Marla Fields Redefines Limits One Step Forward at a Time- and Inspires Young Girls to do the Same
A good advice from her high school teacher lead Marla Fields to make a life-changing choice about her academic path. Today, Marla, Sr. Project Manager at Nova's Material Metrology Division, passes this on, as she mentors' coaches and inspires young girls to fulfil their true potential
Marla, give us a little background – what do you do at Nova?
My name is Marla Fields and I have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from MIT. At Nova I work as a senior technical program manager and I Focus mostly on Nova METRION in the materials Metrology division. I work on multiple projects at the same time. I get to be a part of a lot that’s going on at Nova. I’ve been working at Nova for just under a year.
How was the onboarding process for you? what stood out for you?
One of the big things for me when I got here, is that when I asked questions, everybody was really helpful. They wanted to give me as much information as possible that could help me in my role. I would ask for an inch and they would give me a mile of information. At the beginning, it was almost like drinking from a firehose. But it was super helpful to get me up to speed really quickly. It also helped me understand not only what we were doing, but also why we were doing it. Nobody ever asked me why I needed to know things. I felt like a part of the team from the very beginning. Everybody just wanted to help me be as successful as possible, and they weren’t worried about why I needed to know, or how I was going to use the information – the culture is very different than other companies I worked at in the past. I found it really refreshing to be in a place where everybody wants everyone to succeed.
Wow. That’s really beautiful to hear. What made you decide to join in the first place?
I was looking for a job during the pandemic, and I interviewed with several companies. But it was at Nova that I had the most interviews, and where I got to speak with the most people. At some other companies I had something like five interviews, and they gave me offers, but it didn’t feel like I met very many people. When it came time to make a decision, it felt like I had a really good vision of what Nova is and what the people are like, because I had met so many people. It also helped that a colleague who worked at Nova, suggested I apply. Another person who helped me make my decision was my husband.
He said to me “do you realize that you’re always really happy after you’ve talked to people from Nova? That you’re happier about those interviews than about other interviews?” And he said, “I think that needs to play into your decision.” So, my husband was a huge advocate for Nova. Even though he wasn’t a part of those interviews, he could see how the interviews affected me in a positive way.
Family members are such a huge part of our lives. Do you feel Nova share’s that view?
Most definitely. A few months ago at Nova’s summer family events here in California, I couldn’t bring my husband because he’s an essential worker, but I brought my five-year-old, and my mother who is seventy-eight. I think my son has a crush on Dean Hunt, my boss and manager, because he went swimming, and Dean was throwing him in the pool. When he came out for a popsicle, he didn’t want me or granny to taste it. He just ran over to Dean and was like “Dean, I got a popsicle!” He was so excited. And then there’s my mother, who I care for. She has health issues. Nova has been just amazing. When you’re taking care of someone who is elderly, and who lives with you, it can get complicated. I’m seeing a different doctor with her almost every week because we have to make important decisions regarding her health. Nova has been very supportive about it, nobody has ever gotten upset because I had to take her to the doctor.
You certainly have a lot on your plate – your career, your son, your husband, and mom whom we hope will be well. Does that leave you any time for yourself? For your own hobbies and interests?
I always find the time. I actually have something tonight. I’m a board member of a nonprofit called Girls on the Run Silicon Valley. I’ve been a board member since 2017. This past year has been really tough with COVID, because we couldn’t have a lot of activities. As a board member we’ve had to make really difficult decisions: how do we keep people on our payroll? How do we continue to provide services going forward?
A lot of nonprofits have gone under, and I feel so fortunate that we were able, despite various restrictions, to continue our activity and keep the paid employees of the nonprofit, on the payroll. I think we did a really good job with great leadership and our executive director. So we’re going to come out of this, and we’re going to continue running programs, which is amazing.
What does Girls on the Run Silicon Valley do? How do they help girls?
The goal of the organization is to raise stronger girls; girls who are more self-sufficient and confident. They do this by creating running programs, where at the end of the program, which is typically ten or twelve weeks, they run a 5K. During COVID, we did this virtually, and while we did manage to do an in-person event, we couldn’t do a big event. Normally we’d have around a thousand girls. The program is about finishing a 5KM run, not about how fast you finish. It’s about always moving forward. The program also focuses on teaching girls about bullying, how to stand up for yourself, how to take care of your body, and that you’re worth it. And though it’s not STEM related, minorities and STEM are my passion, so I think that strong girls make the best engineers, and I just love the program. I’ve been working with Girls on the Run Silicon Valley since 2009. For three years I coached the girls, I then did other volunteer work for them, and in 2017, I joined the board.
I also do a lot of speaking engagements because I believe in getting women and minorities into STEM. Recently I was at Girlstart – they do summer and afterschool programs for girls, and I spoke at one of their camps about what I do and what I’ve done in the past. I also volunteer with the Greene Scholars Program, I volunteer with them a couple of times a year, as a science fair judge. I’ve also worked with TechBridge and Breakthrough. Because I’m a black female engineer, I feel like they need to see people like me being an engineer.
Absolutely. You are an incredible role model of what’s possible. Thank you for everything you’re doing. Do you have any hobbies you do to have fun?
I like to play softball. I have a softball game next Monday.
What led you into the field of chemistry?
I actually didn’t know what I wanted to be for the longest time. When I got into college, I had to choose between MIT and Dartmouth, and I didn’t know which one I wanted. All my teachers and everybody told me “oh, go to MIT. MIT is the best in the world, you should go there.” But I was just like, “but what if I don’t want to be an engineer? What if I want to study Spanish? Then MIT isn’t the place for me, and I should go to Dartmouth, right?” My PE teacher is actually the one who helped me make that decision. He pulled me aside while forcing me to run laps, and he was like “Marla, you’ve grown your entire life and always lived in rural New Hampshire. This is your chance to go live in Boston, live in the big city, and not be tied to it. And if you hate living in the big city, you can always come back, but this is your opportunity.” And I was like – that is the best idea ever.
Because it wasn’t just about MIT being a good school, it was because I’ll learn something about myself. And so I ended up going to MIT. And I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I actually went into my sophomore year as an undeclared sophomore. I couldn’t stay with my freshman advisor, as he was leaving the institute, so I ended up in the Dean’s office, because she had to find a place for me. She told me “you can’t be that undecided – you have to know what you want.” So I told her that I was debating between chemical engineering and math. And because I always make decisions based on practicality, I chose chemical engineering. That’s because she told me that chemical engineering has more requirements than math. And that if I decide on chemical engineering, but I switch to math, I’ll still be able to graduate on time- but not if I did things the other way around. Practicality won the day I chose to be a chemical engineer.
What do you enjoy most about working at Nova?
Good question. It may change over time, but right now I absolutely love working at Nova because I love the people I come to work with. It feels like everybody wants to move forward and that they want to move in the right direction. They might not all agree what that direction is, right? But it’s clear that everybody is coming from a good place. Everybody is coming from a place of wanting to move the company and the products forward, and put their best foot forward.
As a program manager do you still get to work on tools?
At a big company like Applied, my previous employer, I didn’t. But because we’re a smaller company, I get to go into the lab, and sometimes when the guys need help, I’ll help them. I have packed up controllers when we shipped controllers because there was so much to be done, and not enough hands to do it. I’ve spent hours helping the guys clean tools, wiping things down and cleaning things up before shipping. That’s another plus for Nova.
So you literally get your hands dirty.
Yes. We just brought one of our tools in and I got to drive the air bearings. I like being able to be in the lab and do the dirty work, as well as set up the meetings.
What’s one thing your teammates don’t know about you yet?
I don’t think that they know that I play softball, because it hasn’t started yet. So they don’t know that I play competitively in a women’s league. We play tournaments on the weekend, sometimes. We played in Las Vegas right before COVID hit. I also don’t think they know how good I am during a crisis. Because my mother has been living with me for almost fifteen years, I’ve seen a lot of crises. I am trained at CPR and first aid and I’ve kept up my certification for about two decades. I use it more than one might think. So I’m the one you want in your corner when something goes down.
I definitely want you in my corner, because there are always challenges.
Exactly. There are always tough things to do and deal with. Right now, we’re trying to get a tool off the ground in China, and we can’t go there ourselves, but yesterday we were successful! We managed to set up a laptop and for the first time we got to see the guys from China in the lab. I almost wanted to cry.
It sounds like you’re the type of person who needs to keep pushing through projects, and if you don’t get there, you’ll still find a way to get there.
That right. It’s kind of the way I’ve dealt with everything in life, by just taking one step forward. If you can just take one step forward each day, you’re already better off than you were yesterday. You may not be where you want to be, or where everybody wants you to be at that point, but if you are still moving forward, then you’re doing all right in my book. It’s the best thing you can do, and it’s the best thing you can hope for.
What do you do when things get difficult and you feel overwhelmed? Does that ever happen?
There are a lot of times in life when things get kind of difficult. When that happens and I feel overwhelmed, I focus on the small things, and one of those little things each day that did go right. I have a gratitude journal, and I make sure that I write in it every day. I actually was looking at it the other day and I saw entries from when I was interviewing at Nova. It’s great to be able to look back when you’re having a tough day and remember good moments. Things don’t seem as bad.