Name: Karen Berger
Place of Employment: NASA Langley Research Center
Job Title: Aerospace Engineer
Education: BS in Aerospace Engineering, Virginia Tech
MS in Aerospace Engineering, Virginia Tech
Graduated with a BS in Aerospace Engineering, Virginia Tech (2005), where I participated in the co-op program at NASA Langley Research Center, starting in 2002. - Hired at NASA Langley in 2005 as a member of the Aerothermodynamics Branch where I work in hypersonic wind tunnel testing and flight testing. - Completed my Master's Degree in Aerospace Engineering from Virginia Tech (2009) through a satellite/distance learning program. - Completed hypersonic wind tunnel testing for a number of programs for NASA and the other government organizations. - I was a member of the Damage Assessment Team for the Space Shuttle program, which was created after the loss of Columbia in 2003. I was involved in real-time work to determine whether or not it was safe for the shuttle to return from orbit. - I was the principal investigator for an experiment that flew on 5 shuttle flights, looking at the heating on the Space Shuttle during re-entry. - I was a member of an imaging team that worked with ground telescopes and airborne cameras (a Navy P-3) to look at the heating on the shuttle when it was flying as fast as Mach 18+. I helped coordinate the science and operations teams.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve encountered during your career in STEM?
Although most of my co-workers would probably not believe this, I am generally a pretty shy person and for me one of the most challenging aspects of my job is public speaking. Fortunately I've gotten lots of chances to practice it and feel like it's gets a little easier every time. It's important to be able to communicate effectively (both written and spoken) to get your ideas and information out to the rest of the community.
What do you think is the most exciting thing about having a career in STEM?
In my job I get to do new and exciting things all the time. For example, as the Principal Investigator for a flight experiment that flew on the Space Shuttle, I got to spend a lot of time at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers. Among other things, I got to climb inside one of the shuttles, watch the landings for two shuttles from along the runway and then inspect the shuttle on the runway right after landing and work with personnel in Mission Control. As part of the imaging team that was imaging the space shuttle heating during re-entry, I got to fly on a Navy P-3 and got to take a Navy water survival training class in order to qualify for the flight. The training class was almost as exciting as participating in the flight. I've learned that if there's an opportunity that you want to have, just ask or volunteer. The worst they can say is no, and I've been fortunate to hear a lot of yeses.
If you could give one piece of advice to a girl who is considering doing a Silver or Gold Award based on STEM or pursuing a career in STEM, what would that be?
Go for it! A Gold or Silver Award is a great way to get your feet wet in STEM. In college, make sure that you get involved in STEM, whether it's in research or clubs or co-oping/interning. When you're getting ready to move into the job market it will give you some great things to talk about in an interview and you'll meet a lot of amazing people. Co-oping or interning is probably the most important thing you can do (it led directly to my job!) and really gives you a step up when looking for a job. I think even more important, it lets you try out engineering and see if there are things that you really like, or really don't like to do. I originally thought I wanted to do design work but through co-oping learned that I didn't like that nearly as much as testing work.
Did you have STEM mentors?
My mom's background is in science and growing up we were always doing little science experiments - she was my first STEM mentor. My high school physics teacher was the first teacher to ever really tell me that I should be an engineer, and although I already had that in mind as a possibility, it was great to hear it from someone else. When I was in college I co-oped at NASA Langley Research Center and had some amazing mentors as co-workers. These were some of the leading people in their fields and I was still working on my bachelor's degree. I remember one day when I was a junior and one of my co-workers came to ask me questions about the work that I was doing. We had a discussion as two engineers and it was the first time that I realized I really was an engineer.
If you were a Girl Scout, what is your favorite Girl Scout memory?
I was a Girl Scout from elementary all the way through high school and have a bunch of great memories. My favorite things were probably hiking and camping and we did lots of those. It was great getting to do that stuff with friends that I had kept all through school.
If you were a Girl Scout, did Girl Scouting have an impact on your decision to pursue a career in STEM?
Since my mom was one of the troop leaders and had a background in science we did lots of science related activities in addition to the camping and hiking. I ended up doing a science related Gold Project for Girl Scouts too. I wrote a hands-on science kit focused on insects. Local teachers could check out for their classrooms and it included background information, research, reading, activity instructions and materials and ways for them to continue the learning in the classroom after they were done with the kit.