Monday, July 12, 2010

Interview: Meg Tuma, Scientist and Mentor

In the course of doing my job, I frequently get to work with a lot of very smart people, among them Margaret L. (Meg) Tuma, Ph.D., one of the engineers ("rocket scientists") at Marshall Space Flight Center.

What do you do at Marshall Space Flight Center?
I’m the project lead for the Ares I Integrated Vehicle Ground Vibration Test. That’s a mouthful – and means I’m responsible for the modal test on the new Ares rocket. We need to understand the natural frequencies and damping of the Ares V vehicle in order to adequately control the vehicle during ascent and flight. My responsibilities include getting the test rocket hardware from each of the rocket component elements (First Stage, Upper Stage, Upper Stage Engine, and Orion), coordinating transportation to MSFC and the Test Stand, getting the Test Stand (4550) ready for testing, the hydrodynamic stands (ie big shock absorbers), stacking the hardware, conducting the test, and disassembling the vehicle.

What degrees do you have? B.S. Physics, M.S. Physics, Ph.D. Electrical Engineering
Did you pursue these degrees with space in mind? Always in the back of my mind, but not my ultimate goal. I really didn’t think I had a chance to work at NASA, so when I got the opportunity, I jumped on it!

When did you know you wanted to work in a scientific or technical field?
In high school. I always liked math and science and in high school was challenged in physics and calculus and realized that’s what I wanted to pursue in college.

How did you make the switch from research to management?
I was in the NASA Professional Development program in 2000-2001. During that year, I worked at JPL, a University, and HQ. These experiences broadened my horizons and made me realize my talents would be put to better use if I shifted from research into project management. It was a fairly smooth transition. Although, I miss research from time to time. I still work on one of my inventions in my “spare” time. It’s a miniature light bulb (aka a “light bulb on a chip”) that can be used as a calibration source for spectrometers on satellites or remote terrestrial applications.

What's the biggest difference between science and engineering?
Engineering is much more applied. Science is a broader field trying to understand nature at its core (forces, electricity, etc.) Engineering takes science and applies it to make things work.

What advice would you give to young women interested in pursuing STEM careers?
Study study study! In groups if you can find a good study group. Take an internship or summer job in the field you are pursuing to “test drive” it. It’s much easier to change a major to match the career you’re interested in. Get a mentor. This is really important. There are several mentoring programs. One is MentorNet – an online mentoring program.

You participate in a mentoring program through the University of Akron. What can you tell me about that experience?
It’s wonderful! Each year I’m paired with one or more students and meet with them in person monthly usually at a social event (bowling, touring a museum, etc) and via email on a weekly basis. In fact, I’m still in contact with students I mentored 10 years ago! I was able to help them with class choices, provide career advice, and just listen to their problems when they needed to talk. I like helping others so I find it very fulfilling. I’m also a charter member of MentorNet – an online mentoring program where I’m paired with a graduate student in the US and we communicate via email a few times a month. My current mentee is in California and had a side project working on research for microwave popcorn. It was very interesting. I’m also involved in the “Adopt-A-Physicist” program. Twice a year I get paired with 2 or more high school classes from across the US and communicate via email. They ask lots of questions! Like, what made me decide to go into my current career, my favorite class, most interesting work experience, toughest work experience, etc. I was mentoring 3 classes during the Ares I-X launch, and they were tracking the progress and stopped their school work to watch the launch. It was neat to share that excitement with so many young students.

In addition to technical knowledge, what skills have you found the most valuable in your career?
People skills! It is so important to understand how to manage a team and understand your team’s personal dynamics.

What's been the coolest moment in your career so far?
Ares I-X launch. Followed by aero flight tests. And riding in the vomit comet.

Where do you go from here?
The moon! Still trying to be an astronaut. Hopefully we’ll have a replacement vehicle for the shuttle to take us there.

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