Barbara Kakiris is a consummate planner.
Even as a kid, NASA Glenn Research Center’s conference and event manager knew what she wanted and figured out how to do it.
At 14, determined to become a foreign diplomat, Kakiris wrote to the most knowledgeable woman in England she could think of — Queen Elizabeth II — to ask how foreign graduate students could study in Great Britain and what kind of financial aid was available. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office replied with encouragement, stating that Oxford students didn’t have to pay much for tuition or room and board. “I have the note framed somewhere,” she says.
So Kakiris researched schools with strong study-abroad programs to help her get there. The daughter of a Greek immigrant, she also finished Greek school, which she attended two nights a week from second- through ninth-grade. She studied French in middle school and at Lakewood High. She eventually applied to Kenyon College, where most students go overseas as juniors.
In the meantime came the opportunity that launched her NASA career. When Kakiris was 18, a guidance counselor asked if she could submit Kakiris’ name for an internship at NASA Glenn Research Center.
“I’m not scientifically or mathematically inclined,” Kakiris says, “but I thought, If this woman believes in me this much, I owe it to her to give it a chance. I’ve been here ever since.”
Kakiris made it to England, studying there through Kenyon’s program, then enrolling in grad school at Oxford University. Meanwhile, on breaks from school, she interned at NASA Glenn. As a federal youth fellow at age 22, she garnered a Congressional Achievement Award for her work organizing Vice President Al Gore’s 1998 visit to Glenn.
Along the way, several women at NASA became her mentors. They’d climbed the ranks when NASA Glenn, then named NASA Lewis, still held Miss Lewis contests with women competing in swimsuit competitions and posing for calendars.
⊲ It’s not like you go throughout every day saying, “I’m going to help some woman.” It’s just life. You have to be able to meet the opportunity as you can.
⊲ Never underestimate the value of an adversary. They’ve taught me a lot about staying true to who you are, not letting others deter you in your life’s plan, and in being grateful that you are not like these people.
⊲ People who are really meaningful and really impactful in your life, they come in at a certain time. I’m a firm believer that it’ll happen when it’s meant to happen.
“They made their way up to these big positions,” Kakiris says. “And it was the first glimpse I got that these women were just so strong and worked tooth and nail for what they achieved.”
Kakiris returned to NASA after graduate school, wondering how to apply her master’s in women’s studies at the male-dominated space agency.
“But it was like they saw me coming,” she says. Kakiris was appointed Glenn’s point of contact for NASA’s new women’s outreach initiative. “From that point onward, it was like the promotion and integration of women throughout the space agency just flourished.”
During her 20s, Kakiris says, her age gave her an advantage when relating to Girl Scouts shadowing her through NASA’s MentorNet program. “They looked up to me as a big sister rather than an authority figure,” she says.
Now at 36, Kakiris organizes more than 50 retreats and conferences per year. Many of them have highlighted the achievements of NASA’s female stars, including press conferences for Eileen Collins, the first female mission commander, and Shannon Lucid, record holder for the most hours aboard Russian space vehicle Mir. “It was this kind of reaffirmation that I was where I was supposed to be,” she says.
She’s using those same planning skills that got her to England to increase the number of NASA awards Glenn wins.
She’s streamlined a formerly helter-skelter nomination process: She researches the awards, creates a timeline, puts out calls for nominees, interviews candidates, drafts applications, gathers supporting materials and submits the packages. As a result, NASA Glenn has earned nearly twice as many research and development awards as the other eight NASA centers combined.
Glenn’s female staffers are getting their share of recognition. “Last year was the first time we nominated someone for Asian-American Engineer of the Year, and she won,” Kakiris says.
Kakiris hasn’t given up on her own youthful ambitions. She’s still focused on becoming a foreign diplomat and hopes to be in Washington, D.C., in five years. She believes her experience as a civil servant at NASA will help get her where she wants to be. “Or at least closer,” she says.