1st Degree–Pico Rivera, an outreach program that helps students prepare for higher education, held its inaugural “A Day in Space” event earlier this year at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, Calif.

More than 2,000 people attended the event, which Northrop Grumman sponsored. NASA astronauts José Hernández and Mark Kelly shared what it’s like to be in space. Northrop Grumman hosted an information booth and activities with support from volunteers Sarah Boutros, Nereida Herrera, Krystal Puga and former Adelante Community Outreach Chair Rudy Loera (retired).

One goal of the event was to show-case the importance of the STEM fields and their application to aero-space careers. During breakout sessions, Puga, a spacecraft systems engineer, explained how the James Webb Space Telescope will explore the universe in search of the very first light, observe the formation of stars and galaxies and study planets for signs of life-supporting atmospheres. Students also built their own CubeSat (miniature satellite) with an Arduino microcontroller and space sensor board — an activity that demonstrated how astronomers detect exoplanets. When students asked if engineering is hard, Puga gave them an honest answer: “Yes, engineering is hard, but it’s worth the effort!”

As the first in her family to attend college, Puga earned a Bachelor of Science in engineering physics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a Master of Science in astronautical engineering from the University of Southern California. Her passion for STEM initiatives led her to found both the Northrop Grumman High School Innovation Challenge and the STEM High School Internship Program.

“Growing up, I did not personally know any Hispanic professionals who could mentor me,” she said. “This event was specifically designed to engage the minds of first-generation students and provide them with Hispanic role models, and I was honored to serve as a mentor to these kids.”


Growing up in South Gate, Pedro Lepe had no engineering role models. That all changed during college, when he completed four internships with Northrop Grumman. “Once I gained some exposure to the aerospace industry through Northrop Grumman, I knew I was not turning back,” he said. Just two weeks before graduating as an electrical engineering major from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, he was informed of an exciting new hire opportunity.

As of today, Lepe has been a systems engineer for a year and a half. Through his work as a member of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program team, he fuses the new and the company’s legacy. His group focuses on model-based systems engineering, a product of heritage company TRW co-founders Simon Ramo and Dean Woolridge. Lepe concentrates on system archi-tecture development, which aims to create digital models as a primary means of interaction among engineering disciplines, business management and process man-agement programs.

“Northrop Grumman is a beacon of innovation. We have subject matter experts who have been working on these systems for decades,”

said Lepe. “I feel a great deal of responsibility to safeguard the information that has been entrusted to me. With the brilliant people supporting GBSD, we’re working together to keep our nation safe.” The path forward for GBSD is an engineering, manufacturing and development contract that will be awarded in 2020, with the program continuing to 2075.

As a first-generation college student, Lepe credits his experience with the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers for providing him with the skills to land his first internship with Northrop Grumman. He thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work on the James Webb Space Telescope as an intern for chief engineer Dr. Jonathan Arenberg. “I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of great mentors while I was an intern, and I still consider them my mentors to this day,” he said. Lepe gives back by volunteering as a mentor at several high schools in the southeast Los Angeles area, as well as representing Northrop Grumman at recruiting events at his alma mater.

What advice would Lepe give this year’s interns? “Allow your team to make you a contributing member,” he said. “The teams at Northrop Grumman would like nothing more than to see you contributing significant content critical to their success.”