photo of Kristen John

Current Job

NASA Postdoctoral Researcher, Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science (ARES) Group

Current Employer

NASA Johnson Space Center

Current Location

Houston, Texas  

Why did you decide to pursue an aerospace engineering degree? 

I've always been passionate about the space program, so when I was looking for a major, "Aerospace Engineering" sounded awesome! After a couple days in Dr. Hans Mark's Intro to Aerospace Engineering class, I knew I picked the right major.

Describe your current position.

I work at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in the Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science (ARES) group as a NASA Postdoctoral Research Fellow. My research involves studying the surfaces of asteroids and small planetary bodies, understanding the mechanical properties of meteorites and their parent bodies, mission/instrument concept development for robotic planetary exploration, and low-cost/small-satellite development. I am the deputy project manager and project engineer for two experiments flying on the International Space Station, including the first-ever DNA sequencer in space and another which studies asteroid regolith stratification in microgravity.

What do you like most about your job? What do you find most challenging?

I have had the unique opportunity to design, build, and fly an experiment to the International Space Station on a project called Strata-1. Through this project, I got the chance to see the entire design life cycle of a project in under one year, which is not typical at NASA. I really enjoyed that no two days were alike. One day I might be in the machine shop constructing a piece of equipment, another day I may be presenting in front of a safety panel on my hardware, and the next day I may be talking directly to an astronaut telling her how to operate the experiment. The biggest challenge is balancing all the tasks required to fly and support an experiment, but it is extremely rewarding and a lot of fun!

What are your career goals?

My career goals are to continue to contribute to the space program by advancing science, engineering, and technology in my own way. I'm an engineer working in a planetary science group, which I really enjoy. I love working with scientists to find ways to fly cutting-edge experiments to space. If I can continue to work in a role that advances planetary science and exploration, I will be proud.

What student project/organizations were you involved with ASE/EM and how did your experience in these groups help prepare you for your career?

It was my involvement in student groups like Longhorn Rocket Association, Design/Build/Fly, Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, and the Texas Space Grant Consortium Design Challenge that kept me motivated and passionate about aerospace engineering. Classes are required, but student projects are equally important. This showed me what fields I enjoyed or didn't enjoy. DBF, although a great experience, taught me that I was more passionate about Space rather than Aeronautics. As one of the five co-founders of LRA, I gained leadership experience that I still benefit from today. I also gained some life-long friendships through these organizations. Involvement in these projects also gives you perspective on the applications of what you learn in the classroom, which is what it's all about.

Were you involved in any fellowships or internships? If so, please explain.

I did a co-op at United Space Alliance, an internship at NASA Ames Research Center, and worked as an undergraduate research assistant to Dr. Hans Mark. I can not express enough the importance of these opportunities. They taught me that I wanted to attend grad school, they showed me what fields I did and didn't want to go into, and they gave me the chance to work with teams, people, and organizations outside of the academic setting. If a student is considering grad school, I highly recommend that they work with a professor doing undergraduate research, even just a few hours a week. Every student I attended grad school with had one thing in common -- undergraduate research experience.

Are there courses at UT you wish you had taken? If so, which ones and why? 

I wish I had taken a planetary science course or an astronomy course. These would have been useful for me in my current position, and these fields are the inspiration for much of what we do as aerospace engineers.

Who was your most influential ASE or EM professor and why?

Dr. Hans Mark. I worked with Dr. Mark as an undergraduate research assistant. The experience I got with him in the lab (electromagnetic railgun lab) gave me experience that prepared me for grad school research. Dr. Mark's guidance led me to working harder in my coursework so that I could increase my GPA. His role in the history of space flight has been amazing, and I'm honored to call Dr. Mark my mentor.

What has been your most influential ASE or EM course and why?

Senior year, I took History of Space Flight with Dr. Mark. This class gave me an appreciation for the field and motivated me even more. There is so much interesting history regarding space flight, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Another instrumental class for me was Dr. Rui Huang's Materials class. I really enjoyed this class, and I found the lab projects extremely rewarding. This prompted me to choose solid mechanics (as opposed to fluids) for my focus in graduate school.

What is one piece of advice you have for current students?

Get involved in more than just coursework. The best opportunities I had were the student organizations and undergraduate research. How do you work with a professor? Go up to them after class and ask them if you can work with them! That's what I did!

Do you have a favorite memory as a UT aerospace student?

I always enjoyed the release of the AerOnion. Is this still a thing? If not, some current students should make it happen! (I was not one of the writers, just an entertained reader.)

List three things that most people don't know about you.

1. I lived in Dubai, UAE as a kid. UAE is pursuing their own space program.

2. I have a baby, Annie, and I sometimes call her Annie the Astronaut!

3. I have a Curious George collection. Perhaps George's adventure into space subconsciously inspired me as a kid to pursue a career in aerospace!