Rebecca Swanner (writer),
Jeffrey Thayer (photographer)
Rocket scientists are supposed to be dull. Male. Nerdy. That is not the case with the brilliant Sonia Sanchez, a heavily tattooed systems engineer who works on research and development for satellites at a powerful aerospace firm. Over a vegan feast in Los Angeles, Sanchez, 33, explains that she grew up plucking chickens in rural Connecticut and didn’t expect life to lead her into a career in aeronautics. Instead, she had wanted to be a musician. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was 5, but my parents told me I had to go into a profession where I would make money,” Sanchez says. Her acute math abilities took her into an intense Ph.D. program for electrical engineering, but in the end she had to walk away from it to rescue what remained of her right brain. “They teach you to do what they want you to do, and it turns your mind into a robot’s. All your creativity … all the songs I ever wrote, I forgot.”
So she accepted a position with an engineering company based in southern California. Moving not only forced a change in her roller derby teams, it also inspired Sanchez to become more adventurous. That’s why, in 2007, the shy engineer had Corey Miller tattoo her on LA Ink with the reminder that “Fear is just a feeling. Fear can never kill you.” Since then, Sanchez has pushed herself beyond her comfort zone and recently began performing in modern burlesque shows around Los Angeles—which is where she currently flaunts most of her ink.
The intricate tattoos that grace the top of her chest and arms, such as the circuit-board heart by Mike Cole and the beetles by Nick Baxter, look as fresh as the day they were completed. “I use a lot of sunscreen,” she says. Plus, she hides them under her work clothes. “It’s not that it’s illegal to have tattoos at work,” she says. “But as soon as some people find out, they won’t talk to me again.” Ah yes, those dull, nerdy engineers.