Dr. Cecilia Aragon is an award-winning author, pilot, keynote speaker, and data science professor at the University of Washington.
She’s worked with Nobel Prize winners, taught astronauts to fly and created musical simulations of the universe with rock stars. Her innovative research, and a stint at NASA designing software for Mars missions, led President Obama to call her “one of the top scientists and engineers” in the United States.
Her memoir, Flying Free, shares her own journey of breaking past her own fears to become a champion aerobatic pilot. Her 2019 book, Writers in the Secret Garden, takes a close look at the fascinating world of fanfiction to explore how young people express themselves. Her latest book, Human-Centered Data Science, discusses best practices for addressing the bias and inequality that may result from the automated analysis of large datasets.
How I Got Here
When I was a child, a teacher said, “Why are you working so hard in math? You should be getting a boyfriend.”
And, as a first-generation Latina whose parents spoke with thick accents, I was always placed in the slow reading groups in school.
Even though I loved math and science, I internalized others’ expectations of me and began to believe that I wasn’t smart enough to do scientific research. I was afraid of failure, so I dropped out of school.
So how did I become the first Latina full professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington?
I took a detour — into the air!
I overcame my fears, learned to fly and became an aerobatic pilot. Then I applied what I learned from flying to my technical career.
Story of Flying Free
I was a timid child, painfully shy and afraid of everything from heights to people. How did I become a death-defying daredevil and aerobatic pilot? And what did it mean that I yearned to take such risks? I’ve been wanting to write a memoir for over two decades to answer these questions.
But ironically, writing a memoir scared me more than pointing my single-seat experimental plane at the ground and opening the throttle until I was roaring earthward at 250 mph. Opening up my inmost secrets? Baring my life to anybody who might want to peer in?
How I Overcame Fear
Growing up in a small town in Indiana, the daughter of immigrants, I often felt like an outsider. It seemed that letting anyone know who I really was inside could be dangerous.
But in the end, the urge to communicate won out. After I learned to fly and eventually represented the United States at the World Championships, I was invited to give talks about my journey from fearful child to champion pilot.
Although I was terrified of public speaking, I found I wanted to tell my story. It was these audiences’ enthusiastic feedback about my story that finally gave me the courage to set out upon a journey of another kind.