Live Event: October 7, 2016 at 1:00pm Eastern
Tracy Drain is a Flight Systems Engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and is currently working on the Juno mission to Jupiter. She has also worked on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Kepler projects. We asked her a few questions about herself and her STEM career to get to know her and her work a bit better before her live event.
Learn More About Tracy
What is your current position?
Flight Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, and Deputy Chief Engineer on NASA’s Juno Mission to Jupiter.
How did you end up in the field you are in today? Who or what inspired you to pursue this career?
I have been interested in space since I was a kid — about eight years old. Sometime around then, I read an article in a book about how scientists thought the Solar System was formed. The idea that the Sun, the planets and their moons, the comets, the asteroids — everything in our “neighborhood” was formed from one giant cloud of gas billions of years ago was totally stunning to me. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, trying to imagine it all…. It made me feel like such an insignificant little speck of dust in the middle of all of that! And it also made me feel a sense of wonder about us humans — for being smart enough specks of dust to be able to understand and marvel at it all. I was dying to know how people had figured out how all of that had happened, since obviously no one was around then to witness it. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by everything having to do with the cosmos, with finding out what is really up there in the night sky.
In grade school and throughout high school, I had a bit of a knack for math and the sciences. Math problems and science questions were like solving puzzles — figuring something out always gave me a little thrill of accomplishment, like finally fitting the last piece of a puzzle together and getting to see what the complete picture really is. Around the 11th grade, I decided that I would study Mechanical Engineering in college. I considered Astronomy or Aeronautics/Astronautics, since my ultimate goal was to have a career involving space exploration — but I was nervous about the job opportunities in that field, at the time. I thought that having an ME degree would give me enough flexibility to branch out to something different if I had to. I had surfed around enough NASA Web sites to know that a Mechanical Engineering degree was fine for working in the space program, so it seemed like a safe choice.
I attended undergraduate school at the University of Kentucky, and received my Bachelors Degree in 1998 (I know, I’m old!). While at UK, I participated in a “Co-Operational” program — which allowed me to take time off from school to go work for a while in a job that was related to my field of study. Many schools have such programs, and I would encourage everyone to take advantage of them. Doing that is a perfect opportunity to gain some experience in your field, and find out whether you enjoy that type of work or not. In all, I spent two semesters and two summers working at NASA Langley on various tasks. I got to help run wind tunnel tests, design a small piece of hardware on a flight simulator, and run tests on new metal alloys — all before graduating from college!
While I was in my junior year at UK, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree rather than enter the work force right away. So from college, I went to the Georgia Institute of Technology, where my studies focused on Controls and Vibration. My research topic while I was there dealt with using sensors to monitor the condition of roller bearings while they are in use, to try to predict when they would break. As an example of how this work related to the real world — if we were able to reliably predict when the bearing in a helicopter rotor assembly would fail, that information could be used to schedule the necessary maintenance or even warn the pilot while he or she was in the air and potentially save his or her life.
As I was finishing up my degree and looking for a job, I interviewed with several Aerospace companies. I chose the Jet Propulsion Laboratory because I felt that their mission was my mission: the robotic exploration of space. Don’t tell my boss, but I would almost work here for free! This job is just what I had been hoping for.
Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
My mother, for always encouraging me and everyone around her to pursue their dreams.
My 6th grade science teacher Mrs. Firkins, and several other teachers, over the years, for finding so many ways to show us that science could be loads of fun.
Story Musgrave, Sally Ride, Yuri Gagarin — really, all of the men and women who have ventured out into space.
Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and many other sci-fi writers — for their vision and ability to share their ideas and stories so vividly.
What are the most common misconceptions that people have about what you do?
I think the most common misconceptions that people have about what I do is that it is boring, that engineers in general are dry, old people who sit around staring at a computer screen all day. Not at all! The work that we do involves tracking down information and solving problems in creative ways, which can be challenging but fun. You often end up chasing things down strange paths, and ending up learning/doing things you never expected.
What were your favorite books as a kid? Why?
I was a huge science fiction fan. One of the first sci-fi books that I read was A Wrinkle in Time and the sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I liked those types of books because reading them was like taking a journey into the unknown — you never knew what strange people, places and things you would find on the next page. I thought it was especially cool to think that some day, scientists and engineers might really make some of the things that were just fiction in those books; that is where the idea for the communication satellites and many other modern marvels came from, after all!
I also liked fantasy novels, like Dragonlance. Those were just pure fun — I day-dreamed about what I would do if I lived in a world where magic and dragons were real. Too bad we didn’t have Harry Potter back then — but that’s OK, I still get to read those now.
What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
I liked my science classes best in middle school (though Band ran a very close second! I played the Clarinet). I just liked finding out the details about how the world worked.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Actually, even though I loved math and science, I toyed with several possible career choices before settling on engineering when I was about 17. Some of the other things I thought I might be when I grew up were a pilot, archaeologist, or lawyer. I think being a pilot was appealing just because of the thrill of flying. Archaeology was attractive because it is all about digging for clues and figuring out what had happened in the past based on those clues. Being a lawyer seemed to me to have a lot to do with piecing clues together, too — and debating with people to convince them that your view was right, which I also liked. And what do you know — now my job seems to have bits of adventure, fact-finding, puzzle-solving and debating all built in.
What advice do you wish someone would have given you at the time?
I wish that someone had told me to branch out a little. Being in the band took up a lot of my spare time, but I wish that I had tried a few more things, anyway. I finally figured that out towards the end of high school and tried out acting with the drama club, and I really liked it. I wish that I had gotten into that sooner, or tried some of the other activities that were available during middle school.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in studying science?
I would advise them to try to keep in mind that learning is not all about memorizing facts and equations. The important thing is to learn critical thinking — so that you will be able to think your way through new types of problems that you haven’t seen before, and come up with creative solutions. That is what you really need to be successful as a scientist or engineer (and many other fields, too). Facts and equations are just tools that you use to do this; they aren’t the “be all and end all” on their own.
Any final thoughts, words of advice, personal philosophy?
This is your life — find something that you love to do, and go for it!
Information about the successful completion of Juno’s first close flyby of the Jupiter with all the science instruments turned on:
Jupiter Orbit Insertion event:
Simulation software that can be used to show where Juno is now, or to view simulations of any past or future point in the mission: