Browsing Tag

NASA JPL

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Elizabeth Jens, Propulsion Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

29 August, 2017
Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

From stepping out of her coastal home in Australia, without a national space agency or obvious space centre to contact, Elizabeth Jens forged her own path to reach her goal of working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. She talks to Rocket Women about how she was inspired to begin her journey to NASA and the challenges she overcame along the way.

What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?

The path to where I am now was a little circuitous. If you had asked me where I wanted to work as a child I would have told you NASA, and by the time I was an undergraduate I would have told you the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). So, the twists and turns that I had to take were not for lack of a vision, but more from lack of a clear path to get there.

This lack of a clear path meant that after completing two undergraduate degrees I spent some time travelling, some time working full time in my local sushi shop, some time working as a management consultant, and some time attending the summer space studies program of the International Space University before eventually commencing my graduate studies at Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

During graduate school, I was initially disheartened by the difficulty applying for any USA space-related job as a foreign national. On a whim, and knowing that foreigners were unlikely to be allowed to apply, I attended a recruiting event for JPL. It was that event that allowed me to secure an internship at JPL in the same group with whom I currently work.

The path to where I am now was a little circuitous. If you had asked me where I wanted to work as a child I would have told you NASA, and by the time I was an undergraduate I would have told you the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). So, the twists and turns that I had to take were not for lack of a vision, but more from lack of a clear path to get there.

What does your average day look like in your role?
My days are actually pretty varied. At work, I share my time between working on a subsystem for the next Mars rover and developing a small propulsion system to enable stand-alone interplanetary SmallSat missions. For the rover, I work with a broad range of people, a lot of my time goes into system engineering and communicating between various teams.

I share my time between working on a subsystem for the next Mars rover and developing a small propulsion system to enable stand-alone interplanetary SmallSat missions.

I’m also responsible for understanding and modelling the physics of my subsystem so I spend some time coding as well as some time with hardware running tests. My work on the SmallSat propulsion system is with a much smaller team. Together we work on designing the rocket (both at a high level conceptually and then all the way through to detailed design), running tests where we hot-fire the rocket to understand how it performs, analyzing test data, modelling the performance under various operating conditions, and integrating our results into high-level trades for various potential missions.

On any given day I might be sitting at a computer with a screen full of code and surrounded by text books, working to assemble hardware, talking to vendors about flight components, in a series of meetings with teams working on the rover, or running rocket hot-fires.

Thus, on any given day I might be sitting at a computer with a screen full of code and surrounded by text books, working to assemble hardware, talking to vendors about flight components, in a series of meetings with teams working on the rover, or running rocket hot-fires.

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?
I think role models are hugely important to everyone, regardless of age or gender. I was lucky enough to have great parents and siblings as role models, and then as I got older to have great teachers, coaches, and professors.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?
The most rewarding moment was when I received my PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University. The process to be admitted to the PhD at Stanford involved some grueling qualifying exams so making it through them, and then going on to achieve my research goals was extremely rewarding.

What I find helps me when I’m really stressed is carving out time on the weekend to get away on some adventure by the coast or in mountains.

When you’re having a stressful and bad day, what helps you get through it?
A good latte… Actually, what I find helps me when I’m really stressed is carving out time on the weekend to get away on some adventure by the coast or in mountains. I am into whitewater kayaking and I love the fact that when you are in the middle of a rapid you have to be completely focused on the moment, there is no time to think about whatever else might be going on. I find that really beneficial when I’m stressed as a day on the river is a day completely disconnected from my worries; I always return to the city feeling refreshed.

Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

Rocket Woman Elizabeth Jens

What else did you want to be when you were growing up?
An astronaut. I was pretty set on wanting to go to space from a young age.

I found it really challenging trying to navigate a path to the space industry from my coastal hometown in Australia. There was no clear path to a career in the space industry back then, as Australia had no space agency or obvious center to contact.

Were there any obstacles on your path to working in the space industry?
Absolutely, I found it really challenging trying to navigate a path to the space industry from my coastal hometown in Australia. There was no clear path to a career in the space industry back then, as Australia had no space agency or obvious center to contact.

It was particularly difficult as I did not have dual-citizenship so moving to another country to work in the space industry was not an easy option. In the end, it worked out for me largely because of sheer determination mixed with a good dose of luck and a lot of support from colleagues. The challenge is that the technology used for space exploration can also be applied to the military, so it is very difficult to work in the field as a foreigner.

What are your favourite things about being a Propulsion Engineer?
I love the variability in my job. I like the fact that I continue to learn, have challenging problems, and believe in the projects that I am working on. I am passionate about space exploration and I love contributing to that effort.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
Don’t let the set-backs worry you, it will all work out.