As a young girl I was mischievous, imaginative, and strong-willed. I was considered a tomboy by my family and friends because I enjoyed outdoor activities and taking things apart. I enjoyed playing with action figures and would hide my sisters Barbie dolls so that she wouldn’t have a choice but to play what I wanted. But my favorite times were spent working with my dad on projects, whether it was changing the oil on our vehicles, working on an air conditioner, putting a sprinkler system in or simply mowing the lawn. My time with him provided ample opportunities for me to ask “How” or “Why” and taught me hard work, perseverance, integrity and to always put forth my best effort in everything I did.
Both my parents encouraged me and gave me the needed ‘push’ to excel when I felt overwhelmed and wanted to give up, always re-instilling the character traits they worked so hard to teach me. I was often told “you will reap what you sow.” I knew when I got older I wanted to get married and have kids and a home, but I hadn’t put much thought into how I was going to get there. Being a goal oriented individual, I figured I needed to focus on school to see my dreams come to fruition.
Before I knew it, I was a junior in high school and it was time to apply for college. Since I knew I couldn’t be a pilot because of poor vision, I had to pick an alternate career, but what? I couldn’t make up my mind so I looked at it in a different perspective: what didn’t I want to be? I discovered that was much easier and instantly knew engineering was the field I was going to pursue. I had always enjoyed math and science and my fascination with disassembling components lead to an interest in design.
My first year of college was eventful; I was nominated for the Dean’s Honor List for the College of Engineering, became a mother and married my high school sweetheart. As a teenage mom, I was often told I would turn into another statistic and not amount to anything. I learned that I had to ignore the negative comments, even though sometimes they cut deep. Determined to prove their perceptions wrong — and with the support of my awesome husband — I earned a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University.
By the time I was 22 I was married and had three young children. To accomplish the day to day tasks I had to become a master scheduler; coordinating daycare, doctor appointments, class, labs, study groups, working, being a mom and a wife. As if that wasn’t enough I later incorporated soccer and t-ball practice for my children. I had to compromise and prioritize, sometimes sacrificing things that I wanted. However, if once again I was presented with the same circumstances, I wouldn’t change a thing! Life was teaching me the answers I would need to become a success.
While in college, my first engineering work was as a cooperative education student at the NASA White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Though at first I was disappointed I didn’t get the co-op position I had applied for, I became ecstatic when to my surprise I was chosen to work in the area that had most interested me during a site tour: hypervelocity impact testing. This was an opportunity for me to apply the engineering, physics, and math theories I had learned in school to real situations, real problems. It also confirmed for me that I chosen the right major. Suddenly, I was getting paid to perform tasks that were a delight!
As one of two graduating women in my class, I feel fortunate to work at NASA. Presently I serve as the project manager for the Remote Hypervelocity Test Laboratory and ensure the day-to-day test requirements are met while maintaining an operational facility. Some of my early ventures included research efforts to fabricate low and high density ice. Our team developed a method for cutting ice blocks — the same ones used for ice sculptures — into smaller pieces and melting them so our team could test the impact of the ice on shuttle tiles. With another team we developed the capability to successfully and repeatedly launch single particles as small as 50 microns – a human hair is an average 200 microns. The team also developed a technique to rapidly cool small hypervelocity test articles.
Our team is also investigating ways to use our launcher systems to obtain impact velocities greater than 19,000 miles per hour! Unfortunately I am still not able to accomplish everything I would like, but the compromising and prioritization skills that I learned years ago as a young mom has helped me develop my management style.
When not at work my time is spent with my family, whether coaching or cheering at sporting events, attending band concerts or volunteering for class activities. These occasions have provided me time to interact with students and share my passions, hopefully sparking an interest in the students to dream beyond their wildest imaginations.
My goal is to make a difference in the lives of students. I want to provide encouragement, hope, and guidance so that they too can succeed.
Karen Rodriguez is known as a talented project manager. But as a teenage mom, she was often told she would never amount to anything. With determination, dedication, and the support of her husband, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University. Ms. Rodriguez has one top priority and that is her family. Through “selective compromise”, she has been able to encourage and support her children as they pursue their goals while she pursues her dreams at NASA. Currently, she is the project manager for the Remote Hypervelocity Test Laboratory working with a team of people who research the damage caused by particle debris striking spacecraft at hypervelocity speeds. Her ultimate goal is to make a difference in the lives of others. At NASA, the testing she participates in ensures spacecraft materials provide adequate protection for astronauts. In her spare time, she encourages students to pursue their goals so that one day they too can make a difference in the lives of others.