Leland Melvin: Seek Diversity, New Perspectives, and People Who Believe in You

At the School of Engineering’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Colloquium, the NASA engineer and astronaut shared advice on how to thrive as a professional

Leland Melvin likes to joke about his career trajectory: “I did what every former NFL player does—they go work for NASA, right?” 

Maybe not, but that path made sense for Melvin. With an undergraduate degree in chemistry, he was drafted out of college to play football with the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.

During training camp, he pursued postgraduate studies in engineering. Then, sidelined by an injury, Melvin left the NFL, earned a master’s degree, and clinched a job at NASA building temperature and hydrogen sensors for aerospace vehicles. Later, he worked as an astronaut on board the space shuttle Atlantis.

Melvin’s joke raises a serious point—entrenched stereotypes make people feel surprised to hear that a Black football player is also an accomplished engineer and astronaut. 

During a talk he gave for the Tufts School of Engineering’s Spring 2022 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Colloquium Series, Melvin reflected upon that point and the stereotypes. He also discussed his formative years, including describing key moments that allowed him to flourish, and he offered advice for aspiring engineers: “Have that fire, that grit, that determination, that resilience … but make sure you have people around you that give you belief [in yourself] when you don't have it.”

Tufts President Anthony Monaco introduced Melvin, noting that his 2017 memoir Chasing Space and his frequent public talks have been “inspiring audiences across the globe to follow their passions, forge their own paths, and pursue careers in STEM fields.”

Scheduled to take place in person, on campus, Melvin’s talk was moved to a virtual setting when a snowstorm interrupted plans for the event. Here are four key takeaways from the colloquium.

The best solutions come from the most diverse teams. As a field, engineering must strive to build teams made up of many different perspectives, Melvin said. “I think it’s really important, as we look at solving problems as engineers, that we bring all of the diversity—not just color, but I mean diversity of mindset, of experiences… that we bring all these things into play.”

“As you go on your journey to become astronauts or whatever you desire to be,” he told the audience, “bring all of [your unique] flavor, that culture, all that sauce—whatever you have—into the solution process, because it makes the solution even better.”

Find your Man (or Woman) in the Yellow Hat. Melvin harkened back to his childhood, when he loved reading books from the renowned children’s series Curious George. George had one thing in addition to curiosity, Melvin said: “He also had the Man in the Yellow Hat, who had his back. No matter what happened, no matter what trouble he got in, he always had that Man in the Yellow Hat. Who is your Man (or Woman) in the Yellow Hat at Tufts University? Who is that person there to help you on your journey when you don't think you can do it?”

Melvin’s own yellow-hat wearers believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself, he said. He included among these his high school football coach, a former head of NASA, and a NASA surgeon. Without the coach, Melvin would have quit before proving himself and earning a full college scholarship. Without his colleagues, who helped him overcome an on-the-job injury that left him partially deaf, Melvin would never have made it to space. 

Listen to everyone. When the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred, Melvin was working in NASA’s education department. The Columbia crew were friends and colleagues of his, and their loss was deeply personal to him. 

What struck Melvin most about the event was the fact that it was preventable. There had been “an engineer who actually said, ‘I think I saw something,’” when a piece of foam broke off during the shuttle’s launch, endangering its re-entry. If others had listened to the engineer, Melvin suggested, the mission might have been aborted in time. The lesson? “As you go through your engineering journey, make sure that you listen to every single person. Listen to everyone, because that little bit of information might be the key to you solving the problem.”

Find a way to see things differently. For Melvin, working with a diverse crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) was a life-changing experience, because it allowed him to see humanity as interconnected.

As an example, Melvin recalled sharing a meal with the others on his team on board the ISS. That team comprised one African-American astronaut and an Asian-American astronaut; astronauts from France, Germany, and Russia; and the first female commander of a space shuttle.

As the shuttle flew over Melvin’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and then over Paris and close to Moscow, Melvin was struck by the thought of his and his colleagues’ families all eating different meals in different places, at the same time that their team was eating in space.

A new perspective suddenly clicked into place. It was “the overview effect,” he explained, “where the brain cognitively shifts and changes the way you see yourself and how you fit, not just into the world, but into the planet, into the universe. And it changes you. It fundamentally changes you.”

That perspective has shaped all of his work and decision making since.

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