For a while, Matilda Brooks wasn’t sure how to tell people what she wanted to do after college, because the job she wants doesn’t exist yet.
“I basically want to fly rich people to space,” Brooks says with a laugh.
Brooks, a 28-year-old member of the Yurok Tribe of California and a senior at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation, says going into commercial space flight is only one of her ambitions.
“If I go, I’d be the first federally recognized, registered Native American female to go to space – for me that would mean a lot,” Brooks says. “For me it’s more of a statement to our people than it is my career. It would mean a lot to a lot of foster kids and a lot of Native Americans. To say, ‘Yeah, there is no limit to what you can do.’ ”
Brooks grew up in foster care and advocates for foster children and better education in Native American communities.
In 2015 she interned with NASA, and for two years she has been a member of NWIC’s rocket club, which got a rocket to break the sound barrier, and has shown up competitors by using simple materials, such as the top of a plastic soda bottle, to perform the same function as another team’s laser.
Most recently, she was picked as one of 50 semifinalists (one of 25 in her age group) out of more than 7,300 future female leaders who entered “The Search for Hidden Figures” contest, put on by PepsiCo and 21st Century Fox.
The contest was inspired by the movie “Hidden Figures,” which features the story of three African American women who worked with NASA as mathematicians during the 1960s to help get John Glenn into orbit. The movie opened in theaters on Friday.
In her entry, Brooks explained how the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) pertain to her life and how she hopes to use the fields to better her community.
She has created a prototype for a 3D-printed knee brace for a teammate she plays basketball with at NWIC.
“I’m using modern technology and incorporating traditional Native American medicine into a brace, incorporating acupressure,” Brooks says.
Her teammate is missing half of her meniscus (cartilage), which makes the brace from her doctor fit wrong and painful to wear, Brooks says.
“I was like, ‘I bet I could make a new one,’ ” Brooks says.
The project has turned into her senior capstone project, and she hopes to submit the final product, to be made from a flexible plastic, to NASA so others can download and use her 3D designs.
She plans to incorporate interchangeable plates that will slide into the brace and stimulate the player’s knee as it heals.
Apparently the project and her other aspirations caught the eye of the contest judges.
Brooks said for her essay entry into the contest, she focused on her love for the sciences and athletics, and how those passions “got me out of the ghettos of Portland and really bad situations in foster care,” as well as how her heritage plays an important role in her life.
“I really wanted to become something bigger out there,” she said. “My essay was more oriented to talking about how my culture means more to me than I guess a lot of people could imagine, and how that contributes to my sciences.”
For making it to the semifinals, Brooks will get four tickets to the movie and a one-year membership to the New York Academy of Sciences.
The top 10 runners-up will be announced Jan. 12, with each winning a hometown screening of “Hidden Figures” and a $10,000 scholarship to an accredited institution. Two grand prize winners will each get $50,000 scholarships and a three-night trip to Orlando, Fla., to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
In the meantime, she says she is focused on finishing her senior year, her final year in basketball, and her final year in the rocket club.