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Megan MacDonald

PhD ’12, Mechanical Engineering
Story originally published on Apr 2018
Do you remember the scene at the end of the movie Apollo 13 where the team at NASA was concerned that the astronauts might not make it back?

 They thought the shield that protected the spacecraft from atmospheric heating during re-entry to Earth had been damaged. I’m on a team at NASA that works to improve those heat shields.

My specialty is in testing. I work with a facility called an arc jet where we create an environment that is really hot, similar to the conditions experienced by a spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. We use this arc jet to test possible heat shield materials.

When I entered college, I didn’t have a grand plan that I followed to a T. I knew I wanted to work in aerospace, but I didn’t know precisely where I would focus. As an undergrad, I studied aircraft design. As a master’s student, I studied rocket propulsion. I spent two years running computational fluid dynamics simulations to get a better understanding of the physics of rocket engine injectors. It was during that time that I realized I would rather be doing experiments than working on computations. This led me to Stanford to do a PhD in mechanical engineering so I could better understand the workings of systems like spaceships and the components that make them up.

One of the biggest challenges I faced in my academic career were qualifying exams – I failed the first time around. After the exams, my professors told me that they knew I had all of the knowledge I needed, but that I just didn’t show it on the day of my exams. They told me to come back and try again, so I did. The second time around I realized how helpful it can be to study with other people instead of studying off by myself with my nose in a book. The support I found in study groups was huge. I learned a lot about leaning on my network in the face of failure through this experience and I passed my qualifying exams the second time around.

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