You don’t have to be a scientist or engineer to work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Attendees at a recent STEAM event at La Cañada High School learned from NASA JPL employees that there are numerous kinds of jobs for people with varied talents at the national research facility that, as its website says, carries out Earth science and robotic space missions.
“I work at JPL and I have one of the jobs that might be closer to your hearts, because I do social media and I do digital media for NASA science,” web producer Kristen Walbolt told an audience of about 40 people, most of whom were students.
Walbolt, who works for NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said part of her job is operating the agency’s Planetquest Twitter account, @PlanetQuest, which has nearly 96,000 followers and says it represents “NASA scientists looking for planets and life beyond our solar system.”
“I tell NASA’s story in 280 characters on Twitter and in longer features on the website and then on Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr and all of those places, because I want to reach you guys wherever you are,” Walbolt said. “We’re just trying to get our news to you, but the cool thing about JPL and NASA is you can come at it like Amy [Nespor, the La Cañada Unified School District’s community science liaison] said, from a lot of different backgrounds. We work with artists at the lab, so we have an entire studio of artists who do amazing things. They envision things just from the concepts we work on.”
Walbolt said she recently worked with a studio to create a picture of an exoplanet — a planet that is outside our solar system — that can’t be seen and is called 55 Cancri e.
“There is nothing solid on that surface,” Walbolt said of the exoplanet. “It has a global ocean of lava. It is entirely lava … you would hover over a lava surface over sparkling skies. So we work with artists to envision these worlds.”
Nespor said the idea for the program came from her noticing that besides being a great place to work, JPL offers a variety of roles.
“For example, if you saw the ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ video from when [the rover] Curiosity was going to land on Mars — that was a while ago, because it’s been on Mars for a while — but that was created by a graphic artist,” Nespor told the audience assembled in the LCHS cafeteria.
“Also, what brought it to my attention is my nephew who graduated from high school last year and wanted to be a welder. I said, ‘You can be a welder for JPL. You can build stuff for space.’ So yes, it’s a STEAM night and what I mean by that is you don’t have to be a scientist or an engineer, but you can have a love of science and engineering and still be vital to getting missions to outer space.”
STEAM is an educational concept that stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
The event’s four speakers work at JPL in business finance, scheduling, educational outreach and social media.
Erica Beam said she worked on the business side and part of her job is to clarify the cost and risk assessment of different projects. She’s a group supervisor for the institutional cost and schedule evaluation office.
“I’m looking at the risk analysis of [what] you have to pay for these instruments that we’re building, these missions that we’re sending. And time is money, so we have to make sure that we’re building it on an efficient schedule,” Beam said.
Beam, who grew up in Pasadena, had tours of JPL in middle school and believed she would become a math teacher after she earned her degree in mathematics and economics. A friend who worked for JPL in schedule analysis, however, convinced her to switch gears.
“I meet interesting people who are doing great things every day, so come and check it out,” Beam’s friend told her.
So, Beam said, “I came in for an interview and I’ve been there for 19 years now. And on my very first mission that I worked on, a telescope looking at the outer planets, I met Neil, Amy’s husband — he was working on a spacecraft. So that’s how I know Amy and that’s why I’m here today.”
Lyn Repath-Martos, JPL business administration manager, described her job as that of a generalist, compared with Beam’s more specialized position.
“She knows a lot about schedule, about risk and putting together that project schedule so that everything happens on time,” Repath-Martos said. “A generalist needs to know a lot about a lot of things. My job is really the care and feeding of all the technical personnel in my section.”
Repath-Martos said she works with about 140 people, mostly engineers and scientists, in the project systems engineering and formulation section. The job of the people she works with includes starting with a proposal, progressing to the design stage and then getting grant money awarded “so that we can build it so then we can fly it,” Repath-Martos said. “My job is to make sure that all the people who do those things have everything that they need to do their work.”
Heather Doyle, a public engagement networks supervisor, shared details about her efforts regarding the NASA Climate Kids website and other tasks.
Afterward, some attendees said they enjoyed the program and learned a lot. Justin Wang, 16, a junior at LCHS, said he was struck by the fact that lots of different people work for JPL in areas ranging from outreach to business.
“It was very interesting the see the flip side of what you usually think of as a bunch of nerds in a white room with pushed-up glasses doing their calculations,” Wang said.
Wang, who is undecided about his college plans, added he’s open to the possibility of working for JPL without becoming an engineer or scientist because he enjoys math and finance.
Senior LCHS student Julie Chyun said she was glad to see how many women turned out for the talk — not to mention the speakers — as well as to learn about other areas at JPL where science and technology can be incorporated.
“It was an incredibly helpful opportunity and very inspiring,” Chyun said. “I attended here on a whim, actually. I’m so happy that I did so. I think the best opportunities come when you least expect it.”