Karen Gundy-Burlet

When I was growing up, my father owned a service station, and my mother was an accountant. Because they both worked, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my grandparents when I was growing up. I loved when my Grandmother would bring out her picture albums and tell me wonderful stories about her brother, Floyd Kelso – a barnstormer. He and his wing walker, Auggie Peddlar, performed aerobatic stunts for audiences along the West Coast. There are pictures of Auggie, in-flight, hanging from struts, running across wings and other classic barnstormer images. My father also had colorful tales to tell about his own experiences flying Aeroncas and Ercoupes: He would glide over the Alviso Slew, and restart his engine over the hunters, flushing the ducks, but ruining the hunting. I loved the adventure, humor and passion about aircraft in these tales. Thus, when my high school biology teacher offered me an opportunity as an aeronautics intern at NASA Ames Research Center, I jumped at it.

As an intern, I worked in the then-young research area of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). CFD combined fluid physics with the fields of math and computer science to investigate aerodynamic phenomena. I had always loved math and science, but developing algorithms, expressing them in computer code, visualizing them, and using the simulations to investigate physical processes was fascinating to me. I won the Santa Clara County Science and Engineering Fair with a visualization of airflow around an oscillating airfoil, and since that time have mentored high school and college students to pass on the legacy of my own mentors. I earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and returned to NASA Ames as a civil servant to work in computational aerodynamics. NASA then sent me to Stanford University for my master’s and doctorate degrees in aero/astro engineering. During this time, the state of the art in CFD was rapidly advancing, and I had an opportunity to work on increasingly higher-fidelity applications, with my doctorate thesis focused on unsteady three-dimensional turbo machinery (jet engine) simulations.

Just before completing my doctorate degree, I was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. No one in my family had ever heard of diabetes, and yet suddenly, I was thrust into the world of having to self-monitor blood glucose in order to manage insulin injections. I performed experiments on myself in order to try to figure out how to best maintain control. My work also was undergoing changes at the time, and I started to look for other opportunities within NASA. With my urgent and newfound interest in control algorithms, I interviewed with the Neuro-Engineering group that was using neural networks to augment control algorithms for aircraft. I started researching neural-networks, algorithms that mimic the processes of the brain. I went back to Stanford to learn control system theory and eventually became the group lead for development of a damage-adaptive control system for aircraft. The Intelligent Flight Control (IFC) system used on-line neural networks to augment control signals in case of damage or other degradation of aircraft performance. Validation of the algorithms was probably the most fun I’ve ever had. We devised a series of takeoff and landing scenarios with different types of damage, including failed tail surfaces, failed engines and progressive hydraulic failure. We tested these scenarios with NASA, Air Force and commercial pilots in full-motion simulators. I served as co-pilot and test-director and recorded the pilot’s evaluation of the aircraft’s performance. The successful tests paved the way for piloted evaluations of the algorithms in an F-15 aircraft.

After the IFC program ended, I became a researcher in the Reliable Software Engineering group at NASA Ames. My focus turned toward verification and validation algorithms for space-flight simulations and software. The group has developed a range of techniques, including formal methods (rigorous mathematical proofs of correctness), model checkers, static analysis and automated certification of software. I led the development of a code that combined advanced test case generation with machine learning algorithms to determine input parameter ranges that lead to success and failure. I am now the flight software quality engineer on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. For this mission, the flight software is modeled in a graphical environment and then is auto-coded for use in the embedded environment. I help develop the plans, processes and testing framework that leverages the model-based environment to perform efficient and effective verification of requirements and validation of the flight software in the embedded environment. LADEE is currently scheduled to fly in January of 2013 and I plan to be there to watch it take off.

NASA has been a huge part of my life; I’ve been fortunate to hold a series of fascinating technical positions that utilized my background and expanded my experience in ways I could not have foreseen. My home life is very rich as well: I am busy with a husband, two daughters, cats, dogs, horses, chickens and a large garden to enrich my life. I enjoy family vacations in our trailer with our intense games of cribbage, visiting historic sites and rock-hounding. I like to ride horses, garden and am an avid reader in those rare, quiet moments.

photo of Karen Gundy-Burlet


For Karen Gundy-Burlet, Walter Cronkite’s broadcasts of the Apollo moon missions were particularly inspirational. The thrill of watching the moon landings and excursions extended her interest in aircraft to the aerospace field and a desire to work for NASA. In her junior year of high school, she jumped at the chance to intern at NASA Ames Research Center, interviewing with one of the researchers in the (then) new area of computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Dr. Gundy-Burlet was particularly fascinated as the work combined math, science and aeronautics. The internship led her to choose engineering as a career path and she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and obtained master’s and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering from Stanford University. Dr. Gundy-Burlet has worked at NASA Ames in several research roles, including CFD for aircraft and turbo machinery, damage adaptive flight control and now serves as the software quality lead for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. And to think, it all started with Dr. Gundy-Burlet watching mankind make history.