Emina Zanačić ’17 Receives NASA Award

Her pathway to the agency began with an internship at Saint Mary's.

by Bryan Navarro '10, Alumni Engagement & Events | June 7, 2024

Emina Zanačić '17 was recently recognized for outstanding contributions to NASA's mission. She was presented with the Early Career Achievement Medal by the NASA Ames Research Center. 

Located at Moffett Federal Airfield in California's Silicon Valley, the Ames Research Center has led NASA in conducting world-class research and development in aeronautics, exploration technology and science since 1939. 

Zanačić, a graduate of the Environmental & Earth Science department, began her pathway to NASA with an internship while still an undergraduate student at Saint Mary's. With the big news of the award, we chatted to talk about how she got there—and what her role is with the agency.

What is your role?

I work in the environmental management division, which ensures NASA is following all environmental laws. We have many programs in our division concerning water quality, air quality, hazardous materials management, hazardous waste management, sustainability, restoration, and the National Environmental Protection Act. 

I’m the program manager of the Environmental Management System, so I work with all the programs and to make them more efficient, make sure we aren’t missing anything, and are following all environmental laws across the Ames Research Center.

How did you get started? 

I was at Saint Mary's when I started my internship, which led to a permanent civil servant position. NASA does cool internships called Pathways Internships where you apply during college and, once you graduate, if they’re satisfied with your performance, they convert you to a full-time permanent employee. 

Emina Zancic in front of a NASA logo
How did Saint Mary's prepare you for your career?

Saint Mary’s made me really well-rounded and helped me to think more critically, thanks to Seminar and the other classes I took that were not related to science. It taught me to think outside the box and that there are different angles to problem-solving. And that it’s important to collaborate with others. I also read a lot of the Great Books at SMC thanks to those classes that I otherwise probably would’ve never read. 

Since graduating in 2017, I’ve worked with the Career Center and spoken at some SMC events like a few of the science career panels to spread the word about NASA’s internship program. 

Who was influential in your SMC experience?

Professor Alice Baldridge was my advisor, and she was really helpful in helping me figure out my major—originally I was Biology and switched to Environmental and Earth Science. She also helped me figure out which classes to take to be able to graduate on time. 

I also remember having to take a required calculus course during JanTerm during my first year, and it was three-plus hours daily of math all week long. But Professor Hans de Moor made it tolerable! I ended up scoring the highest grade on that final. He really pushed me to challenge myself and not to doubt my abilities.

How do you feel receiving the award?

I am so thrilled and thankful to work at NASA (ranked the happiest place to work in the federal government 12 years in a row) and grateful to be in such an encouraging environment. Little Emina would be so proud!

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to my journey along the way—family, friends, and colleagues, you are all appreciated! 

Ad astra (to the stars)!