Born without arms or legs, Dana Bolles dreamt of a career as an astronaut, picturing herself drifting through the weightlessness of space without the aid of her electric wheelchair. Today, Bolles, a mechanical engineer, can’t help but smile when asked about the diversity of jobs she’s held during her 25-year career at NASA – a place she fondly calls “my space agency.”
Albeit impressive, her professional resume is only one small step in her journey that began as a child born in an era where people with disabilities weren’t guaranteed equal access to education.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s – Bolles’ elementary school years – that Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, a federal law that guaranteed “free appropriate public education” for children with disabilities.
“I grew up watching my mom fight for the services I was entitled to,” Bolles says. “My mom taught me to be persistent, not give up and strive to do more.”
Excelling in academics, Bolles was the first student from her district to integrate from a school for children with disabilities into general education classes with non-disabled students. After high school, she attended college at the University of California, Santa Cruz and later, California State University, Long Beach. She has always relied on technology for her independence, having received her first set of prosthetic arms with hooks at age two.
“Some kids have their first pair of shoes,” she says. “I still have my first pair of baby arms. They’re really cute.”
It was the technological innovations that allow people with disabilities to adapt to everyday life that inspired her to major in mechanical engineering.
“I wanted a job that would keep that in my life,” she says.
On top of physical obstacles, she was entering the predominantly male field of engineering in the early 1990s, a time where media and societal pressures often discouraged women from pursuing STEM careers.
Today, Bolles serves as an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, doing her part to reverse the trend. The ambassadorship brings together women from a variety of STEM backgrounds to serve as high-profile role models for middle school girls.
Bolles commonly tells these young women, “You can be whatever you want to be. … You have to have drive and motivation. You’re going to be thrown a lot of roadblocks along the way.”
No stranger to adversity, Bolles also advocates for LGBTQ, women, and disability communities by volunteering for employee resource groups.
“You always hear about how women need a seat at the table,” Bolles says. “For those of us in wheelchairs, sometimes we can’t even get to the table because there are stairs to the room.”
Her best advice? “Don’t judge,” she says. “Because we can’t do things the way most people do, we automatically think outside the box. We’re good planners, because it makes our lives easier. We have a lot of assets a non-disabled person might not have.”
She credits NASA for seeing beyond stereotypes and gender barriers when hiring her in 1995.
Bolles’ initial role as a payload safety engineer involved ensuring the operational safety of space-bound equipment and science experiments at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In 1999, she moved back to California, taking a job in environmental compliance at NASA’s Ames Research Center. There, she helped the agency follow state, federal and local laws regarding matters such as air quality, hazardous material storage, and industrial wastewater discharges.
Recently, Bolles took a position with NASA Headquarters as a science communications program manager, where she currently oversees aspects of the agency’s science website.
However, she’s particularly proud of her prior work in developing a roadmap for announcements regarding the search for life beyond Earth.
Planning ahead for a possible announcement is crucial in minimizing miscommunication on what is guaranteed to be a discovery of mass interest. We must keep an open mind when thinking about what alien “life” is. She says it could be “unidentifiable” from life on Earth.
“More than likely, it’s not going to be the little green men you see in the movies,” Bolles says. “It’s going to be microbial life.”
Bolles' positive outlook and optimism – the same attributes that allow her to have a thriving career against many odds – shine through as she dreams of discoveries she hopes to see in her lifetime, including finding other lifeforms somewhere outside our own planet.