Maybe it is not surprising that I ended up in engineering. Growing up I loved math and science in school. Algebra is one of my favorite things. Then there is the influence of my family: my dad is an electrical engineer and my mom is a chemist. When I was little I would say that I was going to be a chemical engineer. I was fascinated with airplanes and the space program, so by the time I was a teenager I decided I wanted to study aerospace engineering.
I also imagined being an astronaut, but after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986 I decided I would rather be an engineer on the ground sending astronauts to space. The Challenger disaster is one of those events for me that I remember where I was when it happened – I was in eighth grade and I was watching the television in my school’s library. During my education and career I haven’t sent astronauts to space, but I have done research with data taken from astronauts and I have sent spacecraft to space. The most glamorous part of my job is that I can say that there is hardware in orbit around the Earth that I have touched.
I’ve had amazing opportunities. When I was in high school I was able to be part of a research study at the Mayo Clinic as an intern (Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit medical practice and medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota). When I was an undergraduate I studied visual-vestibular reactions to spaceflight. I also had the opportunity to work as a Space Grant intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. As a result of that internship, I became a co-op student and then was hired permanently after graduation. And NASA paid for my master’s degree studies.
Education is very important to me and was important in preparing me to take advantage of the positions that opened up to me. I’ve never really planned my career path, I just seize opportunities when they present themselves. When I was younger, an older female friend of mine gave me this advice, “prepare now for opportunities that will come to you later.” This has been good advice. Even when I do not know what my future will hold, by studying hard and continually learning, I have prepared for things like being able to work at NASA.
One thing I wish I knew earlier in my career is how important it is to network and build relationships. At NASA we accomplish nothing as individuals. It takes a team, and by knowing and networking with a broad cross-section of people, we are able to get the job done. I have been able to develop good relationships and through them, formed my network. I just wish I had been more deliberate in that network building. The way I found out about my current position was by talking to one of my contacts.
I currently serve as the Goddard Deputy Chief Technologist. I am responsible for the Center’s Internal Research and Development program, which invests in advanced technologies for future missions and innovative concepts for NASA’s future. I began my career doing mechanical design and thermal and structural analysis. I worked as a systems engineer for small scientific instruments. My experience has also included integration and testing, instrument management, and collaborative engineering. One of my positions was in the Integrated Design Center, which is a resource that provides rapid space system analysis and conceptual designs. I like working with smart engineers and scientists to accomplish a challenging goal. In some cases building, testing, and launching an instrument may require the efforts of a few hundred people. I also get excited about seeing really cool technology being developed.
I have really been fortunate to have a broad variety of work and experience. I have worked on technology development tasks; I’ve developed sounding rocket, balloon, and spacecraft payloads; I’ve written proposals and done early concept development; I’ve been a project manager; and I’m working as a technology program manager.
I didn’t have great obstacles to overcome in my path to NASA. I believed that I could do whatever I wanted to and my parents encouraged me. I did notice over time that there were not as many girls and women pursuing my path as there were boys and men. This didn’t bother me too much and has only resulted in a few awkward moments. I remember in my freshman year of college I walked into the first session of my physics recitation and sat down. The professor was writing on the board and said “I’d like to welcome you to class, gentlemen,” and as he turned around and spotted me he added with emphasis, “and lady.” The entire class turned around and stared at me. This is not the way I would choose to be introduced to my classmates. However, the insensitivity of a few did not deter me. I still work with more men than women.
Another challenge I have faced is balancing work life and home life. I have four sons and a wonderful husband, who also happens to work for NASA. My life is very full, and I find it difficult to do things half way. Often I feel as if I am divided and only going half way for my career and half way for my family. But it is an ongoing balancing act (or juggling act – juggling swords!) to keep going and accomplish what I can the best way that I can. I think it is important to nurture all aspects of one’s life. Outside of work I try to keep up with my interests in music and triathlon. I strive to be a good mother, wife, and engineer.
I also have a philosophy for work and life: I want to learn something from everyone I meet.
Deborah Amato serves as the Deputy Chief Technologist for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). She manages the Internal Research and Development (IRAD) program, which invests in advanced technologies for future missions enabling breakthrough scientific discoveries. Ms. Amato began working at GSFC as a student in the Space Grant internship program and then became a co-op student. She began her aerospace engineering career working in the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics as a mechanical engineer, doing mechanical design, thermal and structural analysis, and systems engineering for small scientific instruments. Her career experience has also included integration and testing, instrument management, and collaborative engineering. Before becoming the Deputy Chief Technologist, Ms. Amato worked as the Senior Systems Engineer in Goddard’s Integrated Design Center where early mission and instrument concept studies are conducted. Over the years she has worked on a variety of projects from technology development, to concept studies and proposals, to sounding rocket and balloon payloads, to spaceflight missions including the James Webb Space Telescope Integrated Science Instrument Module (JWST ISIM), the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), and the Transition Region And Coronal Explorer (TRACE). Ms. Amato received a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park.