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Center Snapshot: Clayton Turner.
Clayton Turner. Image above: Clayton Turner, NASA Langley's chief engineer, tells students to study to create options for themselves for the future. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The message isn’t to study science and math, then become an engineer. Rather, it’s study so that, if you want to, you can become an engineer.

Big difference.

"You want to prepare yourself as you go through school so that you have choices," said Clayton Turner, NASA Langley's chief engineer, of his talks to school children, something he enjoys doing.

"There's no bad job, no job less significant than another if you enjoy doing it. But you want to be able to choose Job A or Job B, and not settle for one or the other, because that’s all you can do." It's a lesson learned in Rochester, N.Y., where Turner grew up after being born at Langley Air Force Base. He studied engineering, then went into the Army, then became a recording engineer in a studio.

It was work he enjoyed.

"In that industry, there's clearly a technical challenge," he said. "You have to get the music from the room to tape, CD, DVD, or whatever you're using, and the musician doesn't care about any of that. The artist doesn't want to hear you say stop while you calibrate the board, set this switch or turn that dial."

While working as a recording engineer Turner decided to go back to Rochester Institute of Technology and finish his degree in electrical engineering.

"I was successful when I went back because I had a chance to work a little bit and experience a few hard knocks," Turner said. "That tends to help focus you." He enjoyed music, but finishing his degree offered more career choices. Government classified work beckoned, and then he got a call from NASA Langley to come to Virginia for an interview.

It was his birthday, the anniversary of the day he was born at Langley Air Force Base.

"When I came to visit, I was struck by the team conducting the HALO (High ALtitude Object) environmental test, which was going on in the (Building) 1250," he said. "The energy and obvious excitement of the people and the work was impressive. Just watching that excited me and that's the reason I decided to come to work here."

He was assigned, with a few other electrical engineers, to a division of mechanical engineers.

It was part of an education process that eventually led him to the chair he occupies on the third floor of the new NASA Langley headquarters building.

"I think it helped me to develop more of a systems thought process toward doing things," Turner said of the mixed engineering disciplines.

"I would want every engineer to think with a systems perspective, even if they have a discipline job to do, because if you can find solutions in the job you're doing that can help another part of the system, then that's what you want to do."

The thought that systems engineering is putting together pieces of a puzzle is only valid if it's understood that sometimes pieces have to be altered to fit another.

"If you're doing a design trade, you want to be conscious of the overall objective of the system so you know when you can trade one thing with another," Turner said. "This does not mean everyone needs to be a systems engineer, but everyone needs to think in terms of the overall system."

It's a way of thinking built during a career trip from discipline work on Lidar In-space Technology Experiment (LITE) to work with materials research that flew on the space shuttle to running a small project to running a bigger one to line management to chief engineer.

"It wasn't a rigid plan that I'm going to do this and then I'm going to do that," Turner said. "And it wasn't with the eventual idea that I was going to sit in this chair. It was an opportunity to learn and grow; an opportunity to earn and accept increasing responsibility."

Along the way, he learned to "be comfortable with discomfort," a mantra Turner repeats often. It's an engineer's way of dealing with the uncertainty of the real world in which every two plus two might not equal four.

It's also a way of dealing with choices by being prepared for them.

That's Turner's message to the students, one in which he can offer his own experience as testimony.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman