PNAS: Evie Marom, Aerospace Engineer

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Evie Marom, an honest-to-God rocket scientist at SpaceDev.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I'm an Aerospace Engineer at a rocket and satellite company called SpaceDev. The company was recently acquired by a much larger company called SNC. (Everything I say in here will be referring to the 3+ yrs I spent at SpaceDev prior to the acquisition, cause who knows how things may change now.)

So SpaceDev is best known for providing the rocket motor that propelled SpaceShipOne to space, becoming the first private space transportation system back in 2004. This was before my time, I started working there mid 2005, and was happy to meet all the really fun smart people who made up the propulsion team.

What I do varies depending on the project of course, but the main things are:

  • Designing, building and implementing data acquisition and control systems for sub scale rocket motor testing and large scale rocket motor testing, this enables me to be the one that presses the FIRE, and sometimes ABORT! buttons. Very exciting.
  • Hybrid fuel mixing - loads of fun, kinda messy, slippery at times.
  • Coming up with and experimenting with new fuel compositions - it's a dirty job.
  • Outfitting whatever tests need to happen with instrumentation, wiring testing hardware, writing support software, could be testing in a thermal chamber, vacuum chamber, thermal-vac, anything.
  • Composites - Trying to figure out how to make really good rocket motor nozzles.
  • ProE - Designing whatever parts I think need to be made.
  • Presentations of progress/issues, talking to vendors, talking to customers.
  • Last but not least, documentation and user manuals.. yup, very important part.

Working at a smaller company has allowed me to try a lot of different things that I doubt Id ever be allowed near in a larger firm. It has been an incredible learning experience, I mean every day you learn new things from running into issues that don't even make sense, but sure do happen all the time in the real world, I must say that on the average week of work Ill probably learn more than in 5 months worth of school... but the school background is absolutely necessary and hugely useful.

2) What is your science background?

I am a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Florida, am halfway through my MS in Mechanical Engineering. Prior to that, I was a chemistry major in high school and had some astronomy knowledge from volunteer work at various observatories. Every bit of knowledge I have ever come across has proved to be useful. I had some part time summer jobs that involved soldering, wiring and such, and wow those are super handy!

3) What led you to this job?

Luck. I had actually just started my MS in Mechanical Engineering, this was around the time that the Ansari X prize was going on, I remember the first time I saw the discovery channel Dark sky documentary. I was in love. The next day at the lab where I worked, I told everyone that Id do anything to work with those guys. Luckily for me, I didn't have to do much at all. Out of the blue I got an email from SpaceDevs HR guy asking if Id like to do a phone interview. Im pretty sure it was april fools day.. so naturally I assumed someone was playing a mean trick on me. I was wrong. Turns out my buddy from undergrad had gotten a job there and they asked him if he knew any other new grads, so he gave them my resume. This was my dream job, working on commercialization of space.. so that I can go to the moon one day! There was no way I could have turned this down. So I quit the MS program, and moved to CA.

4) What's your work environment like?

This varies pretty much on a daily basis, which to me is great. The main office is of course the typical cube farm, with the additional clean room, electronics lab, vacuum chamber area, machine shop. That's where the meetings and routine stuff takes place. Im not sure why I call it routine, since I spend less time there than anywhere else. Most of my time is spent either at the warehouse facility, where the sub scale rocket motor testing, fuel mixing and larger machining goes on, or out in the field, where the large full scale rocket motors are tested, and by field I mean, rocks, sand, wild life.. I got bit by a spider out there once, but that's another story.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

This really depends on what project Im working on. If it's an 'office' day, Ill be programming, going over data, writing documentation, attending meetings, but that's not so typical for me. In all likelihood Ill be dressed in long pants, hiking boots, and possibly a hard hat, and be out in the field programming, testing out software/hardware configs, wiring, climbing scaffolding to adjust camera angles, anything you can think of in preparation for a motor firing. Its fun.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I'd be lost without it. Like I said before, every piece of info I have ever come across has proved to be really useful in one situation or another. After all it is rocket science!

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Without a doubt, hands on experience, is the best way to go. If youre into machining, go volunteer at the shop and learn all you can from the old guy that probably runs it whos got a lifetime of experience with this stuff. Find a research lab at your university that's doing something youre interested in and get involved, even if its only a couple of hours a week, and even if it not in your department or even college! All experience is good, its definitely worth it. The lab classes youll take are the best place to start.
Also, you gotta remember, when someone goes to hire you, they have to like you, they want to be able to get along with you. After all, theyre gonna be spending more time with you than with their own family and friends.. so, be a team player, know how to take direction, be confident and assertive, and don't be confrontational. Theyre hiring a person.. not a GPA or report card. And girls, confidence goes a very long way, don't feel like its harder for your cause it's a boys world.. you can make it happen, don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise. However, from my experience, if the men around are from the old school all boys club, don't try to make friends with them, its just not worth your time, do your job, do it well, and pay no attention to their demeanor, theyre not always trying to be condescending.. they've just been doing it for so long, its become a habit. And I must say, with the younger generation, meaning the 40-50 manager types, Ive never had any issues, in fact turns out its been easier on me, cause the younger guys don't feel the need to assert themselves with me, Im not perceived as a threat, so there are none of the ego games that often arise between the males.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

Everything can be done! The more you know, the more ways to do it will appear, and the more likely one of those ways will be feasible, using the stuff you've got to work with.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Volunteer, the more stuff you've got on your resume the better. The more hands on experience, the better. Don't be too dead set on one particular job, that might close the door on other really interesting opportunities.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

When I began working there, all the new hires started out at 55k, it was slightly lower than standard, but I think that's expected when working in this field at a small company. Raises came every year, and I think were now on par with industry standard. No doubt there are benefits and draw backs to working at larger firms vs. smaller companies, really depends whats more important to you at the time.

If anyone is about to go interview and would like to hear about my experience with that, or has any other questions, you're welcome to contact me. I'm on twitter-

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I am a "university type" now, but I spent years (15) working for Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. I have a BS in physics, an MS in both Physics and Meteorology, and a PhD in physics (general relativity). I have found that the (not necessarily) biggest difference between the 2 cultures is...variety. At Lockheed I was expected to "wear a lot of different hats", whereas in the university environment one is quickly pigeon - holed into a particular area. As far as the pursuit of funding is concerned, I don't see much difference.