Interview with a ...
Professor of aerospace engineering
Bonnie Dunbar College Station, Texas
What do you do?
I’m an aerospace engineering research professor. I work on research and mentor graduate students, but I also give speeches and do symposiums. I deal with budgets, hire faculty, and serve on a committee.
There are a lot of elements to my work. Every day is different. Academia ensures that we educate the next generation of engineers and also continue the leading edge of research.
What kind of leading-edge research are you doing?
An area we desperately need research on for the future is advanced spacesuits. Not Hollywood-style astronaut clothing, but a suit designed for real human survival in an extreme environment. So when I was approached by my university and asked what I wanted to research, that’s what I identified.
When you see an astronaut working on the International Space Station, that suit is like a spacecraft in the shape of a human. What a spacecraft has in it, that suit has, too. The problem is that you have to be mobile in it and be able to work with it on, and it has to fit well. We’ve spent 50 years optimizing it, but there’s still room to improve.
What improvements are you focusing on?
We want to make spacesuits more mobile. We have to reduce the mass, reduce the volume of all the life support systems in the suit. It’s called the “portable life support system,” but it could be a whole lot more portable.
We’ve developed equations to model the dynamics of the motion of a person, and we have computer models that simulate soft tissue to predict injury. So we’ll be applying that research to the spacesuit to really enhance the design.
Where there’s no answer, that’s where we put the research. I define research as: you search and search for the answer, and you keep re-searching.
Tell me about your education and early career path.
I worked my way through college, first as a waitress, then at a canning plant. After I got my bachelor’s degree and was finally in a professional career, I was working for an aerospace manufacturing company and, for the first time, was earning a pretty good wage.
I had been in that job for about 2 years when one of the department chairs from my alma mater called. He knew I eventually wanted to be an astronaut and said, “We just got this NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] grant that involves a new concept, the space shuttle, and you ought to come back for your master’s degree.” Well, he’d said the magic word: NASA. So I went back and got my master’s degree.
Then I applied for the astronaut program and made the final 100 for the 1978 class, but I was not selected for that group. I looked at all the mission specialists who were selected and realized that they had doctoral or medical degrees. It was hard to compete if I didn’t have that.
NASA offered me a job at mission control, which I accepted. While I was working full time at NASA, I also went to school part time to get my Ph.D. and applied again—successfully, this time—to become an astronaut.
Bonnie Dunbar conducts experiments aboard a space shuttle. Photo courtesy of NASA.
How does your experience tie in with your current job?
In aerospace engineering, we come from three different sectors, and I’ve worked in all three. I worked in private industry, helping to build the space shuttle; I was in the federal government, working for NASA as an astronaut and an engineer; then there’s academia.
All three experiences have helped me to be a well-rounded professor. The fact that I worked in industry and government gives me a better perspective for my students. I can talk about what the expectations are from industry or tell them about what I did in the government and how projects and research are funded. And my doctoral degree taught me how to do research.
What advice do you give your students?
Communication skills are mandatory. When you go into companies as an engineer, you have to be able to communicate orally and in writing. Yes, there are engineers who don’t communicate well, but they also don’t progress as well. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate it to anyone, it’s not going to go anywhere.
Also, always try to learn from failure. Perseverance and commitment are helpful, but a willingness to learn from failure is critical. Many of our young people have, first of all, a real reluctance to admit something went wrong; and second, a real defensiveness about it. But there will be failures, so learn from them and don’t get defensive about them. Talk about mistakes so you can share experiences.
When did you learn to look at failure as something positive?
I’m the daughter of a farmer and rancher, so I learned that early on. You don’t have 100 percent success in farming and ranching, but you always try to learn from failure.
NASA was always transparent about its failures. Ever since the beginning of the space program, any time we conducted a mission, we always conducted a “lessons learned” session afterward. We would talk about what failed and why it failed, and we’d get to the root cause: whether it was hardware, software, crew training, whatever. We documented all of that and carried it forward from flight to flight. I think that process contributed to the success of programs, because we didn’t keep repeating past failures.
What do you like most about teaching?
If I can touch at least one student’s life and get him or her excited about learning—engineering in particular—that’s very gratifying. That’s what education is all about. Throughout human history, it’s always been about educating the next generation. If we didn’t educate, we’d be back in caves.
What do you find challenging?
As an aerospace engineer, the challenges can be technical. But as a professor, you may deal with budget and management issues, and there’s great satisfaction in being able to work through these challenges successfully.
I don’t look at challenges as a negative, though. For me, it’s a question of attitude. If there weren’t challenges, you wouldn’t learn. You learn to work through them to get to a better place. A challenge, as my dad would say, is an opportunity in disguise.