Leah Tinberg— cat owner, guitarist, college grad, and engineer! One of the newest mechanical engineers to join NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Leah talks space and technology, gives tips, and tells her STEM story. Interview by Julia Ferragamo.
How did you start working for NASA? Why did you choose to work with this organization in particular?
From a young age, I loved reading about space and the universe which is why NASA really appealed to me. So when I got to college, I knew that I wanted to look for internships in the aerospace department, doing mechanical engineering. After completing my first internship [at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles], I knew I wanted to pursue this field. [The Jet Propulsion Lab’s] location in Los Angeles, the job environment (which is laid back like a college campus, not at all corporate), and the fact that it’s a non-profit were all the factors I was looking for.
What does a day entail for a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab?
Although my job title is mechanical engineer, I work in the cable and harness engineering group. Cables and harnesses in the technical field is the bunches of wires and conductors that connect different systems in a space craft or in a space instrument— anything that needs power, or sends back signals, data or information has to have a cable connected to it. If you were to open up a space craft, like the Curiosity Rover which is on Mars now, you would see a ton of cables. My job is to design the cables, help route the cables, and work with all the different systems. I work with people who manage the electronic boxes and payloads (anything being carried by the launch vehicle) to try and figure out what they need and what we can get them in terms of power and signal. [I then] need to make drawings or spreadsheets describing the details of the cables.
I essentially am responsible for ‘connecting the dots’ within a space craft. [Unlike] the really specific mechanical design work where you could go months creating a tiny part, everyday I’m aware that I am working on a spacecraft. I like contributing to the final steps of the craft going into space, the big picture.
What makes your job fun?
One of the reasons that I really like engineering is that it’s like a group activity. Specifically my job where I interface with different groups, I get the opportunity to go to meetings or find someone to get information or chat with about a project. I’m not sitting at a computer all day.
Is there a project that you’re currently working on?
I’m currently working on a project called NISAR or NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar. It’s a joint project between NASA and ISRO, an Indian aerospace organization. The project itself is an Earth-orbiting satellite set to launch in 2020. Right now we’re still in the design phase, it’s very developmental. [The satellite] will be made to use radar to study different aspects of our environment. [By looking at phenomenons] like earthquake fault lines, among other naturally occurring disasters, the project aims to monitor how the Earth is changing. I’ve been working specifically on a boom, a big deployable arm with a radar dish at the end of it.
What challenges have you faced thus far in your profession?
One of my main challenges has been going from school to a full-time job. Even though I got a great education, there are still so much that I don’t know. It’s a pretty scary realization, but I have learned to always ask questions— it’s the only way to learn!
Another challenge that I have faced is that sometimes, because of my age and gender, I feel as though people don’t take me seriously. I’ve been in meetings where I’m presenting my work and my research and I get the sense that maybe some people aren’t acknowledging my presence or role, maybe not looking at me, or are addressing their questions about my work to one of my male peers rather than to me. This is a real problem for women in any field, specifically in one so male dominated. It’s frustrating, but my advice to women who are starting in a STEM field would be to have patience, and to try and not let it get to you. People may try and disregard you because you’re a women, but they can’t disregard you if your work is well done.
Any plans for space travel?
Yes, I would love to go to space! I started in engineering and specifically in aerospace because I am fascinated with the idea of space. It probably wouldn’t be for many years, but I would love to do it as soon as I got the chance.
Final thoughts/ advice!
To women thinking about a STEM field:
1. Make connections. Find someone who you really like talking to whether they be your age or little bit older. For me, it was hard growing up [with an interest in engineering] because I didn’t really know anyone, especially not women, who were engineers.
2. Be confident. Once you are in school, in classes that are mostly male or doing an internship with mostly guys, you have to be confident as an engineer or person in a STEM field. There’s a reason you’re there, a reason that you got into the school or program. There were so many times that I doubted or felt l didn’t deserve to be there but that’s just not true. As women, it’s sometimes hard to be confident in what we do, but it’s important. You were chosen because of your ability.
3. We need more of us! The more women there are, the less they can disregard us, and the amazing work we’re going to do.