Ursuline 5th graders skype with NASA engineer

By Beth Donze, Kids’ Clarion

For as long as she can remember, Louise Jandura has enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together again.

Little did the young Jandura know then that her childhood passion for figuring out “how things work” would lead her to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and launch a career that has excited her for nearly 30 years: as a top engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) – designing, building and testing machinery that gets sent into space.

“I liked building things, doing puzzles, playing with LEGOs and helping my parents fix things around the house,” said Jandura, reflecting on her New Jersey childhood as a math and science geek and her road to NASA during a 45-minute Skype session with fifth graders at Ursuline Academy.

The fifth graders, who came prepared with a list of questions they formulated in advance with their middle school science teacher, Nicole Williamson, took notes as Jandura answered them for inclusion in a future graded report. 

Speaking from JPL’s main headquarters in Pasadena, California, Jandura told the youngsters that she and her team currently are building the Mars 2020 Rover, set to launch next year and land on the Red Planet by 2021. As Mars 2020’s chief sampling and caching engineer, Jandura is responsible for the parts of the rover that will gather and store samples of Martian matter collected at various locations of the planet.

“(The rover) is the size of a big car – like a Land Rover,” Jandura told the fifth graders, noting that the vehicle she and her team are currently building will feature a different sampling system from the previous rover they designed: the Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars back in 2012.

Whereas the Curiosity took samples of Martian rock and beat it into a powder for on-site analysis on Mars, the Mars 2020 Rover will collect core samples, keep them intact and package them “so a future rover can take them back to earth” for examination, where they will be put through all the analytical tools we have here, Jandura said.

“We also want to make the (Mars 2020) rover be able to move around the planet faster, so we can do more science,” Jandura  added. “I get to do engineering that allows science to happen and that’s pretty special!” 

Given Jandura’s responsibility for the success of such costly and complex space missions – which total six to date – one fifth grader asked the engineer if she ever felt “scared” going to work.

Jandura answered by comparing the six years leading up to a rover’s launch to preparing for a sports competition: you’re not scared, but you do get a few butterflies in your stomach as the date of the “game” approaches.

“(Engineers, like athletes) practice and train – and now it’s time for the game,” Jandura explained. “You’re not scared, but you’re eager for it to start. Once you get into it, the butterflies go away.”

Jandura advises children who have an interest in science and math to work hard, stay curious, take advantage of all their school has to offer and visit their local observatories and science hubs. She said engineers often have to be willing to work in teams, because two heads are always better than one when it comes to solving problems.

Jandura told the fifth graders not to worry if they do not know what they want to do, even as college students. Jandura herself admitted that she entered MIT thinking she wanted to be a chemist, only stumbling into mechanical engineering after taking a course and realizing that it meshed well with her childhood love for building things. Many adults will even change careers  after spending many years in them, she added.

“Find something to work on for your career that you really love. That passion really makes a difference,” Jandura advised the fifth graders.

“You learn things in school – and that’s important – but you also teach yourself things,” Jandura said. “I haven’t stopped learning yet. You will get stumped sometimes, but you will be surprised just how much you can learn on your own!”

The Skype session was arranged by Kalen Griffin, Ursuline’s IT director, as part of a schoolwide mission to expose Ursuline students to actual women working in the sciences and other fields.

“When they’re in school, many students don’t really know what’s possible or out there for them,” Griffin said. “We just want them to know that these ‘big people’ out there started off as little people – with little milestones and little plans – that eventually led to something bigger.”

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