Meet the IBEX Team: Susan Pope
One of the most exciting moments at the beginning of Susan Pope's engineering career involved opening a door - in space.
"We had sent a command to open the door on a spacecraft carrying instruments I'd helped design, and we received data that the door had opened. This really brought home the fact that data really traveled through space - a signal had gone from Earth, to the spacecraft, and then the spacecraft opened the door and sent a signal back to Earth. It was a really cool feeling to know that I had helped build something - had contributed to something - that was working in space," Susan said.
Since then, Susan has designed instruments for many other spacecraft at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. After starting there in 1997, she has earned a series of promotions, from engineer all the way to group leader in the Space Science and Engineering Division. Right now, she is working as the mission systems engineer for the IBEX mission.
"As mission system engineer, I am in charge of the technical aspects of the IBEX mission," Susan said. That includes verifying that everything on the spacecraft works so that we can better understand our home in the galaxy.
Susan also makes sure that the engineers working on the international IBEX team know what the requirements are for the mission, and that they design and test the spacecraft's components to handle all the bumps, jolts, and extreme temperatures it might encounter. The IBEX team calls these conditions "shake and bake".
When Susan began her engineering career, she didn't know much about space at all. "I only knew the little things you learn in basic science - that there were nine planets, and they orbited the Sun. I didn't understand how interesting all the orbital interactions were. I had to work hard to understand what we were going to measure with a spacecraft before I could build instruments for it! Luckily, the scientists I worked with were really good at explaining things to me," Susan said.
Engineering wasn't always Susan's career of choice. When her family settled in Houston, Texas for elementary and high school after living in England, Holland and California, Susan thought she wanted to be a doctor - until she found out that it took years of schooling!
"I realized that I didn't want to be in school 10-15 years after finishing high school, so I started talking to my science and math teachers about what careers were out there," Susan said. "I was always really good at math and science, and my dad's an engineer, which led me down the path to engineering."
Both Susan's parents, an engineer and an accountant, inspired her to pursue a technical career. "My mom and dad both have technical positions, and they really seemed to enjoy them. They seemed to find their jobs really interesting, so I always wanted to do something like that," Susan said.
She studied mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, earning a B.S. degree in 1996. She completed a Master's Degree in engineering management in 2002 while working full time at SwRI.
"Through my education, I learned how to find the right tools to answer a problem and how to do the work. As an intern at Applied Research Laboratories in Austin, I learned how to use CAD software and to interface with other engineers, machinists, draftsmen, and how to work with people in general, which you don't get in the classroom," Susan said.
Like many college students, Susan thought she might decide not to continue her engineering major. "In my second year of college, I looked at the list of the classes I still had to take to finish my degree. They sounded so detailed and complicated - I thought I'd never do it. However, when I actually took the classes, I discovered that if you see something ahead that looks scary, complicated and deep, your background education is going to help you out - that calculus you took in high school will help you out!" she said.
She's glad she stuck it out. "I love the diversity of [my job]. I don't do the same thing everyday and get stuck in a rut. I also love the things that I learn through my job. I don't start off knowing everything that I need to do my job, so I have to learn things to do it better," Susan said.
That includes learning things about engineering that she didn't discover in school. "[Engineering] is a lot more about communication - written communication as well as talking to people and getting points across - than I originally thought. Engineering is not working in a bubble - it's a lot more of working in teams and communicating than sitting in your office by yourself," Susan said.
This teamwork extends to the playing field. "At Southwest Research Institute, we have intramural sports. I play soccer and have played basketball and volleyball in the past. I really enjoy playing sports after sitting at a desk all day. The sense of camaraderie is great. I also run 3-4 times a week with 6-7 women who are also scientists and engineers. It's fun to talk with them about other things and all the science and engineering they are doing at work," Susan said.
When Susan wants to get away from her job as an engineer, she takes active vacations with her husband of nearly 10 years, hiking, whitewater rafting - or she plays with her two dogs, who she describes as "a lot like kids."
However, as Susan said, you can never really get away from the influence of engineering, science or math: "Think of all the things in nature that are full of science and math. How do engineers design bridges, build buildings, and make airplanes fly? Look at an airplane wing during landing and notice how the mechanics in the wings affect the way the plane flies. Open your eyes to how someone in science, engineering, or math can affect those everyday things."