Missouri-Rolla graduate student interns with NASA

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

ROLLA, Mo. -- Lucie Johannes isn't a rocket scientist; she is the person the rocket scientists go to for help figuring out what went wrong.

Johannes did failure analysis for NASA from August to December, a job that required a vast knowledge of material science, engineering and metallurgy.

"A lot of the time people come to us with questions," Johannes said. "In my branch we do various odds and ends. There is only one materials branch so we do a wide variety of processes."

The 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Missouri-Rolla has spent four semesters with NASA as part of the Cooperative Education program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program hires undergraduate and graduate students as interns for several semesters. Participants gain valuable real-world work experience while showing the agency what they can do.

"The first time I went, I was pretty scared," Johannes said. "I was a little unsure. NASA has such a reputation. I was a little concerned I wasn't capable of handling the work they do. But they obviously know you are part of a program and they help you figure things out."

In her latest tour with NASA, Johannes worked in the materials and processing branch of the structural engineering division doing failure analysis on items from space shuttles, the International Space Station and ground support equipment. She examined a harness for a pre-breathe mask for space walk activity, a pressure regulator casing and a latch pin from an oven door.

"It was a lot different than I expected," Johannes said about working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "I expected white walls and stainless steel. But the place was built in the 1960s and doesn't look that institutional."

Johannes did her first tour with NASA in the fall of 1999 as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Rolla, then completed two more tours in the spring and summer of 2001.

After graduating from Rolla, where she studied metallurgical engineering, Johannes went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn a masters degree in material science and engineering, turning down a full-time job offer from NASA.

Then she decided to go back to Rolla to earn a doctorate in metallurgical engineering while also returning to the NASA co-op program for two more tours. She will complete her last internship with NASA this summer.

"The best part is I feel like I'm making a difference," Johannes said. "They respect my opinion in getting my job done. First, I was considered a co-op and now after I got a few degrees, they respect my opinion, which means a lot. They have some of the best working for them."

A 1997 Jefferson City High School graduate, Johannes became interested in science during high school. She refined her interest after participating in a two-week engineering program. She settled on metallurgical engineering because it was a nice blend of chemical and mechanical engineering.

Johannes hopes to work for NASA after earning her Ph.D. in May 2006. While her experience through the co-op program will help her in the hiring process, it does not guarantee her a job.

However, Johannes thinks work experience is invaluable for any college student.

"Work experience is my No. 1 piece of advice," Johannes said. "Challenge yourself and you will have one up on someone else. Try working in different areas and do the best you can."

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