Lifehacker’s Career Spotlight: What I Do as a NASA Engineer

Lifehacker Career Spotlight_NASA Engineer

Space exploration, whether it be through telescopes watching the skies or probes sent to far away planets, is the culmination of thousands of people’s work, collaborating together to solve the innumerable problems that arise when you try to reach beyond what seems possible.

Being that there are so many aspects to the work, describing someone as a “NASA engineer” could mean a thousand different things of course. In this case, we had a chance to speak with Edward Gonzales, an electromagnetic compatibility engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Edward spoke with us about his experiences, his work, and how he ended up at NASA.

Tell us about your current position, and how long you’ve been at it.

My name is Edward Gonzales, and I’m an Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. I’ve been here for a little less than a year, but in that short time I’ve had the chance to get my hands on a lot of amazing projects: electronics that will be on Hubble’s successor the James Webb Space Telescope, instruments on the Mars 2020 rover, the “flying saucer” LDSD, and earth observatories like Grace Follow-Onand SWOT.

As an EMC engineer, my job is to make sure that all the electronics on a spacecraft don’t interfere with each other. We can see the effects of EMC in our daily lives when you turn on the blender and the lights dim or when your cell phone buzzes in your speakers just before getting a call. On a spacecraft, that kind of interference can mess with operations and scientific data, and in the worst cases it can be mission-ending! My job is to minimize the effect of interference by analyzing the electromagnetic environment (usually by hand calculation or computer simulation), writing requirements around that environment, ensuring appropriate spacecraft and component design based on those requirements, and ultimately making sure the whole thing works.

What drove you to choose your career path?

I actually wasn’t set on pursuing any kind of engineering until late in high school, and even then only begrudgingly. I played a lot of guitar in high school so I wanted to go to college for music recording, but the little voice in the back of my head wanted to make sure I got a job after graduating. I had heard a lot of music engineers were electrical engineers, so I chose that and figured I could minor in music recording. As I went through the degree, I started to love the beautiful math and physics that tied our thoughts to a quantifiable reality. Music recording became more of a hobby, and I ended up minoring in Philosophy instead.

After I graduated from college, the semiconductor company I had interned with in previous summers hired me full-time as a reliability engineer. Part of my degree was focused on semiconductor physics, so it was a great learning experience for the first few years. In three-and-a-half years there, I got lots of experience designing tests, writing requirements, and managing projects, teams, and budgets.

I eventually wanted to try something different and outside of the corporate world. To me, space exploration has always been one of the most beautiful expressions of human ambition. I remember watching videos of JPL’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars in 2012 and getting a little misty-eyed, so JPL came to mind first when I started my job search. I had taken lots of electromagnetics classes in college and thought that the EMC position would be a good fit when it came up. I didn’t know a whole lot about the specifics of working in EMC when I applied, but it sounded cool.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

The odds of getting a job by applying through an official website are usually considered low, but that’s exactly what I did. I found the listing for an EMC engineer and applied through JPL’s career page. I found out later that my resume stuck out partly because of my work experience, but mostly because of the classes I took in college.

I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering (with an emphasis in electrophysics) in a five-year program at the University of Southern California. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum qualification for engineering positions at JPL, and I would say a master’s degree is generally preferred. For many specialized positions, a PhD can be required (especially for science positions). In my case, I felt that the bachelor’s degree was the foundation for what I really wanted to learn in my master’s, and the master’s prepared me for the engineering rigor needed to hit the ground running.

While some people like to say (almost proudly) that you never use what you learn in school, it has been the complete opposite in my case. Everything from simple geometry (“soh-cah-toa” comes in handy more than you’d think) to Fourier Transforms of linear chirp functions, I’ve gone back to my class notes more times than I can count. It’s refreshing to see that all those decades of school and tuition money get put to good use!

That said, I would say that having a flexible mind and genuine curiosity for new things are among the most important traits for engineers at NASA. Each project has its own challenges, and a previous solution to a problem may not work (read: will not work) on the next one. Being willing to reach back into your high school math classes while also learning about Martian geology or superconductor magnetic flux-pinning helps to understand and ultimately solve those problems.

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