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Meet Joshua Michael Woods: Columbia University Engineering Undergrad, NASA Intern and Youth Mentor

Joshua Woods

My name is Joshua Woods and I am an intern at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. I attend school at Columbia University in New York City where I am a junior studying mechanical engineering. However, home for me is Little Rock, Arkansas. I first started interning with NASA during the summer of 2012. I worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California where I helped certify thermal vacuum chambers. The next summer I interned here at JSC in the structures division. I helped test and analyze acrylics to be used as spacecraft windows. That fall I was accepted into the Pathways Internship Program at JSC. I began my first work rotation with the program this past spring. I worked in mission operations with the environmental and internal thermal controls group. Currently I am in my summer rotation. I test hardware in the Energy Systems Test Area (ESTA). I will do one more work tour in the flight mechanics and trajectory design branch this fall before returning to a normal school schedule in the spring of 2015. My current goals include having a career in the space industry as well as attending graduate school to get a PhD in aerospace engineering. My internships with NASA and my time at Columbia have helped my better myself both professionally and personally. I welcome
interactions with new people and ideas to further myself intellectually while also passing on what I have learned to others, particularly youth. For me, engineering and science have helped me gain an entirely new perspective on the world. I hope that one day I can use what I have learned to help further manned space exploration.

Q: Tell us about yourself, what prompted you in pursuing studies in Engineering? In addition, what are your career goals?

Woods: From a very young age, I have always been fascinated with anything that flies. I was very fortunate to have parents, and a family in general, who helped to cultivate and expand my interests. They did this not only by buying me toys like Legos but also by taking me to airshows, buying me books, and overall encouraging me to pursue my passion. I couldn't get enough of the stuff! I decided in high school to become an engineer. I chose to major in mechanical engineering when I entered Columbia as the field would allow me to dabble in many different areas in engineering while at the same time it would provide me with a foundation to specialize in a multitude of fields in graduate school. During my senior year of high school and my first year of college, I developed a deeper interest in space. As I read more and more about the subject, I knew that we still had so much more left to learn about the universe. I decided that I wanted to help humans explore space. Naturally, NASA became an extremely attractive prospect for me.

Surprisingly, it wasn't until recently that I truly recognized the role science fiction had in shaping my passion. I loved watching movies like Star Wars that featured huge spaceships traveling through the galaxy at light speed and, occasionally, duking it out against each other above exotic planets. Video games in which I had to explore vast, hostile alien worlds also helped to instill a sense of curiosity that I had not previously felt. What is out there? What can we learn from traveling to other planets? How can we get to other planets? All of these questions were swirling around in my head at a very young age. While working at NASA during my first few internships, I learned a lot about the history of human space exploration. To think that in 50 short years we landed men on the moon, sent probes and rovers to planetary bodies across our solar system, and even have a space station in orbit around the Earth that is constantly inhabited by at least three people. 150 years ago this would have seemed like science fiction, and indeed it was. This raises an interesting question: is the science fiction of today the reality of tomorrow? This question is ultimately what drives me and many others to do the things that we do. I know that, no matter what, my career lies in the space industry. I'm not sure what my exact role will be but regardless I am excited to see where humanity goes as we further explore the cosmos. And hopefully someday I can voyage into the unknown and further help our species explore the final frontier.

Q: What new perspectives as an Engineer have you gained so far through your internships at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas? How do you anticipate the new experiences you have gained through these internships will help you through the remainder of your undergraduate and future graduate studies?

Woods: Towards the end of my internship at JPL in the summer of 2012, I was able to meet with a senior mechanical engineer. Unfortunately, I cannot remember his name but I will refer to him by the name one of my colleagues gave him: the mechanical engineering "guru". The beginning of our conversation went more or less like this:

Guru: "As a mechanical engineer, what do you want to do?"
Me: "Build aircraft."
Guru: "Which part of an aircraft specifically?"
Me: "I want to, you know, design the whole thing!"
Guru: "Okay, let's stop right there."

I was a little caught off guard by his last statement, but as he began to list all of the things involved in making an aircraft, or any type of vehicle for that matter, all of the pieces began to fall into place. Engineering, regardless of the specific type, is an immense field. There's testing, analysis, research, operations, design, and more. There is no one person that simply designs "the whole aircraft." When working on an engineering project you are more often than not a part of a team. Thus, from then on I knew that I needed to focus on two things: 1) expose myself to different kinds of projects (testing, analysis, etc...) to see which best suits me, and 2) make sure that I can work as a team. Luckily, as a mechanical engineer I can work on a variety of things. I have done certification, analysis/research, testing, and even mission operations. Through each of these projects I have been able to interact with amazing and intelligent individuals, each further shaping my perspective.

The experiences that I have had through my internships have already helped me in my undergraduate studies. Much of what I learn while working at NASA can be directly applied to my college classes and vice versa. In addition, my internships, particularly the program I am currently participating in, have and will continue to help me explore different areas of engineering which in turn will help me determine what I want to study in graduate school. The only downside is that a lot of the stuff that I have worked on or been exposed to in some other fashion seems really awesome which can make deciding on any one path a bit of a challenge! Luckily I still have plenty of time to figure out exactly what I want to do. Regardless, working at NASA as an engineer has opened my eyes to the engineering process. What it boils down to is being able to adapt to change. You have to be flexible while still putting forth 110%. A saying here is that "failure is not an option." In our business it absolutely is not but it still happens. But when failure does occur, you have to know how to deal with it. Critical thinking is heavily emphasized in engineering. We are problem solvers. While we may suffer setbacks and argue about the best route to take with a project, the trials and tribulations are worth it to see the final product fly.

Q: You have been involved as a mentor in various youth programs, can you say a few words about these initiatives and your involvement?

Woods: One of the great things about working at NASA is the outreach opportunities. I have been able to participate in two excellent programs through the agency. The first is called Texas High School Aerospace Scholars, or HAS for short. The actual program spans for months and involves having students in their junior year of high school take special online courses about spaceflight. The classes lead up to a week long program here at JSC where the students split into groups to design a mission to Mars. NASA employees and interns aid the teams through technical guidance as well as letting them interact with other professional employees onsite. I have participated in HAS for the past two summers, both of which were great experiences. The students often ask the student mentors about college (application process, life, classes, transitions, etc...) and internships. I am also a member of the intern committee called "NASA on Campus." Our committee focuses on presenting to students of all ages. We discuss the history of space exploration and NASA's role in it, the science behind spaceflight, our experiences as interns, and how they can apply to NASA internships. The content changes based on education level (we present to students in elementary to college). I have been a member of the committee since this spring. I love presenting to and teaching youth. I feel that as an engineering student and a science enthusiast I have a responsibility to communicate my knowledge and experiences to those seeking to pursue a similar path. Working with youth at NASA has also encouraged me to do the same back at my college. Thus, when I return I plan on becoming more involved with some of the youth programs at Columbia, particularly those through my school's chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Q: Given all you have experienced so far both as a student and intern, what would be the most important lessons or advise you would give to the youth that you mentor and teach?

Woods: From my experience I have three lessons that I would like to pass on:

1) Learn as much as you can. We know so much more today than we did 50, 10, or even 5 years ago. In the age of technology, for those that have access to the resources ignorance is a choice. Educate yourself both inside and outside of the classroom. There is so much to learn and knowledge will never hamper you. Even if you aren't a scientist or engineer you should seek to understand how things work in and outside of your field of interest.

2) Be open to change and don't be afraid of failure. The world is not static. It is a dynamic system. New opportunities arise every day. Even if you have a passion and are on a set path don't be afraid to try something new. More importantly, don't be afraid to take risks. Of course you should take everything into consideration but be wise about it. Often times we let our comfort zone get the best of us and sometimes that can lead to you missing out on a great experience.

3) Follow your passion. Many people might be surprised when I say that I'm not trying to get everybody to study in a STEM field. I want everybody to be able to follow their passion. I was fortunate enough to have a family that really pushed me to pursue what I love. It is true that some passions are harder to turn into a career than others. I was luckye enough to be interested in engineering which is currently in high demand across the job market. Regardless, strive to pursue your passion even if you cannot necessarily make a career out of it. Doing what we love is a great way to bring happiness, fulfillment, and beauty into our lives. Everybody has something that they are passionate about. If you don't know what that something is, work towards finding it. What you find out about yourself just may surprise you.

Note: University students & recent graduates of all majors can find more information about NASA Careers by viewing: http://nasajobs.nasa.gov/studentopps/Pathways.htm

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)