January 19, 2009Her job: Senior Materials Research Engineer, NASA Glenn Research Center
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
As a senior materials research engineer in the Space Environment and Experiments Branch at NASA Glenn Research Center I conduct research on the durability of spacecraft materials in the space environment. This means I determine if materials that spacecraft designers want to use to build spacecraft will be damaged while in space, or whether the materials will last a long time. Also, if an external spacecraft material has become damaged in space (such as on the Hubble Space Telescope), I run experiments to understand why.
Although space, above the Earth where the International Space Station and the shuttle orbit, is a “vacuum environment” there are many harmful environmental exposures that can damage spacecraft materials. These include solar flare x-rays, ultraviolet radiation (which can give you a sunburn), and charged particle radiation from the Sun (such as electrons that can cause “northern lights”), thermal cycling and something called atomic oxygen (individual oxygen atoms). To study the durability of spacecraft materials, I run tests in ground-laboratory facilities and I design, build, and fly space-flight experiments to test what spacecraft materials will be damaged while in space, and what materials are durable. I have had numerous experiments that were flown in the space shuttle cargo bay, on the Russian Space Station Mir, and I am the principal investigator for 12 individual experiments that have been, or will be, flown on the exterior of the International Space Station! These International Space Station experiments are part of a series of experiments called MISSE, which is an abbreviation for the Materials International Space Station Experiment. You can learn more about the MISSE experiments and see neat photos of the MISSE experiment trays in space at http://misse1.larc.nasa.gov/.
Why did you choose engineering?
I always did well in math and loved art, and as a college freshman at Michigan State University, I developed an interest in chemistry and atomic physics. So I thought that engineering would be a good combination of all these fields. Therefore, I decided to take a one credit course “Introduction to Careers in Engineering.” During this very helpful class (highly recommended) the chairman of the Department of Materials Science showed us a piece of special wire, called shape memory alloy, which he crumpled into a ball. Then he heated it with a lighter and it “magically” formed into a perfect coil. I found the material fascinating and decided to try materials science as a career, and ended up loving all my materials science classes. Then, between my junior and senior years I obtained a summer job working in my field conducting metallurgical failure analysis (why did something metal break). This job helped me to know I wanted my career to be in materials science engineering.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I have both a bachelor's degree and a master’s degree in materials science from the College of Engineering at Michigan State University.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
My daily activities vary depending on the status of my flight experiments and ground-laboratory research, but my typical research tasks include fabricating spaceflight or laboratory test samples and characterizing the samples before and after environmental exposure. Characterization and testing can include photo-documentation of samples and measuring their properties (optical properties like reflectance, mechanical properties (how easily it breaks), density and surface features). I love photography, so taking photos of sample surfaces at high magnification with optical and scanning electron microscopes is one of my favorite research tasks. I also spend a lot of time organizing and graphing the research data, writing reports and papers, and preparing and giving presentations.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
I find the most exciting part of my work is having experiments that are flown in space! I find it really exciting (and cool ;) to have my experiments taken up into space by astronauts on the space shuttle, and for the MISSE experiments, to have them placed outside of the International Space Station by an astronaut during a space-walk. Then after a year or more, an astronaut does another spacewalk to bring the experiment back to Earth, and I get to test my samples and see how my experiment did in space. I get to work closely with other researchers (from Glenn, other NASA centers, universities and/or industry) on my projects and flight experiments. I really enjoy working with others as I am constantly learning from them, and it is usually a lot of fun to team up and work together. It is both the interesting people I meet and the fascinating projects that make me love my work at NASA. Another part I really enjoy about being a research engineer is that I write the results of my space and laboratory experiments in papers and present the results to other space experts at national or international conferences. I have given papers at conferences around the United States (including Hawaii), and internationally such as in Canada, the Netherlands and France. In March 2008, I was invited by the Japanese Aerospace Agency to give an invited keynote presentation at a conference in Japan!
Another wonderful thing about my work at NASA is that since 1998 I have been collaborating with (conduct research with) high school girls. We have a special program where we work on an on-going basis with students from Hathaway Brown School, an all-girls high school. The students work with me and my colleague, Bruce Banks, on a number of our flight experiments. These collaborative experiments are a series of experiments called PEACE for the “Polymer Erosion and Contamination Experiment”. The girls join the “PEACE Team” as freshmen or sophomores in high school and work with me throughout their high school career! You can read an article “High School Students Team with NASA on Space Experiments” about our collaboration at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/MISSE_PEACE_Feature.html. There is a second article entitled “The Wait is Over: Space Station Project Returns” at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/MISSE_returnstoGlenn_120505.html. Often the students enter their NASA research in national and international science fairs. As an example, 3 PEACE team students entered and won the Midwest Regional Competition of the 2006-07 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. The students then went on to win 6th place in the National Finals. As Siemens National Finalists, the students won over $20,000 in scholarships and awards! You can read an article about the competition entitled “Students Win Siemens Award for Space Station Experiment” at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/siemens_award.html. Also, in May 2008, two other PEACE team students presented a research paper (an oral presentation) at an international conference in Toronto, Canada! They were only sophomores in high school! In addition to working with the high school girls, I have also mentored numerous university students during my NASA career (over 30 students so far). Most of the students have worked with me for more than one summer. We work together on flight experiments and other research, such as Hubble Space Telescope insulation studies. I also participate in numerous outreach activities in an effort to get young girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and to show them that women can, and are, very successful in STEM careers.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
After working in my field since 1989, I am known internationally for my technical expertise. This is a great accomplishment that I am very proud of. I have been honored by receiving numerous honors and awards including two of NASA’s highest honors: the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal for “Outstanding Contributions to the Understanding and Enhancement of Spacecraft Materials Durability” and the Space Flight Awareness Honoree Award for “Contributions to the Hubble Space Telescope Multilayer Insulation Failure Review Board and Impacts on Hubble Servicing Missions.” I am also very proud of receiving two national awards: I received SAE International’s J. Cordell Breed Award for Women Leaders. This award “recognizes the role of women in the mobility industry by the contributions they make both professionally and personally”. I also received a Rotary National Award for Space Achievement (RNASA) Stellar Award. This award is given “in recognition for significant contributions to America’s space program promoting advances in science, technology and medicine for the benefit of generations of explorers to come”.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
I feel very unfortunate that my career challenges have all been academic in nature, such as conquering a particularly difficult class in college (like mechanics) or trying to understand a technically challenging problem at work. Some of my NASA research tasks have been very difficult to solve (very complex). Fortunately, we usually work as part of a team, so if there is an aspect of my research I don’t understand I can get help from another researcher with other skills to solve the problem.
Thinking back on high school, I realize that before I ever considering going into engineering I “stepped out of the box” by being only 1 of 2 females in a technical drawing class. I also took and enjoyed a woodworking class as one of a few girls. It never crossed my mind that entering into a science or math related field should only be for boys! Very fortunately, I have never run into anyone whom indicated that I could not succeed in my “non-traditional” career (yet I know other women have). Perhaps this is because I have had a positive attitude and have always strived to do my best. Please always keep in mind: if you are confident in your abilities, others will be too!
Please tell us a little about your family.
I am the youngest of 4 children, and I love to get together with my two sisters, my brother, and their families. I am married and I met my husband, Henry, while working as a student at NASA in 1986. Henry is also a materials engineer at NASA Glenn. We live in Hinckley, Ohio and we have two boys: Henry IV (1995) and Danny (1997). It looks like our boys are taking after mom & dad with good math and science abilities! They are both soccer players, they enjoy scouting and now enjoy downhill skiing. My guys also enjoy video-gaming (no surprise there) and they all enjoy playing Pokemon competitively and have each won at least one City Championship for their age group.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
My short term goals include:
My long term goals include:
- Writing an article entitled “Review of Materials Spaceflight Experiments” for the Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering
- Writing a handbook for spacecraft designers, to be entitled the “Handbook of Atomic Oxygen”
- Conducting post-flight analyses of my MISSE experiments, presenting the results at conferences and documenting the data in conference papers and journal articles
- Continue to work with students from Hathaway Brown and other schools
- Continue to develop and fly space flight experiments, providing important and unique environmental durability data to the space community and directly impacting the space program
- Have a positive impact on other people's lives
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
As a little girl I became interested in the space program as my father (a biomedical engineer at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit) and my older brother shared their interest in the space program with me. My dad ran medical tests on astronauts in the early space program and my brother used to paint wonderful space science-fiction paintings. I remember our family watched Neil Armstrong take the first step on the moon on July 21, 1969. We watched on a little black & white TV up at our cottage on Lake Michigan. It was 9:56 pm and the moon was bright and visible and we ran back and forth between the TV and outside on the deck to look at the moon. My parents also greatly influenced me as they taught me that you can succeed at anything you set your mind to.
After deciding on a career in materials science engineering, having a strong desire to conduct research, and having an interest in NASA, I was very fortunate that the professor I was working under for my master’s degree helped me get a summer job at NASA Glenn in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986. After working for the summer at Glenn, I knew for sure that I wanted to have a career conducting research at NASA.
Currently, my husband, my children, and some of my close friends have had, and continue to have, a strong impact on my life. Family and special friends are so very crucial to us and our happiness and well-being!
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
I strongly believe you can achieve anything you set your mind to as long as you dedicate yourself to working on it. It might not be easy, and you might need to try several times to achieve it, but don’t give up and have confidence in yourself (and don’t be afraid to get help if needed!).
I think it is important to get shadow opportunities & summer jobs in the field(s) you are interested in to see if you really enjoy the work, and to gain contacts with people who learn of your abilities and skills.
I believe it is important to excel at what you’re doing, but also to have fun while you’re doing it. Laugh and enjoy whatever you do! We spend so much time at work, it is important to really like (or better yet, love) what you do and to be happy.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I enjoy running, and I run almost every day. I also enjoy biking, skiing, hiking, rock climbing and snorkeling. I think being active helps both your body and your mind. I love photography, doing art (painting, stained glass and many other types of media), crafts and beading. I like making handmade gifts for family and friends whenever I find a little free time. I also love to travel, and there is nowhere I’d rather be than on a hot sunny beach. Oh, and I love chocolate and cookies ;)
My favorite quote is “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”