Co-op Comes Full Circle
02.20.08
In 1968, Pamela Denkins graduated from high school and started a job in Houston at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA's Johnson Space Center, as a junior cooperative education student.

"I was one of 13 students selected to participate in this program -- and I'll say 13 minority students," said the Houston native. "This was at a time when universities such as Texas Southern University and agencies like NASA were looking for more ways to encourage minorities to become engineers and scientists and to recruit them."

Pamela Denkins standing at a lectern

NASA engineer Pamela Denkins, Ph.D., delivered the 2007 commencement address at her alma mater Texas Southern University. Image Credit: Dr. Pamela Denkins

After a summer at the NASA center, Denkins started classes at Texas Southern University. Through the university's partnership with NASA, Denkins continued to work as a co-op student while taking classes for a bachelor's degree in physics.

Denkins graduated from Texas Southern in 1973 and worked as an engineer in private industry for 17 years. In 1990, she returned to Houston and to NASA to continue her education. "I knew that NASA was a great place to work, and I knew that NASA supported the attainment of advanced degrees, and that I'd be able to utilize my education," Denkins said.

For nearly 11 years Denkins worked at Johnson during the day and took classes at night. She received her master's degree in mathematics in 1995 and her doctorate in environmental toxicology in 2001. She tied her doctoral research to her work at Johnson by researching the effects of radiation on humans. "I was able to tailor my job assignments and my research initiative so that there was close alignment with what was going on with the agency, and, as well, to satisfy the requirements for graduation," Denkins said.

One reason she pursued the advanced degrees was to succeed against the odds. "I knew that if I was successful that I would derive a lot of benefit from it," she said. "While I was an undergraduate, I always wanted to be a Ph.D. physicist. And while I didn't become a Ph.D. physicist, I definitely was able to earn my doctorate in the sciences."

Much of Denkins' career with NASA was as a computer engineer in the Avionic Systems Division where she was responsible for systems engineering, configuration management and security engineering. Today, she is part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, in the Space and Life Sciences Division at Johnson, working on the Human Research Program. She is the technical resource manager for the Human Research Program's private investigator-funded research.

Denkins' research experience includes the modeling and assessment of radiation risks to the astronauts' health as they fly long-duration, deep-space missions. NASA's Constellation program is developing new U.S. launch vehicles and spacecraft for human exploration of the moon and Mars, and the Human Research Program is identifying and mediating the risks associated with long-duration spaceflight.

She is also helping college students -- like she was 40 years ago -- engage in NASA opportunities. In her commencement address to Texas Southern's class of 2007, Denkins encouraged students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "One of the things we have is an aging workforce within the agency, and we're going to have to replace that workforce very, very soon. So the opportunities are abundant.

"The problem, along with replacing this aging workforce, is that the numbers of persons majoring in the sciences and engineering have dwindled tremendously for the nation. So we, within the agency and across the country, are trying to do numerous things to help better develop this pipeline and increase the numbers, so that the agency can fill the positions and replace the talents that are going to be leaving the agency in the next 10 years or less."

Denkins is helping bridge the gap through the NASA Administrator's Fellowship Project, or NAFP, which is a professional development opportunity for NASA employees to teach and conduct research at minority institutions. The project also offers professional development opportunities to faculty who teach in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at minority institutions. The project supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

Denkins was a NASA Administrator's Fellow from 2000 to 2002, during which she helped connect historically black colleges and universities in Texas and Louisiana to areas of NASA research. She looked at the schools' science research facilities and the faculty members' areas of research, and she identified the institutions' areas of interest that matched NASA opportunities. She then paired the universities with contacts in those fields at NASA centers.

"Having been a product of a historically black college or university, I realize the potential that exists in these universities and that so much of it remains untapped," Denkins said.

Denkins' objectives were to involve students and faculty in NASA research; to make them aware of opportunities available to improve and enhance their graduate research programs and the skills of the faculty and students; to strengthen the four-year institutions; and to bridge the four-year programs to institutions offering advanced degrees and student research opportunities. She also informed university faculty about NAFP and introduced the universities to NASA's Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Project for graduate students.

As a result of Denkins' NAFP experiences, Texas Southern competed for and received funding for the NASA Research Center for Biotechnology and Environmental Science, now in its fifth year. Denkins currently serves as a member of the center's technical review committee.

As a fellow, Denkins also worked closely with Prairie View A&M University, its NASA Research Center for Applied Radiation, and its technical review committee on opportunities to promote collaborations with other institutions and to enhance the students' professional career growth and development. These efforts resulted in Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern receiving funding for the Radiation Science and Engineering Program and for the NASA University Research, Engineering, and Technology Institute.

Denkins has also made significant contributions in policy guideline development for the management of all NASA university research centers.

In addition to helping universities receive grants for research opportunities, Denkins' fellowship resulted in several faculty members and students of Texas Southern University participating in other NASA projects. Five faculty members were selected as NASA Administrator Fellows; one doctoral graduate joined NASA as a space toxicologist; four graduate students received the Harriett G. Jenkins' fellowships; and significant numbers of Texas Southern University's undergraduate and graduate students participated in summer research programs at Johnson Space Center.

Related Resources
NASA Cooperative Education   →
NASA Administrator's Fellowship Program   →
NASA Administrator's Fellowship Program for NASA Employees   →
NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Program   →
NASA Student Opportunities Podcast: Pamela Denkins
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services