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New Doors Open Up Through VASTS
When 18-year-old Kelly Thomas walked into a room filled with fifty men in black suits, she was one of the few women there and by far the youngest at NASA's Environmentally Responsible Aviation Conference.

Intimidated at first, her confidence grew when she started speaking to a gentleman about green aviation. It sparked his interest and the two ended up going to lunch. Not until the end of the conference did Thomas find out that he was the head of the entire organization.

Kelly Thomas.

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Kelly Thomas' work through the Virginia Aerospace Student Technology Scholar (VASTS) program at NASA's Langley Research Center allowed her to learn and grow in a STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) environment. Credit: NASA

"I had, just by luck, picked the right person to talk to," Thomas said.

But it wasn't a good luck charm that put her in that fortunate situation. Thomas' Virginia Aerospace Student Technology Scholar (VASTS) experience started it all.

In summer of 2011, Thomas attended the VASTS academy at NASA's Langley Research Center where she planned a mission to Mars with 47 other high school seniors from across Virginia.

The following year she came back to NASA as a Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholar (LARSS) focusing on green aviation. During her internship, Thomas worked on a hybrid electric propulsion system, which is similar to a Toyota Prius, except for the sky.

"We are looking at making a half battery powered, half combustion engine aircraft," Thomas said. "Proving that a hybrid electric airplane can run in our system opens up the doors for future opportunities to design one from scratch."

What she found most important was her communication skills, especially when her superiors asked questions about the project.

And she learned those skills because of her VASTS experience. Thomas, who was a systems manager during the academy, gained first-hand knowledge on managing, leading and communicating with a team.

"It gave me a lot of perspective on what it's like to manage a group of people," Thomas said. "I learned to balance people's emotions, and people's motivations and personal agendas all so that we could get a collaborative, cohesive team to work together towards a goal, which is no easy task."

Thomas will be attending The University of Virginia in the fall and plans to major in aerospace engineering and minor in engineering business, but even college won't give her an experience like VASTS did.

"On college design teams you typically have a professor and advisor leading the team," Thomas explained. "You might have a team lead but it’s not set up in a real world situation as in this one; it's set up in a school education environment."

Thomas gained more real-world experience from her connections made through VASTS.

Thomas had the opportunity to work on the Google Lunar X PRIZE, which awards 30 million dollars in prizes to the first privately funded teams to travel across the surface of the Moon with a robot.

Additionally, Thomas partnered with a young robotics entrepreneur that gave her a glimpse of her future - pursuing aerospace entrepreneurially and starting her own company.

"I figured it would be a good experience to get an insight about technical start-ups and how that works," Thomas said. "We collaborated on something that combines my interests, aerospace, and his, robotics, and made a robot wireless pressure sensor that would transmit telemetry data to an Android Smartphone."

Because of how much she has gained from VASTS, Thomas wanted to give back.

She went Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of the program. She spoke with congressional offices about the program and its influence on STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) education and careers.

"VASTS had such a profound impact on me that I wanted to give back and make sure they get the funding for it and that they can expand it because it's a program that needs to give that experience to so many more people." Thomas said.

Thomas continues to benefit from the VASTS program and sees a bright future ahead of her.

Sasha Congiu, NASA Langley

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Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
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