Alumna Spotlight: Tara Samuels
Aerospace Engineer, NASA Ames Research Center
M.S. Aerospace Engineering, San Jose State University
M.B.A., San Jose State University
Ph.D., Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (Expected 2022)
I started my career as an MBA and worked on a variety of consumer brands for well over a decade. While getting my pilot license, I discovered an aptitude for aircraft systems, and decided to pursue an MS in Aerospace Engineering. I am now an Aerospace Engineer at NASA Ames Research Center.
What do you do at work?
I am the Lead Systems Engineer on a space biology experiment that will be conducted on board the International Space Station (ISS), studying the effects of microgravity on stem cells. This experiment will be conducted inside a cutting-edge research facility developed by NASA Ames Research Center, the Bioculture System, which lets scientists carry out long-term cell biology studies in the microgravity environment of the ISS.
Systems Engineers ensure engineered systems meet technical requirements and operational objectives, and ultimately function together as designed, over their intended lifetime, and in their intended environments. I am responsible for making sure our systems and subsystems are designed, fabricated, integrated, and tested properly.
Perhaps the best part of the job is the “people systems” that make our project successful. We have multiple groups working together to tackle inter-related technical, scientific, and operational challenges. On a typical day, I might lead our engineering team through a planning meeting, prioritize a software glitch with our software team, discuss a pH sensor test or flow path repair with our instrumentation team, or debate the root cause of a valve not actuating properly. I love the problem solving, orchestrating, and team building. It is a very natural role for me, combining the technical knowledge of an MSAE with the thought discipline of an MBA.
What are you most passionate about in your work? Why?
I love supporting scientific research and exploration. It is such an honor to work on projects that help improve people’s health and help us understand the world around us. I am also passionate about creating an environment where project team members can focus on doing their best work.
In my spare time, I am the founder of CaptainSTEM.com, a member of NASA ARC’s Speakers Bureau, a Solar System Ambassador for NASA JPL, and a Captain in Civil Air Patrol, the civilian arm of the US Air Force, where I have served as a Mission Transport Pilot and Aerospace Education Officer. I love sharing my passion for all things air and space with the next generation.
How has your SJSU AE experience helped shape your success?
The deliberately open-ended real-world scenarios at SJSU help build solid Aerospace Engineers who know how to find practical solutions to complex, imperfect problems.
How are you making a positive impact in the world?
The projects I support help us broaden our knowledge of the world and will ultimately help land human astronauts on Mars. I also dedicate my time to helping the next generation find confidence and joy in learning and aspire to STEM fields.
What advice do you have for aspiring AEs?
Becoming an Aerospace Engineer is much more about how hard you are willing to work than about being the smartest person in the room. Push yourself, follow through, support your classmates and value your professors. Get help when you need it and keep high standards for yourself. Your classmates will become your colleagues and advocates in the future so develop a strong work ethic and start building your reputation now.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Let your curiosity and natural interests guide you. Be active in aerospace and/or engineering clubs on campus and take on leadership roles. Stretch yourself in areas that are do not come easy for you. Connect with people. Take genuine interest in them and their work. Network.
Your ability to communicate will likely be the single greatest predictor of success in your career. Reading books helps cultivate empathy, develops a rigorous thought process, as well as building your vocabulary, and improving sentence structure. Delve into the classics, autobiographies, even poetry. Join a Toastmasters Club and grow your skills as a leader, speaker and listener.
Be grateful for any opportunity to learn, even if it is unpaid. An internship is a free pass to get in the door, and that is worth a lot more than a paycheck. Use it wisely.
Finally, set a goal for yourself of one day becoming a pilot. It is an incredible experience, and it will help develop your intuition as an Aerospace Engineer.