Celebrating Inclusive Excellence: Margarita Gonzalez and a Nontraditional GTRI Path
Margarita Gonzalez holds the title senior research associate at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). However, that title doesn’t tell the whole story. Her nontraditional career path, building on her diverse background, enables her to create unique value for GTRI both internally and externally.
“I am a senior researcher, and ICL’s (Information and Communications Lab) lead for transformation and innovation (T&I) applied research. In any given week, I have the opportunity to wear different hats and step into different roles. My unique contribution takes the form necessary to make forward progress on a wide range of things—developing a sponsor relationship, leading multidisciplinary problem-solving on our sponsored programs, as well as catalyzing and cultivating innovation—just to name a few things. While these are distinct activities, my aim is the same. Whether engaging internally or externally, I seek to connect, communicate, clarify, and collaborate. On my GTRI research teams, I work closely with project leads to craft the vision, clarify the actual research problem, frame the narrative, and strategize on the technical approach. These are important steps to align with senior stakeholders’ needs and cultivate trust capital, both of which are necessary for sustainable success of any project.”
Gonzalez's long list of tasks can be unified into a core mission that has been central to not only her career at GTRI but her entire professional life.
“Professionally and personally, I’ve learned to adapt, learn quickly, and connect dots across different disciplines and domains. Even before it was part of my role and responsibilities, I have worked with diverse groups of people to discover and define the actual problem as well as identify adequate solutions that fit within their context,” said Gonzalez. “At GTRI, I am a bridge between our technical teams and our sponsors, who often are not engineers nor technologists. I am drawn to the metaphor of being a bridge because, for me, it denotes the passage of ideas, connecting people with distinct perspectives, and ultimately providing a means to arrive at a different place.”
A Nontraditional Background
Gonzalez is not an engineer.
"I'm not an engineer nor a computer scientist. My educational background is in the humanities. I consider myself fortunate to have had diverse, formative life experiences that have served as my training.”
Gonzalez's background is a diverse collection of experiences that have molded her into the professional and leader she is today.
She was born in Brooklyn, New York, which she describes as "a hodgepodge of different cultures and perspectives." Much of it is imbued in Gonzalez.
Her formative years in Brooklyn were the first of her experiences she described as when she was “definitely being the outsider—feeling out of place, at least initially. But then gradually I found the dots and connected them!”
"I'm Mexican-American, but I grew up in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. My first schooling experience was not even in English—it was in Yiddish. I don't speak Yiddish nor does my family. But this is what was available to me in Williamsburg (the Brooklyn neighborhood)." The firstborn child of immigrant parents, Gonzalez credits her family for modeling resourcefulness and hard work. Her parents came to the United States with high aspirations that their children would have the educational opportunities that were beyond their reach in Mexico.
“What has motivated me along my journey? In my opinion, I am not smarter than my parents. They are wise, intentional, and inventive. I don’t think their story is unique. Simply stated, in their formative years, they did not have access to the educational opportunities and diverse experiences that have shaped me and my perspective. However, their sacrifice and inspiration made much of it possible for me.”
While Gonzalez’s path has been seemingly circuitous, it has all led up to the present moment—both professionally and personally.
Though it may seem odd for someone with a religion degree to step into the field of applied sciences and technology, for Gonzalez, her degree was a great primer for the multidisciplinary work in complex settings she did in North Africa and the Middle East. Building upon these experiences, her graduate studies took her even farther away.
Gonzalez traveled to Australia to earn her master's in international studies from the University of Queensland. But, as is typical for Gonzalez, she found a way to connect apparently disparate dots—to have a seemingly haphazard path lead to a defined destination. "It was synchronistic, actually," she says.
Gonzalez has an affinity for languages—not always aiming to speak a language per se, but rather to see and perceive beyond surface interactions. For her, a language is a window into an entirely new world and a carrier of culture. This is true not only of different countries and regions of the world but also applies to organizations and companies.
"I am bilingual, but I'm also bicultural, and there's a fluidity that comes with that. I think that has helped me step into professional roles where I am the bridge. Because I can see and understand different perspectives I can translate what seems most important to each party and what they want to see accomplished. Getting to the ‘So, what’ is universal and a key factor toward achieving alignment.”
Connecting the Dots at GTRI
The throughline that weaves Gonzalez’s professional journey is her ability to see, think differently, and her deep belief that everything is connected. She’s demonstrated this from working in health care as a liaison to underserved communities managing chronic illnesses, to nonprofit community engagement overseas, and ultimately at GTRI, leading multidisciplinary applied research. For Gonzalez, these abilities serve her just as her engineering colleagues would lean into their technical acumen in order to problem-solve.
For this reason, when working with sponsors and stakeholders, Gonzalez focuses not only on the research problem, but also on unpacking the multifaceted contextual factors around it. This is what ultimately helps identify a holistic, sustainable solution that will address people’s felt needs. Technology is a means to an end—a tool for achieving a greater mission.
"I’ve been to places with government sponsors, and looked around and thought, ‘This has too many bells and whistles.’ Not only are they underutilized but may even cause frustration because it does not adequately support the actual need on the ground.”
In working with her ICL colleagues, Gonzalez often “translates” between the engineers and sponsors to tease out what is the actual technical need in the sea of non-technology factors that can either cause or exacerbate the perceived problem on the ground. Sometimes, her translation takes form as a reframing of her technical colleagues’ questions so that a non-technologist can feel invited into the problem-solving process.
“In order for me to effectively facilitate these discussions, I need to have a working knowledge of how things connect and why it should matter to our sponsor. But I don’t need to know how to do things that my technical colleagues do. This is why we partner together to maximize the value we provide to our sponsors. I need to know enough to lead ideation and discovery between them and the customer. Just as I would work to identify assumptions on the sponsor’s side, I do the same with my technical teams. I have found this goes a long way in defining and clarifying what is actually needed.”
While she is not an engineer, Gonzalez understands enough about software engineering, data engineering, and science to broker co-creative problem-solving. In finding solutions with her technical colleagues, it is important to have a sense of the world that the sponsor is navigating. Such conversations span more than data and technology but also touch on other important aspects, such as organizational dynamics, policy and governance, the political landscape, and the organization’s culture and narratives.
Almost subconsciously, Gonzalez uses the language of computer science to describe her philosophy about human interactions:
“At the core, we have an intelligent design; we are each wired a certain kind of way. The design inspires the programming. Our response to life situations determines how that programming is upgraded (or not) and colors how we think, feel, and act with others.”
Gonzalez believes that people who take the time to understand their own programming and the mental models that govern their perception inevitably appreciate and seek out diverse perspectives. Our world is multidimensional, and the path towards improving the human condition is not linear. Those who deeply understand this and are able to operationalize diversity can be an asset anywhere —especially in an applied research environment such as GTRI.
Writer: Christopher Weems
Photos: Sean McNeil
Georgia Tech Research Institute
Atlanta, Georgia USA
The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the nonprofit, applied research division of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Founded in 1934 as the Engineering Experiment Station, GTRI has grown to more than 2,800 employees, supporting eight laboratories in over 20 locations around the country and performing more than $700 million of problem-solving research annually for government and industry. GTRI's renowned researchers combine science, engineering, economics, policy, and technical expertise to solve complex problems for the U.S. federal government, state, and industry.