Meet the IBEX Team: Jennifer Crock
For Jennifer Crock, the biggest obstacle to getting a degree in engineering wasn't the challenging coursework - it was the doubt from the people around her that she should attempt to pursue an engineering career.
"There is a perception that to be an engineer, you have to be a complete brainiac," Jen said. "I didn't have perfect SAT scores, and most people thought I was crazy when I told them what I wanted to do. It is a misconception that you have to be an 'A' kid to be an engineer. If it's something you really want to do and you have a passion for it, you'll do well at it." Jen ignored others' doubts, graduating with an aerospace engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Originally from a small town in Connecticut, Jen always wanted to be an engineer. "Being able to take an idea and then make it a drawing, and then make it real, interested me in engineering. I used to hang out with my dad, who does a lot of woodworking for the sets for his model trains, and it was cool to see him turn his ideas into something practical. I used to borrow his tools and take my bike apart and put it together again, so being able to do something with my hands, combined with always liking math and science, made engineering seem like a natural fit," she said.
Jen chose to study aerospace engineering when she took her first plane ride at age 15. She decided to focus on the "space" side of aerospace engineering as an undergraduate at WPI. "One of my college professors used to work with NASA, and got me interested in electric propulsion. I've been interested in space and space propulsion ever since," Jen said.
Today, Jen is a program manager for ATK, an advanced weapons and space systems company, which is responsible for the solid rocket motor that will propel the IBEX spacecraft into space. "My job as program manager is to make sure that we deliver what's in our contract and to be the liaison between ATK and our customers. I make sure [the motor] meets all of our contractual, quality, schedule, and ATK requirements. I run a multi-disciplinary team, and have all sorts of folks who work together to get the motor built and get it out the door," she said.
This month, Jen and her team completed the successful testing of a motor identical to the one that will power IBEX. "[The motor] is made of solid propellant, so you can only turn it on once. For this program, we built two of them - one used in flight, and an identical one that we test fire here to verify the design and performance," she said.
Next, the team will analyze data from the test, and work with Orbital Sciences Corporation to determine the final weight of the propellant. Then, they will finish assembling the motor before shipping it to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it will be installed in March.
Jen says that creating the IBEX motor requires precision and perfection: "Sometimes it can be stressful to work on a product [like the motor] because you can't test it before shipping it to the customer; everything has to be perfect. It takes a lot of effort to make sure that that happens, because you don't get a second chance once the motor and spacecraft are in space."
In spite of the occasional high-pressure project, Jen loves her job. "I've gotten to do some really cool things! I've worked on propulsion that has sent the Mars rovers into space. One of our STAR 48B motors recently became the fastest man-made object ever launched when it propelled the New Horizons spacecraft on its way to Pluto." she said. Her co-workers and customers also make her job pleasant. "Everyone I work with is really passionate about what they are doing. They are excited all the time. It is great to interact with lots of different people from different organizations. Engineering isn't just about making hardware."
Her job duties are also interesting. "There really is no such thing as a typical day. Usually, I start it off with a walkthrough of the production areas to take a look at the hardware and see how things are going. I talk with the technicians, and then I'll go through and review all the work that's in process to make sure it's on schedule and that we don't have any quality or technical issues. Then, I'll check on the financial status of the project and keep my management up to date. I also brief my customer on the status of the program to ensure that their overall program stays on track. A fair portion of the day is spent identifying new opportunities for our products on new programs. That involves networking, responding to inquiries from potential customers, writing proposals, and going to customer sites and NASA centers to brief them on new technologies," Jen said.
As a college student, Jen never expected that an engineering career could be so varied. She said, "I found that you can do a lot more with a science, math, or engineering background than just designing things with nuts and bolts. I always imagined myself designing hardware, but now I'm in a manager role. I am still involved in making technical decisions, but I also am responsible for the business side of things, and getting out and interfacing with people, which I didn't expect [to do as an engineer] but have really enjoyed."
Even though she did not anticipate doing so much communication and business as an engineer, her education at WPI armed her with all the skills she needs to fulfill her job duties. "Everything we did in college was team-based and multi-discipline, ranging from our everyday class work to the three projects that are required for graduation. So I was accustomed to that already. The project work that we did wasn't textbook work, so you learned as you went, which is how the real world works - you don't always know the outcome. WPI prides itself on turning out well rounded engineers, so developing communication skills is incorporated into the program. I do a lot of writing, speaking and presentations in my job, so that background has really helped," she said.
At ATK, managing teams, solving problems, and communicating with colleagues keeps Jen busy, but she still finds time to pursue hobbies outside of engineering. "When I'm not at work, I'm chasing after my two energetic boys, ages 6 and 3. I am involved with the children's ministry at my church, like to paint watercolors, play softball, and to golf with my husband," she said.