Contributing to a Cultural Shift

Supporting a database of requirements and tests for JWST’s instruments, and promoting diversity and inclusion at the institute.

Catherine Riggs
Catherine Riggs

Catherine Riggs' varied professional experience has served her well. As a legislative assistant to the Baltimore City Council president at the start of her career, she was the first woman in the history of Baltimore City to read bills on the floor during legislative sessions. She also served at CitiFinancial as the operations coordinator for the business division before joining the institute to support the Business Resource Center in 2007. There she assisted in planning large, detailed events, including the Telescope Allocation Committee, which selects astronomers' proposals for Hubble observations.

Riggs has made two career pivots at the institute, first becoming a documentation specialist and then a database engineer. In her current role, she manages the database that houses the requirements for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) command team, including test cases and liens that address requirements, script development, tools, and documentation. Here, she shares why she finds her work so fulfilling.

Why did you choose to pursue engineering?

It was a natural evolution of the opportunities I was offered at the institute. When I transitioned from events to become a documentation specialist, I began supporting the JWST commanding team. It’s really interesting work. Since there was so much to learn, I took computer information systems courses to better support the team and understand the language and processes. As my interests grew, I applied for a new role, becoming a database engineer. Over time, I’ve taken on more database responsibilities, moving from a user to some administrator duties.

What are your responsibilities as a database engineer?

The database holds requirements and tests for the JWST’s science instruments. The requirements describe the instruments’ characteristics, which are necessary for their proper functionality. The requirements are linked to test cases, which demonstrate what each requirements does, including how the instrument should function. If there is a requirement relating to steps for a mechanism move, there is a test associated with that requirement to assure satisfactory performance and the expected outcome. The tests associated are demonstrations of the requirements and the desired outcome. Plus, there are many tiers of requirements—and all need to relate perfectly.

Part of my role is to produce output from the database. The output are documents, which show higher- and lower-level requirement relationships and requirements to tests relationships. These documents are reviewed internally and externally. What I really enjoy about this role is that there is so much to learn and the people I work with are so intelligent. I learn something new—related to our work or another topic entirely—almost weekly.

Why are diversity and inclusion so important to you?

As a woman of color, I’ve had to—and continue to—overcome assumptions and biases. In some sense, diversity and inclusion advocacy work is fundamental to me. I’ve also always been empathetic to the underdog. Growing up, I volunteered every summer in the hospitals where my mother worked as a nurse. She worked with chronically ill patients, people who never had the opportunity to leave the hospital—the hospital was their home. Despite these limitations, we spent a lot of time talking and getting to know one another. It made me even more empathetic to people who have different struggles. In part, it also taught me how to accept people for who they are despite physical, mental, and medical differences. Diversity and inclusion are important because the existence of an innovative workforce is imperative to leverage the full potential of the workplace. Learning from those who look different than you do is invaluable. We must all make efforts to get to know and understand one another.

How have you helped initiate diversity projects at the institute?

At the institute, I am invested in effecting positive change. Sometimes this is as straightforward as offering my experience or opinion to help colleagues think about their own experiences, or asking questions to learn about their backgrounds. Other times, employees have sought me out to ask questions about sensitive topics about race and ethnicity. I’ve seen a lot of changes since I joined the institute in 2007. I’ve contributed to several committees throughout my tenure and I recently became a co-chair of our employee-led diversity and inclusion group, Invision, to continue to support this work.

The fact that Invision not only exists, but is also driven by employees and supported by the director and deputy director is huge. The committee has its finger on the pulse of the institute and we consistently strive to make it a better, more inclusive place to work. Invision encompasses many issues, including gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and cultural background, religion, educational background, age, people with disabilities, and occupation. This type of work is more than checking a box. You have to be invested, otherwise efforts are ineffective and time is wasted. You really have to want to see change—and we certainly do. We want there to be inclusion at all levels. Diversification and inclusion on teams drive innovation in ways homogeneous teams cannot.

Article updated May 2019.