Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo

Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo

Aerospace engineer
Cosby, MO, United States
Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo
Ask a Question:
Required field
Please note
The engineers who take the time to respond to student questions on this forum are often very busy and may not respond to some questions, particularly those that have been answered elsewhere. Please be sure to review previous questions and answers to see if your question may have already been addressed.
Enter the code shown: (only upper case)

Alicia is part of a team at NASA designing satellites and rovers to explore our solar system. Much of her work has focused on ensuring that spacecraft successfully orbit or safely land on the surface of Mars.—Most recently she was a member of the Entry, Descent and Landing Team that delivered the Curiosity rover to Mars' Gale Crater in August 2012. Mars spacecraft have been collecting evidence that, in the past, the Red Planet was covered with water—such a discovery could mean that life might be possible elsewhere in our solar system. Alicia thinks the best part of her job is seeing pictures or hearing of new discoveries that scientists are making about Mars with data they received from the orbiters, landers, and rovers she helped to put there.  She says, "It makes me feel that what I do really makes a difference.” Alicia has had various roles in nearly all missions to Mars in the past decade including the 2001 Odyssey orbiter, the 2003 Exploration rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), the 2005 Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the 2011 Science Laboratory Rover, Curiosity.  She is employed by NASA's Langley Research Center.  (While she originally worked at the Center in Hampton, Virginia, when her husband was transferred, NASA allowed her to continue to telework from her home in Missouri.) Alicia grew up on a ranch in northeast Nebraska. Though she admired her parents occupation and loved living in the country, she knew at an early age that she did not want to follow in their footsteps. She became a physics major as an undergraduate. After a summer internship at a physics lab, she felt that beyond a small group of scientists, the work she did would not immediately impact people. She desired something more applicable to society. That's when she turned to engineering.  Alicia enjoys traveling, cooking, and spending as much time as possible with her husband and four children. 
Education B.S. in physics, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska; M.S. in mechanical engineering, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo

Dear Emily, 

At NASA we need expertise in a broad range of fields. As we try to figure out how to enable humans to live Mars there are many engineering and biological challenges to be solved. 

Some examples of biomedical engineering work taking place at NASA now can be found at: exploration-space-technology

NASA also partners with many universities and research organizations to perform specific studies. 

At this point, as  a freshman in high school, I would recommend taking all the science, math and computer science/programing courses you can.  Pay attention to the topic areas you really enjoy and the ones you don’t. In a few years when you are considering colleges, look for ones who have research grants from NASA. Also look for internship opportunities at different companies and at NASA. And it is ok to change your mind! The important thing is to find something you are passionate about and learn how to do it well. 

Wishing you all the best on your journey!

Alicia Cianciolo

Dear Niita, 

Something similar happened to me. I completed my undergraduate degree in physics and decided that it was not what I wanted to do forever. I decided to go to graduate school for  engineering. My physics background gave me a unique perspective for solving engineering problems, just as your computing background will complement/supplement any other career. Use your past experience and education not as a liability but as an asset. Keep searching until you find the right fit for you!  

My best, 
Alicia Cianciolo

Dear Tisha,

It is never too late! I never took an engineering class until I decided to get a masters in it. I finished my bachelors degree in physics and decided that it was not a career path that suited me. Perhaps I felt the same way you do. I had never had an engineering class but what I did know about it had me interested.

If there is still an opportunity to gain some engineering experience through a internship or shadow program take advantage of it now. If not, put together a personal statement that highlights all your best qualities and don't worry so much about others have done. You might ask a science or engineering teacher or guidance councilor for help with technical language. It is important to let the university know that you have the desire, curiosity, and enthusiasm to learn engineering. From personal experience, mechanical and aeronautical engineering are challenging but infinitely rewarding fields of study.

And, if you find that they don't suite you after taking some courses, at least you'll know for sure.

Best of luck!


Dear Hope, Dont get discouraged. If becoming an aerospace engineer is what you want then you have to find a way to make it happen. Talk to your teacher and ask for additional help or find a good tutor. I know that many colleges have a guidance centers that can help students find out how they learn best. I am not sure if this is available in middle school but perhaps a high school counselor can help. It is an extremely valuable awareness to have. Most importantly dont give up. If this job was easy everyone would do it. Best of luck, Alicia

Natalie, The requirement of a Ph.D to design robots that explore other planets really depends on what part of the robot design you would like to do. To put a robot on another planet requires MANY different kinds of jobs. For instance, the instruments that are selected to go on a particular robot are often designed at Universities by researchers and professors or at private companies. Usually the instrument teams are lead by people who have Ph.Ds in their specific area of research because it is highly specialized. However, those who actually build the instrument may not. Others design particular parts of the robot, like the propulsion system, the wheels or landing system or the materials that the robot is made of like thermal protection material or materials that have particular properties that can survive the extreme conditions on other planets. People in all of these positions do not necessarily have Ph.Ds but some do. Usually those who do have a Ph.D specialize in a very specific aspect of the design. As for myself, I work as part of the team who designs rovers to go to other planets. I do not have a Ph.D but I do have a Masters in Mechanical Engineering. I work specifically on the robots flight through the atmosphere. For example, I help to design parachutes used for landing the robots by using models of the robot and the atmosphere in computer simulations to determine how fast it has to slow down to land safely. That translates into how big the parachute has to be and when it needs to be deployed. Those results are provided to the parachute makers and the rover builders. Everything we do is interconnected but many people work on a tiny aspect of the whole thing. All of these are just a few examples of what aeronautical engineers do. In summary, many engineering jobs do not require a Ph.D, many scientific research jobs do. My advice is to try different things, intern at different places, then decide which is best for you. Hope this helps, Alicia Cianciolo Aerospace Engineer

Dear Lacy, I faced a very similar situation when deciding which undergraduate university to attend. I chose the one that I felt most comfortable at (and offered me a sufficient financial package) even though it did not have the engineering department. I decided to major in physics. After graduation I went on to get a Masters in Mechanical/Aerospace engineering. The real secret has not so much to do with which school you attend so long as you can make the grade, but it is largely impacted by the internships you do. Most of the people I know who get hired at NASA or private aerospace companies participated in one of the many summer or co-op programs they offer. It allows the employer to become familiar with you and it also allows you to find the area within the agency or company that you like best. Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo