Women in Tech
C. J. Kanelakos
I grew up in Houston with my parents and my younger brother. When I was about five years old my family visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. We toured some of the astronaut training facilities and Mission Control and saw a variety of spaceflight artifacts. That visit to JSC sparked my interest in human spaceflight and founded my lifelong dream to work at NASA. In high school one of my friends encouraged me join our school’s engineering team. Although I did not know much about engineering at the time, it sounded like a fun way to combine creativity and technical thinking in a hands-on environment. My experiences on the engineering team, along with encouragement and support from my family, friends, and teachers, were a large part of what led me to pursue engineering in college. I studied Mechanical Engineering and earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science degree. During that time I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work at JSC as a cooperative education student. After completing my education, I enthusiastically accepted an offer for a full time position in a design and development branch at JSC. I am currently working on Robonaut 2 (R2), a fully dexterous humanoid robot. One unit of R2, which includes the upper body from the waist to the head, resides aboard the International Space Station (ISS). I am part of a team that is designing, testing, and building a lower body for R2 that will enable it to be more mobile on the ISS. One of my favorite parts of working in an engineering field is the opportunity to create something that did not previously exist. Studying and working in a STEM field can definitely be a challenge, but that challenge is often what makes it fun and rewarding! I encourage you to go forward with confidence and know that you can face whatever challenges are placed in your path. Do not be afraid to turn to your family and friends for support, but know that ultimately your life is what you choose to make it. Dream big, and don’t give up.
My path to where I am today has been unique. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Mass Communications in 2001, I began looking for work in marketing and public relations. Most firms wanted students that had done internships in college, but the breadth of my office experience at that point was as a receptionist through a work study program, and waiting tables for additional money. After months of fruitless searching for opportunities to gain experience, and much frustration, I reluctantly took a job as an office manager for a real-estate firm and began looking into returning to school for my graduate degree. After 3 months at the firm, I learned I was pregnant. I was working a dead-end job, and still not getting the much-needed career experience, and now graduate school was on the back burner because I had to prepare to support a child. One day on my lunch break, I decided to take my resume to a temp agency. I was hoping to get my foot in the door at a company that could ultimately offer me some long-term career opportunities. They offered me a position working as a receptionist at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center (JSC). Even though the position paid less than what I was currently earning, I knew that NASA was a great place to work, and I accepted the position. Over the next few months I transitioned from a part time to a full-time employee, and was eventually offered an opportunity in the Graduate Co-Op Program. During my last semester of grad school, I worked in JSC’s Information Resources Directorate (IRD). Entering a technical organization with a limited amount of technical experience was pretty intimidating, but I insisted they challenge me with some of the more technical assignments. I was tasked with evaluating service delivery processes and recommending improvements and was happy to take the assignment. As I evaluated the existing procedures, I discovered that there were areas where the organization had the power to make improvements, including the department’s Web site which was terribly out-of-date. I recommended replacing it with newer technology, and at the end of my Co-op term, JSC hired me to make it happen. Through this and several other projects at JSC that were more and more visible to upper management, I demonstrated my ability to pull together technology and users from across different NASA Centers. I was offered an opportunity to work with a new organization out of Headquarters run by a newly appointed Chief Technology Officer for IT. I took advantage of the offer, and within a year I transitioned to managing an entire program known as “IT Labs”. It’s early in the life of the program, but we’ve been able to fund more than a dozen projects that have agency potential, and we’re connecting people across the agency who are working similar efforts. In that respect, we’re definitely successful!
My father was in the Air Force so I moved around a lot when I was little. I was born in Germany where I lived for a few years and then moved to Japan, England, and finally Texas. I have always been interested in math and science. When I was in middle and high school, I participated in a Pre-freshman Engineering Program (PREP) in San Antonio, Texas. This program allowed me to get a better idea of how math and science can be implemented in real world scenarios. In my junior year of high school, I participated in a NASA program called the High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS) Program. HAS allowed me to actually visit NASA for a week and work on a simulated mission to Mars. This program allowed me to see some of the issues real engineers face when planning space exploration missions. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. During my time in college, I participated in NASA’s cooperative education (co-op) program where I completed four tours at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I joined the NASA workforce as a full time employee in 2006 and currently work in the Space Suit and Crew Survival Systems Branch as a Advanced Portable Life Support System (PLSS) Engineer. The PLSS is the backpack the astronauts wear on their space suit that provides the power, breathing air, and cooling water to the space suit. Prior to working as PLSS Engineer, I worked as the subystsem manager of the Life Support Umbilical (LSU). I oversaw the development of the LSU subsystem requirements, the execution of integrated crew and engineering evaluations, manufacturing, assembly, and verification testing of the LSU subsystem. The LSU provides life support directly from the vehicle instead of through the PLSS. I also worked on tools used for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) mission (STS-125). Just like you need tools to work on cars, the astronauts needed special tools to work on Hubble. I also worked on the design, production, and certification of the Plug Installation and Verification Tool (PIVT) which is part of the reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) Plug Repair Tool Kit. This repair kit was used to repair the leading edge of the orbiter’s wing in case it were damaged during launch. I always encourage students to explore their options when choosing a career path. Math and science are not always easy subject areas to study, but the satisfaction I get at solving complicated issues and designing hardware using these subjects is indescribable and fun! I like to equate it to beating a really hard video game. I get way more out of beating a really hard game than a really easy one.