Fascinated by exploring the unknown, the former Deputy Administrator of NASA feels at home in Portugal.
If you search Dava Newman on Google, there’s one photo that stands out. A tall, blonde woman standing with black-gloved hands on her hips in a defiant stance. She has a transparent helmet and is wearing a white cat suit with black and red lines. This “second skin” made with memory alloys and a complex web of wires and coils uses electrical current to immerse the person wearing it with the right amount of pressure. When the coils cool, the suit alleviates the pressure, making it easy to remove. This is Dava’s life’s work. A specialist in aerospace biomedical engineering, she studies how the body performs across the spectrum of gravity and endeavours to improve the lives of those who go into space. “I think about going to Mars every day and I work so that one of my students will be the first astronaut to set foot on the planet”, says Dava, a graduate of aerospace engineering, Director of the Apollo Programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, ex-Director of the MIT Portugal programme, and former Deputy Administrator of NASA.
Born into the Apollo generation, daughter of a pilot, the sky was never the limit and exploring the unknown was always a goal, naturally following in the footsteps of the 16th-century Portuguese. “Following my passion for exploring, I studied aerospace engineering. I was fascinated and read a lot [at university] about the history of world exploration – particularly the contribution and great legacy of Vasco da Gama, who paved the way, as well as Pedro Álvares Cabral and Infante D. Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator). I was fascinated by the technological revolution, the design of the ships, which made exploration something global.” She associates Portugal with maritime expeditions into the unknown and a “determination to go beyond the horizon and the boundaries of knowledge”.
Such was the fascination that, years later, on her first trip to Portugal in 2006, her visits were dictated by such history: the Navy Museum in Belém, the statue of the Infante D. Henrique in Viseu, and his birthplace in Porto, in addition to paying homage to Vasco da Gama in Sines. At the time, she was part of the MIT team that worked with Portuguese authorities and universities to launch the MIT Portugal programme. However, her admiration for the country goes deeper.
Six years later, she lived for three months in Porto, next to the Douro River. She says that it’s a “city with a long and impressive history”. “I love the incredible architecture, in every corner, which lends the city a unique atmosphere.” Other favourites include Braga, Guimarães and the entire Douro region. “Given the Portuguese people’s openness to new ideas and the world, it was a great place to live and visit. Magellan and Vasco da Gama are some of my heroes, when it comes to exploration”.
She knows the country from top to bottom. While running MIT Portugal, she covered over 7,000 kilometres from north to south, in addition to a number of visits to the Azores. “We gave leadership training to students from the north of the country on the MIT Portugal Programme in Peneda-Gerês National Park, with all its natural beauty and heritage.”
Dava Newman started studying law but soon realised that she was really good at maths, swapping laws for aerospace engineering, which was a much better fit. She’s an extremely eclectic person: in addition to science, she studied philosophy and liberal arts, as well as part of the basketball team at the University of Notre Dame, where she graduated. Passionate about both sea and sky, later, Dava followed in the footsteps of the Portuguese: between 2002 and 2003, with her husband Guillermo Trotti, she sailed over 36,000 nautical miles around the world, teaching “Exploration via Space and Sea”. She has also been into space, leading exploratory flights four times.
When she graduated, she was one of two women in a class of 40. She recognises that there are more women in the field today but says that “it’s still necessary to speed up parity”. She’s used to being part of a pioneering group. She was the first female Deputy Administrator of NASA, nominated by Barack Obama. After this experience, which lasted two years, Dava engaged with Portugal again, helping “shape the vision for our new MIT Portugal 2030 partnership”. She says she’s “fascinated by the energy and motivation of the Portuguese researchers, entrepreneurs, politicians and leaders to break down barriers and move Portugal forward, boosting international projects with social impact”.
Dava Newman returned to Portugal at the start of October for the annual MIT Portugal conference. From here she will travel to Germany and then onto Japan. And Mars, which she thinks about every day? Only alongside Guillermo. “It’s a three-and-a-half-year trip to explore and find evidence of present or past life”, and nobody wants to go alone.
by Hermínia Saraiva /// photo Marisa Cardoso
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