Alumna Spotlight: Tara Samuels

Current Positiontara 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 over a decade.  While getting my pilot’s license, I discovered an aptitude for aircraft systems, and decided to pursue an MS in Aerospace Engineering (MSAE).  I am now an Aerospace Engineer in the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA Ames Research Center.

What do you do at work?

As an Aerospace Engineer, I serve as Chief Safety Officer (CSO) on ISS and satellite projects. In this role I develop mission assurance plans as well as ground and flight safety data packages, serve on risk management boards, conduct hazard analyses, investigate anomalies, and ensure that risks are identified and mitigated to acceptable levels.

I also represent our Division as a Range Safety Officer (RSO) in Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review Board (AFSRB) and Flight Readiness Review Board (FRRB) meetings, analyzing flight test plans, conducting risk analyses, and overseeing safety in test flight operations.

Finally, I'm serving as the Project Manager for a Division-wide effort to optimize our business operations.  The role requires incisive intuition for organizational behavior, observing processes and interactions, identifying gaps in training or communications, understanding and overcoming operational or technical challenges, and developing a strategy and vision for the organization.  Being a "change agent" necessarily means there are very challenging days too, but the rewards are watching individuals become more engaged, teams working cohesively together to develop new and more efficient processes, and projects running more smoothly.  It's a rare opportunity to effect real change in an organization.

What are you most passionate about in your work? Why? 

I’m passionate about supporting revolutionary new missions in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.  It is an honor to work on projects that help improve people’s lives and help us understand the world around us.

I'm also passionate about reducing organizational friction, so project teams can focus on doing their best work.

In my spare time I volunteer for Civil Air Patrol, the civilian arm of the US Air Force where I am a 1st Lieutenant, Mission Transport Pilot and Aerospace Education Officer.  I'm also a member of NASA Ames’ Speakers Bureau and a volunteer Solar System Ambassador for NASA JPL.  I am passionate about sharing the legacy of aviation and vision for space exploration with future generations.

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 make our environment cleaner, 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?

Be grateful for any opportunity to learn, even if it’s unpaid.  An internship is a free pass to get in the door, and that’s worth a lot more than a paycheck.  Use it wisely.  If you see someone working on a project you are interested in, ask them about it.  Seek out subject matter experts in the areas that interest you and offer to help with their projects.  If you see someone working late, ask if you can help.  Don’t pester but offer to pitch in on the busywork to save them time.  They are unlikely to be able to use your help at that moment, but they will remember you and will find you when they have a project you can help with.  When that day comes, turn it around quickly and do solid work.  Let them know you’d love another opportunity to learn.

Summer is the time to get an internship, build a rocket or an RC model plane, go to your local airport or aviation museum and ask if you can help renovate an aircraft or even assist an A&P (airframe and powerplant mechanic.)  You can work at a flight school in exchange for flight lessons.  Any kind of experience in aerospace or aviation, even if it's not a traditional internship, is a great use of your time and an opportunity to learn.

Develop your written and verbal communication skills.  Books help cultivate empathy, a rigorous thought process, vocabulary and sentence structure.  Avoid strictly reading engineering books and magazines and delve into the classics, autobiographies, even poetry.  Join a Toastmasters Club and grow your skills as a leader, speaker and listener.

Finally, set a goal for yourself of one day becoming a pilot.  It’s an incredible experience and it will help develop your intuition as an Aerospace Engineer.