Heather Paul works at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of the Constellation spacesuit team. She works on the life support designs for the next-generation spacesuits that astronauts will wear on the moon and Mars. Find out more about Ms. Paul and how she went from college student to NASA engineer.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Deer Park, a small town on Long Island in New York. I went to John F. Kennedy Elementary School, and attended seventh grade at Robert Frost Junior High School. I then moved to Atlanta, Georgia and attended Sutton Middle School for eighth grade. I went to North Atlanta High School, and majored in dance in the magnet for the performing arts.
Growing up, I liked to read many types of books, but I especially liked science fiction. I have always wanted to be an astronaut, although I also had interests in being a dancer.
My mother is my greatest role model. She is a strong, intelligent, independent woman who taught me to set my goals high and always believe in myself.
Where did you go to school and what program did you intern with under NASA?
I attended Auburn University and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. (The Spanish degree was for fun - I just happen to love learning foreign languages!) I chose Auburn because of its cooperative education connection with NASA. I was a cooperative education student at Johnson Space Center. I applied when I was a sophomore at Auburn University, and was accepted to start working the fall of my junior year. I began alternating between school and work semesters, getting real-world experience in Life Sciences, Propulsion, EVA Operations, and EVA Tools and Space Suits. I continued to co-op while pursuing my Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. After so much time working as an undergraduate co-op, I knew that I wanted to work with EVA, so I used my graduate co-op tours to focus on the work in that area to get more experience and work on my thesis, which was directly linked to my co-op work.
Could you describe your internship and share some lessons learned? Was there any advice that specifically helped you achieve your goals?
Working gave me the opportunity to take the theories and equations learned in school and apply them to real engineering problems. I am the type of person that learns best through hands-on experience, so sometimes I struggled in school with classes that were based on a lot of theory. When I was able to put those theories to work and see the results, everything made a lot more sense, and it gave me a better appreciation for the topics I was studying.
Co-oping in various areas gave me more insight into the diversity of the field of mechanical engineering, and it helped me to narrow down the career choices. I figured out what I wanted to do, and more importantly, what I did not want to do.
Also, co-oping gave me a break from school. Engineering school is very challenging, and I would often look forward to the end of the term because I knew that I would be coming to Houston to put my new knowledge to the test. After working for a while, I would look forward to the end of my co-op term, because I knew I would return to school and to all of my friends. So unlike many people who pushed through school without co-oping or interning, I never got "burnt out," and was able to really appreciate what I was doing while I was doing it. I learned a lot about time management, and became much more efficient while studying, which also improved my grades.
What advice would you give to students still in school who are interested in NASA programs?
Work to be as well-rounded as possible. Straight A's are great, but if all you do is study, you're missing out on a lot of wonderful life experiences that are just as important in your development as your studies. NASA needs engineers that can not only do the work exceptionally well, but also be able to communicate the results through documentation and verbal communication. Study hard and work to get the best grades that you can, but also take the time to have extracurricular activities.
Get involved with NASA programs early. There are so many educational opportunities that NASA has available for students of all ages. Students interested in working with NASA should get involved in as many ways as they can. By working with our programs, students can not only learn about what NASA does, they also learn more about what they are interested in, and more importantly what they don't want to do in terms of careers.
To learn more about opportunities for students, please visit NASA's Learning Opportunities Web site.
For more information on Heather Paul, please visit the Quest Web site.