I was beyond thrilled when Sarah agreed to take part in this series. Sarah is an aerospace engineer! She works for NASA! She's also a wife, mother of one (with another on the way!) and she makes the most amazing quilts! I find her work absolutely fascinating, and I'm so excited that we're able to share some of it with you today!
Tell me about your job. How long have you been working in your field?
I work full-time as an aerospace engineer for NASA. There are several NASA centers located around the country but I work at the biggest one, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I was hired in 1997 as a cooperative education student (or “coop” — it’s similar to an internship) when I was a sophomore in college. When I finished my master’s degree in 2002, I transitioned from “coop” to full-time employee and have been here ever since!
I’ve actually had three pretty distinct jobs in the last 13 years. For the first several years, I worked as a trajectory analyst on projects like the debris recovery effort (and subsequent return to flight) after the space shuttle Columbia accident, and the Mars Science Laboratory mission. In 2006 I became a flight controller for the space shuttle. In 2011 when the space shuttle retired, I began working as a safety engineer for the International Space Station.
(I’ve written several things on my blog if you’re interested, such as how I got my job at NASA, the specifics of my job in Mission Control, and a little about my current job as a safety engineer. You can also check out a profile I recently did as part of the Women@NASA program.)
What does your standard work day look like?
It’s probably not as exciting as most would think! For the most part, my job feels very much like any other job — I ask and answer questions, I deal with unexpected issues, I go to meetings, I wrestle with email, I make Powerpoint slides and give presentations. No day is exactly like any other, but they all feature some variation of those tasks. I suppose the big different is the subject matter! An "unexpected issue” could be anything from something minor, like a circuit breaker tripping on the space station, to something more major, like the recent loss of a Russian cargo spaceship due to an as-yet-undetermined failure. A “meeting” could be anything from your average weekly staff meeting to a major review to determine our readiness for launching the next group of astronauts.
Does your job have creative elements?
Being successful as an engineer definitely requires some creative thinking ability, but calling it creative would be a bit of a stretch. However, there are pockets within NASA that certainly fall into a more traditionally creative category than my own job — web designers, for instance, or photographers or public affairs specialists. I like to point out that there are thousands of people working at NASA, and plenty of those people are not engineers or scientists. The agency truly does need all kinds to thrive.
How do you find the time for both your professional responsibilities and your creative hobbies?
Since my day job is so technical, I definitely have to find time outside of work to indulge the other half of my brain, and this has been the million dollar question for me — even more so since having my daughter Emma in 2012! (I’m currently pregnant with our second daughter and due late this summer, so I fully expect whatever I say below to totally go out the window, at least for a while, when she arrives in a few months!)
First of all, NASA is really an excellent place to be in terms of work-life balance. Although I do support the space station which is a 24/7 operation, it’s very rare that I need to work outside of normal business hours. It’s also rare that I need to work more than the standard 40 hours per week. We are given good flexibility to structure our workday as needed to accommodate kid schedules or other personal commitments, and have the option to work from home occasionally if needed. On top of that, for the last couple years we’ve had the option to work what’s usually referred to as a 9/80 schedule, which means I have every other Friday off.
This kind of flexibility goes a long way towards helping me do my best not only as an employee and engineer, but as a mom, wife, and person with my own wants and needs — and I am definitely thankful! I have thought about leaving NASA a couple times over the years, but worry that it would be difficult to find something that allows me the same kind of balance.
My biggest creative hobbies these days are sewing (primarily quilting, which I got into in mid-2011) and blogging. I do at least 75% of my quilting either in the evenings after my daughter has gone to bed, on weekends during her nap time, or on those “flex" Fridays I mentioned when she still goes to daycare but I stay home.
My other biggest creative hobby is graphic design. Way back in 2005, I started a master’s degree in digital media studies from a local university and finally finished it last year. (There’s kind of a long story behind that.) I don’t use those digital media skills at all in my day job, and with limited time and my current focus on quilting, I’ve had to put it on the back burner for now. That’s reality, and it definitely took some time to adjust to the realization after becoming a mom that I no longer have time to indulge all of my interests.
Do you ever worry about the effect your online presence could have on your career? If so, how have you guarded against that?
I didn’t think about it too much when I was younger, even though I’ve been blogging for nearly as long as I’ve been working at NASA. In retrospect, I should have, but I was pretty naive about the connections between the internet and the “real” world back then. As I’ve gotten older, and as my career has progressed to positions of greater responsibility, I do think about whether my online presence could be a detriment. I would hate to be denied a promotion (or worse) because of something I put online.
Still, I also recognize that a lot of people are curious about NASA and what we’re doing, and I think people like me sharing our experiences can actually be a very good thing for the NASA “brand.” Like any other federal government agency, NASA has to essentially justify its existence (and its budget!) on a near-continual basis, so it’s important for the general public to hear about the amazing things the agency is doing with U.S. taxpayer dollars!
I definitely don’t talk about work online as much as I used to, but I also don’t want to ignore it entirely. My interest in the space program is a fundamental part of my personality, and I want my blog and social media streams to reflect that. I do make sure that what I’m saying is generally positive, and when I’m stating a personal opinion about something NASA-related, I do my best to make that clear.
What has your experience been working in (what I imagine must be) a male-dominated industry?
The lack of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields has obviously been well documented. In my college class of ~40 aerospace engineering graduates, I think 7 or 8 of us were women. Still, while I’ve been asked this question a lot, I’m still never quite sure how to answer it except to say that for me personally, it has not been an issue.
When I hear stories of the struggles women face in other industries or even within engineering in other areas, I do wonder if I’m being naive to think that I haven’t been affected by being in the minority. But overall, I think I have both job responsibilities and compensation (salary) equivalent to men with similar qualifications. Working for the federal government does help level the playing field a bit, since level of responsibility and salary are often a matter of public record. (There are both pros and cons to this, for sure.)
But overall, I have always been confident in my academic abilities, and in my ability to do well in my career regardless of the age/sex/race/etc of the people around me. That’s not to say I don’t have moments of doubt — I most certainly do — but in most cases, I trust that I will be able to figure out what I need to do to solve a given problem. Math and science have an unfortunate reputation for being “hard” and “for boys” and of course neither of those things is actually true at all! Just like any other subject you learn about in school, learning calculus or how a rocket works just takes time and practice.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned — and am continuing to learn even with 15+ years of a career under my belt — is that you must be able to find meaning and value in the work that you do.
We are bombarded with variations of “do what you love” but I honestly think that attitude can be detrimental in some cases. You probably won’t love every moment of your job. I definitely haven’t, even though I have what most people would say is a very “cool” job.
It was fascinating to learn more about Sarah's career - make sure you check out the hyperlinks throughout for even more details. You can read more on Sarah's blog or follow her on instagram. Thank you so much Sarah!