NASA People

Center Snapshot: Devin Pugh-Thomas
Devin Pugh-Thomas. Image above: Speaking on a panel in Richmond, Devin Pugh-Thomas offers an idea about how to get children more involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Jim Hodges

Devin Pugh-Thomas knew she liked science and math. A teacher, Barbara Gibson at Lindsay Middle School in Hampton, had sparked that interest.

But what to do with those affinities?

"I had worked as a docent in the Virginia Air and Space Museum, and so that sparked my initial interest in NASA and in what people do out here," said Pugh-Thomas, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia-National Institute of Aerospace and a researcher in the NASA Graduate Student Researchers program. She works in sensors at NASA Langley.

But even while working at the Air and Space Museum, she wasn't certain where she might fit into NASA.

Going into her senior year at Bethel High School, "I worked in a summer internship program, the Summer High School Apprentice Program (SHARP)," Pugh-Thomas said. "It wasn't until my experience out here as a high school intern that I realized I wanted to be an engineer."

The fit is a good one, and is an example of the value of the summer programs NASA has fostered.

From that SHARP summer, Pugh-Thomas went to Norfolk State University and earned a degree in physics. A masters degree in materials science from Virginia led to five years of teaching physics at Norfolk State.

And now she's at Langley, working in next-generation temperature sensor development.

"I'm designing a fluorescence-based, high-temperature sensor, which has application to the aerospace industry, even the biomedical industry," Pugh-Thomas said.

She's seeking a balance.

The desire to be an engineer remains. That's particularly manifested in a desire to do engineering research.

But teaching at Norfolk State – even remembering how Barbara Gibson influenced her in math and science – makes the campus setting appealing.

"It hit me as an undergraduate student," Pugh-Thomas said. "I thought I had an interest in teaching and engineering. I can't say I was torn between the two, but I definitely had an interest in both as a career."

She has learned that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. She can have her cake and eat it, too.

"I've found several people here who have managed to balance both," Pugh-Thomas said. "They have careers as university professors and have been able to do engineering or research science as research faculty as well.

"And I've met people here on center who teach adjunct or teach at local universities."

Her path has been rigorous. Treading it is a testimony to a military upbringing in which she lived all over the world as the daughter of an Air Force officer.

"My parents were very nurturing, very supportive," Pugh-Thomas said. "They also made sure that my sister and I hit the books, did our homework.

"We kept a schedule. There was very limited television. My first time having cable was in college, as an undergrad at Norfolk State University in a dormitory. It was a whole new world."

Her regimen now is a rigorous one, leaving little time for outside interests. Ever driven, she reads inspirational books and counts poet Maya Angelou and novelist Toni Morrison as favorites. She played No. 2 singles at Bethel and still finds the time to get on the court with husband Shelley Thomas, who works in the development office at Norfolk State.

Her recount of a recent night out in a Norfolk restaurant, followed by a session with the cast of the opera "Porgy and Bess" was animated.

So, too, is a discussion of how middle school children could be brought to physics, much as she was almost two decades ago.

"Students don't seem to have an awareness that engineering is around them all day in their everyday lives," Pugh-Thomas said. "You can take the cell phone they have in their hands and have a lengthy discussion on the technology in it. Some of the devices they carry around are powered by solar technology. That's another lesson in basic material science."

It's the educator in her coming out, coupled with the researcher. The two can be concurrent. It's her aim for the future.