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Episode 19: Liz Muller
: Liz Muller, Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars intern
(0:20) Interview with Liz Muller. Old Dominion University graduate Liz Muller describes her unusual journey to achieve dreams of becoming an engineer and working for NASA.
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: This is NASA Student Opportunities -- a podcast connecting high school and college students with learning opportunities inside America's space agency.
Episode 19. June 20, 2007. I'm Deana Nunley.
Liz Muller is a NASA Langley Research Center intern who graduated last month from Old Dominion University with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. She participated in the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars program, which offers internships to rising juniors and seniors and graduate students pursuing technical degrees or other majors that lend support to NASA's mission. The Virginia Space Grant Consortium manages the project for NASA under the auspices of the National Institute of Aerospace. Liz moved to Virginia from her hometown, Carl Place, N.Y., to follow her dream of becoming an engineer and working for NASA.
: I started with the NASA Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars program, which is better known as the LARSS program. I began in June of 2004 and got on board with the Generic Transport Model, or the GTM project, immediately. I've been with them for three years now, doing intern work. Let me explain the program just a little bit. The GTM Project is a bunch of RPVs, or remotely piloted vehicles, that are data collection vehicles. They can fly at 200 miles per hour, although I never suggest that. They're turbine-powered, dynamically scaled, remote-controlled RPVs.
What we're testing is a refuse-to-crash technology, which my very smart mentors have come up with. That would be Christine and Celeste Belcastro. What this is going to do, the software is going to be on board and will prevent airliners from going into a steep dive or other extreme flight conditions, or upsets. But what we need is some sort of a test bed to test these particular vehicles or an airliner. They came up with these models, which are dynamically scaled. We collect data and we compare that to the algorithms that have been developed to make a robust software system that can be put onto any aircraft, so that it will refuse to crash.
: Does this all come under the internship?
: My involvement with the project was more of the physical side. I was involved with the RPVs, both with the analysis as well as the actual producing of models, fixing them if they did happen to crash or get hurt in some way. I did inertial testing. I did documentation of all of my stuff. I also actually took a project lead on one of the pieces of the project. It was an antenna that was put on a base, except somebody forgot to mention that the base of the antenna was too short. I had to design a base that was better suited for us and build it, then install it, and I got that project done. I've done CAD work, Pro/E work, and helped with our Web site. I did basic flight support, too, which was going out on site and helping the pilots fly the RPVs. Of course, they were flying them. I was just helping them. Basically, I've done a smattering of different projects in the three years that I've been here.
: And all of that made possible through the internship?
: Oh yes. Definitely, definitely. They let me get as deep into it as I wanted to.
: Did you have a good working relationship with your mentors?
: Yes, I did. They were very inspiring. They showed me more than I could ever have learned in school on a practical level. I used a lot of the basic freshman courses, which were statics, dynamics, mechanics of materials. I came up with maximum payloads and analyzed stresses and made hand calculations, as well as looked at analysis through the Pro/E Mechanica. Both were needed during the course of the analysis.
: How is it that an intern comes into the space agency and gets to do so much hands-on work in a very dynamic, technical field?
: Lucky. That's one way. I just had really good mentors that allowed me to get close. They weren't scared to let me touch the models or analyze them. Of course, it was under direct supervision, so I really couldn't get that far into trouble before somebody would say, "That's enough." How did I get so lucky? I don't know.
: If you think back to when you first found out that you had been accepted for the NASA internship, what was your initial reaction?
: Does jumping for joy mean anything? I was ecstatic. I couldn't wait to start.
: Tell us about the path that led you to pursue NASA and an engineering degree.
: The engineering degree, actually, mechanical engineering. When I was a kid, I would take apart just about everything and try to figure out how things worked. Sometimes, I could get them back together and sometimes I couldn't. I was just curious by nature, and I had to figure out how things work. Now, I know how a lot of things work, which doesn't make me any less curious. I still want to know more. What got me involved in NASA was when I was five, I saw the Apollo missions, and I pointed to the screen and I said, "I want to do that." For me, working for NASA is a dream come true, and I count my blessings every day I pass through the gate.
: When you say that you saw the Apollo missions, was it archived footage of the Apollo missions?
: No. I'm a little bit older. I'm not a traditional student by any means. I started a little bit later. But dreams being dreams, although they went off into the deep file for a minute, they came back out when I was ready to actually go forth and pursue them.
: And what were your dreams? And did you have some challenges as you tried to pursue your dreams?
: Yeah. I was told a lot that I couldn't do it. My parents weren't really into seeing or knowing that women could be engineers or work for NASA. For a while there, that's one of the reasons why I didn't pursue my dreams. But I said, "What's the worst that could happen? Not become an engineer, that would be the worst. Why not go for it?" My challenges were that I was a nontraditional student without any family backing.
What I decided to do was not tell my parents that I was in school or that I was working for NASA. That's something that might seem a little strange. But if you're in your freshman year in college, you're basically doubting everything that you're doing right now, and what you need is a good support system. I established a good support system, but it was without my parents. It was with a family down here that took me in, that kind of has me as a surrogate child in their family. I do have a support system, but now that I have graduated I will be going back up and telling my parents what I've been doing for the last three or four years.
: So, as of now, they don't even know what you've done and what you've accomplished?
: No, no. I'm going to be telling them as soon as I get my diploma in hand, and I'll be marching up there and showing them what I've been doing.
: What reaction do you expect them to have when they find out?
: I'm going to make sure they're in a seated position. I expect them to be quite surprised.
: Will they be proud?
: Of course they will be, but I'm more proud of me than they could ever be.
: There must be a lot of pride welling up inside of you after going through so much and what you've accomplished.
: There is. There is nothing but pride here. Well, actually, pride is something that I prefer not to say. I, of course, am proud of myself, but it's more that I'm grateful for all the hands-up that I got along the way, because I know I could have done it, but it just made it that much easier.
: Were you in your 30s when you started college?
: Yes. Actually, this is kind of cool. What I did before I even got into college was, a year before I started, I started wondering how smart I really was. I went and took a couple IQ tests and realized I was a heck of a lot smarter than I thought I was. I remember walking into the place I was working at the time and saying, "I believe I've just won the lottery. I believe I'm a lot smarter than I thought I was. I can do anything I want." And that's when I decided to go back to school. What I did was I came up with a goal or a plan before I even started back to school.
I made short-, medium- and long-term goals. I didn't care how crazy they sounded at the time. I made them all. One of them was to work for NASA. If I did, I would stay locally here in Virginia, and go to [Old Dominion University] and work at NASA. If I didn't get into NASA, I was going to go to Virginia Tech. I had a contingency plan. My short-term goals were to figure out a way to get back into school and start going part-time -- because I couldn't afford to go full-time -- and start getting a computer and a car and other things like that. I rewarded myself every time I completed a goal, whether it was a short-, medium- or long-term goal. Sometimes it was just a candy bar, but it was a reward nonetheless. I would look back, and look at what I've done so far, the goals that I completed. When I added NASA to the list, I was like, "Yeah, right. Like I'll do that." But I put it on the list, and I believed that somehow I could achieve it. That was what the difference was. No matter how crazy it sounded, I still thought of it as a possibility. I started listening to myself more than I started listening to others, and that was another difference.
I knew what my goals were and what my dreams were, and I had to figure out how to make them happen. Although I didn't have the answers to that all the time, I didn't let go of the dreams. If you want to be in the music industry and you can't sing, it doesn't mean that you can't be in the music industry. You can still achieve your goals. It's just you have to figure out how. Just because a door is closed doesn't mean it's closed forever. You keep knocking on that door, or you find a way around it. Somehow, you can make these things happen. No matter how hard it seems, it's really not that hard. You've just got to figure out how. I never say, "I can't." I always say, "It's possible." If you don't believe it's possible, no one else will either. That's one of the things that you have to remember. At the end of the day, the only one you have to answer to is you.
Most of the dreams that people have are not achieved, not because they're not possible, but because they either give up on them, or they don't believe they can happen. What you have to do is stay with the dream, no matter how hard it gets. Never give up. Keep pushing forward. It doesn't matter how small the step is, as long as it's a forward step. You'll get to your goal, eventually. It took me a little bit longer to get there than most, and it was tough. But I look back on it now and I don't remember the tough stuff. I remember the good stuff.
The other thing I do that's kind of different is I make a grateful list, or a "grat" list is what I call it. On days that I'm having a really tough day, I just say, "OK. Time for a 'grat' list." I say, "What am I grateful for?" If I'm grateful that it's not raining, then that's one thing. If I'm grateful for all the help I've gotten along the way, then I say that. Anything I can think of. I try to make it especially on tough days. What that does is it not only gives you a better perspective on things, it also shows you how far you've come towards your goal. You keep that positive attitude. It also reminds you of where you are going.
: Liz Muller plans to work in the aerospace industry, possibly with NASA, but probably in the private sector. For more information about the NASA Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars program, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast. Click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast, and follow the links in this week's show notes.
The NASA Astrobiology Institute Research Scholarship Project offers research-related travel support that enables graduate or postdoctoral students to circulate among two or more teams or participating institutions of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Requests are accepted on a continuous basis.
You can follow the link in this week's show notes to get more information. Go to www.nasa.gov/podcast
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