IFLScience Meets: Taryn Bailey On Mars Helicopters And Why You Don't Have To Be A Mathlete To Work For NASA

'I’m still learning something new every day. And the trick is to be open to it.' Image courtesy of Taryn Bailey

Taryn Bailey is a mechanical engineer working for NASA and is currently working as part of the team on Ingenuity (the Perseverance Mars rover’s helicopter pal which will hopefully take flight on April 19 after a short delay). Bailey describes her work a bit like a puzzle, being responsible for interpreting how a satellite or robot needs to be put together in order to function on another planet. Here, she demonstrates how enthusiasm can create opportunities and why you should never rule out your dream job just because you don’t love math.

What did it take to get here?

Fortunately, I went to a good high school in Montgomery County, MD that developed a strong work ethic in me and prepared me for the challenges of a college curriculum. I initially went to Goucher College to study physics and decided I’d prefer learning more application-based engineering, so I transferred schools. After my sophomore year I transferred to Columbia University in NYC, and graduated with my Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. Over the course of my college career, I did internships in material physics at the University of Florida as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) as well as an internship at a NASA affiliated aerospace company in Maryland called Genesis Engineering Solutions. Some of my hobbies include art, dance, and sports. I grew up with these hobbies and maintain them in my adult life.

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

If you’ve ever wondered how things are put together, that’s what a mechanical engineer does. I’m a mechanical engineer that works specifically with devices we put in space and on other planets like satellites, robots, and now helicopters. I help build these structures to collect science that will ultimately give us better knowledge of our solar system.

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

I think a common misconception is that you have to be a genius to work as an engineer, particularly in this industry. Of course, there are many brilliant people that I am lucky to call my colleagues, but that’s not necessarily everyone’s story. When I tell people I’m an engineer, they say “you must be good at math.” And although that may be true now, I actually had a difficult time with math when I was younger. I needed extra help and tutoring. It didn’t come to me naturally and I had to work hard at it. It wasn’t really until I went to college that I felt strong in my capabilities to do this type of work; and that came from hard work, asking for help, and being determined to figure it out. Funnily enough, my sister is faster at doing calculations off the top of her head than I am and she works in a completely different industry – corporate retail.

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