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.

Proudest/funniest moment on the job?

My proudest moment is ongoing over these last couple weeks. As we step closer to our first flight and see all the milestones we as a team have accomplished, I feel incredibly proud. A lot of my work was in assembling the flight vehicle as well as the Base Station electronics box which resides on the Rover and is how we communicate with the Helicopter. Knowing that everything is functioning nominally gives me great joy!

A moment though that stands out to me is when I first joined the team. After one of our general group meetings, two members of the Helicopter team, Joshua Ravich and Steve Yows, asked if there was anyone available and interested in joining. There was a lot of work and not much man-power and all of this was before we became officially onboarded to the Mars 2020 mission. Me being the young, plucky engineer that I was, eagerly and naively raised my hand because it was such a cool project. After our group meeting, I saw them waiting for me at the end of the hallway, arms folded, and pretend serious looks on their face, jokingly taunting me. But they welcomed me in with open arms and I haven’t looked back since.

Memorable misstep/hairiest moment on the job?

An issue arose during fabrication where one of the electronics boards was damaged. At that time, schedule was very tight and we were nearly finished with the assembly until this problem arose. We had to investigate the cause of the problem, analyze the impact, and find a solution very quickly. Since I was responsible for this assembly, I had to lead the charge on how to tackle the problem and what steps to take, so I consulted with my peers and worked with the team to figure it out. Ultimately, we came through on the other side and were able to deliver on time successfully.

What do you never leave the house without/what’s your most treasured piece of kit?

Airpods, headphones, wired earbuds. Doesn’t matter, but I love listening to music and podcasts and need my earbuds before I leave the house.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

I think for most of us, it's easy to allow small excuses born out of fear to get in the way of pursuing something. For me I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to pursue this career, but I used college as a real test to see if this career was for me. Now that I work at JPL, it may seem like the hardest part is over, but in fact I’m still learning something new every day. And the trick is to be open to it. Of course, I still find it can be intimidating, but I don’t let that doubt inhibit me. I use it to fuel me to work harder. Building one’s confidence comes from surrounding yourself with a good support system, working hard, relying on your peers, and your gained experience. Space exploration especially is a team effort. Any dream you want to pursue don't let fear stop you from pursuing it. Just take that first step and keep going.

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