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Hispanic Engineer, ODU Graduate, Seeks to Mentor Students to Achieve

Engineering Honors DinnerThe award winners at the Batten College Distinguished Honors celebration, from left, Debbie Martinez, Tom Spoth, Dean Oktay Baysal, President John Broderick, ODU First Lady Kate Broderick, Donna Fischer and Kenneth Barker

Debbie Martinez knew she was good at math. But it wasn't until she was mentored and encouraged by a teacher, Agustin Garcia at Colegio Bautista de Caguas in Puerto Rico, that she truly realized where that passion could take her.

Now 24 years into an award-winning career as a NASA engineer, Martinez feels a responsibility to inspire other non-traditional engineers, particularly Latina women like herself, to chase space dreams like she has.

"When you think about it, NASA has always been trailblazers in what we do - and we have the best toys to do it with!" she said.

Martinez was honored, along with other visionaries in the engineering field, during the Old Dominion University Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology's Fourth Annual Distinguished Honors Celebration. The event, May 16 at the Town Point Club in downtown Norfolk, brought together faculty and staff of the Batten College, university officials, distinguished alums and local business leaders.

Martinez, an ODU engineering master's degree graduate, was honored with the Outstanding Alumni and Friends Pioneer Award for her work in education outreach at the NASA Langley Research Center.

Shortly after arriving at NASA Langley, she realized she was one of the few Latina women working for the space agency. She sought out colleagues with common experience, and has thrown herself into her role as an advocate for NASA's Hispanic Employee Program, establishing Latina Women of NASA, NASA Hispanic Astronauts and Hispanics@NASA LaRC websites.

"Coming to work for NASA is such a great opportunity. They encourage us, support us, find funding for training and research opportunities," Martinez said.

When she speaks with students in elementary and high schools, Martinez encourages students not to limit themselves. "I tell students that if they're good at math and they're passionate about it, to focus on it. It'll open doors. Here I am, an engineer and a pilot. Your passion can get you here."

The Aviation Safety Program (AvSP) deputy project manager for Atmospheric Environment & System-Wide Safety/Assurance Technologies Projects at NASA Langley, Martinez has worked for NASA since 1990

Under her leadership, AvSP is conducting cutting edge research that will produce innovative concepts, tools and technologies to improve the intrinsic safety attributes of aircraft.

Martinez has also enjoyed the collaboration with Old Dominion University over her time with NASA Langley. As the closest research engineering school to the Hampton campus, engineers from ODU have worked on NASA projects for close to 50 years.

"I've worked with (Assistant Dean) Linda Vahala on aviation safety issues. One of our interns from ODU, Kayla Farrow, has spoken about her research work at schools all over the region. It's been a great partnership," Martinez said.

Also at the dinner, Tom Spoth, vice president for Parsons Corporation - Bridge and Tunnel Division, received the Outstanding Alumni and Friends Humanitarian Award, presented for outstanding humanitarian aid, service or support to benefit the local, national or international communities.

Spoth, a civil engineering graduate, has held a lead role in many major long-span projects, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, and the Thousand Islands Bridge between New York and Ontario. Currently, Spoth is serving as the lead bridge engineer for the new $1.3 billion Geothals Bridge project in New York City.

Donna Fischer, founder of DLS Engineering and Associates, was awarded the Outstanding Alumni and Friends Service Award, presented for outstanding service to the college, and the local and regional community.

Fischer has worked for 30 years in the analysis, design development and implementation of integrated engineering and logistics services. She also mentors and encourages young women to pursue education and careers in science and technology fields, serves on the ODU Engineering Advisory Board, and is part of the Batten College's Development and Communications Committee.

Kenneth Barker, vice president for customer solutions for Dominion Virginia Power, received the Outstanding Alumni & Friends Leadership Award for his leadership within the engineering profession. Barker, who joined Virginia Power in 1978, has held numerous management positions in areas of operations, engineering and project management. He assumed his current post only this month.

Barker received his BS in electrical engineering from ODU. He is a registered professional engineer in Virginia and North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of the Dominion Credit Union, Crossover Healthcare Ministry, the Virginia Manufacturers' Association and GRASP, the Great Aspirations Scholarship Program.