Published March 31, 2023
A few years after graduating from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Jessica Allen secured a position as a project engineer on the NASA Cold Stowage team, helping to provide temperature-controlled environments for the International Space Station (ISS) program. Now, she is on her way to making history as the first woman to be certified in Cold Stowage for Real-Time Operations.
UB interviewed Allen, who graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, about her role and experience working with NASA, and her advice for women pursuing a career in engineering.
You currently work for NASA. Can you tell us more about your role?
I work on the Cold Stowage team. Our team transports temperature-controlled science experiments to the ISS via SpaceX and Northrup-Grumman launches. We handle temperatures ranging from 37 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit) down to minus 95 degrees Celsius (minus 139 degrees Fahrenheit)!
Once the science is unloaded from the capsule, the astronauts will perform the experiments. They then store it in special fridges, freezers or incubators designed for cold stowage. After that, a SpaceX capsule will bring the science back down to Earth, where our team will work with the science teams to distribute it. We also get to load our hardware into the capsules for launch. It’s neat to be so close to and see inside something that will go to space in a few hours!
What inspired you to become an engineer?
My first involvement with engineering was in high school. My school offered some pre-engineering elective courses called Project Lead the Way. These were a variety of basic courses that helped students to understand what an engineer does and learn what skills someone would need to become an engineer, such as CAD designing, basic electric breadboard work, and civil works designing of bridges, dams, etc. This provided my first understanding of things I may need to learn to become and engineer.
However, what first got me excited about engineering is a little more goal driven. Growing up, I used to watch the Travel and Discovery Channel specials on how engineers designed theme parks and rides, specifically at Disney. Going to these places and seeing the background of how it was done was really exciting. From there, I wanted to be an engineer to help be part of designing some of those thrilling moments and special memories!
You're on your way to making history as the first woman to be certified in Cold Stowage for Real-Time Operations. What has that experience been like for you?
It’s been very exciting and a little intimidating at the same time! I’ve been on the team for several years now and have always had interactions with the Real-Time Operations team and its processes. This has helped greatly with jumping into the deep end of training. I know the operations team well, so this makes the training process much more comfortable.
As people can imagine, NASA uses several computer programs and monitoring sequences. Learning all the ways we monitor hardware on that ground and what’s active on the ISS has been a new process for me. I’ve also learned how to remote into our units to do commanding to change temperatures.
Another new thing is talking on voice loops. This is a system we use to talk to various flight support positions at NASA on the ground, as well as communicate in real time with the astronauts on the ISS. If you can picture how everyone was talking with headsets in the mission control room in the movie “Apollo 13,” it’s not that far off from that!
Overall, the training experience has been enlightening. To get fully certified for Real-Time Operations, an engineer needs to sit for many simulations. This involves being on the voice loops, having our hardware displays up and handling multiple problems along the way for several hours. Everyone that is talking that day on those loops is also training, and there are actually many women who are involved. It’s great to see that we have a big presence, and more women are training to be at the forefront of NASA!
What made you choose UB for your bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering?
I’m originally from Rochester, and I wanted to be able to go to a different city for college. As soon as I visited UB, I knew this was where I wanted to be. The school is large, very welcoming and offers everything a student could want. There are a ton of opportunities in terms of both scholarly activities and student life. The UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is an excellent offering at state tuition prices and has a national network for finding a job post-graduation.
How did your experience as a student at UB impact your career?
As I mentioned, UB is a large school with a ton of opportunities. I was able to get involved with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and do summer engineering Co-Ops that gave me real working experience and at the same time make lifelong UB friends! When I was at UB, there was a giant engineering career fair. This was an amazing chance to go and see what jobs were available both locally and nationally. That job fair was how I was able to move down to Houston. It opened up the doors for multiple offers from different companies, too. With everything UB had to offer, it was a great opportunity to multitask and learn early about work-life balance. Through my Co-Op experience, I was already familiar, too, with how a professional office setting worked.
What advice do you have for women who are interested in or are currently pursuing a career in engineering?
I think things we don’t know about can be overwhelming. Prior to coming to NASA, I had never worked in the field of space or aeronautics. It can be intimidating doing something new. Plus, we always want to do things the best we can on our first try and that can be hard, especially when it comes to starting a new field in engineering.
My “big dream” of designing rides seemed to be daunting at first, but I think the key is to take small steps and break things down easier. Then, it doesn’t seem like that big dream or task is too far out of reach. Also, I recommend getting involved in other non-academic or engineering events! Volunteering is a great way to expand your horizons while doing something fun. I’ve volunteered for things ranging from an animal shelter to the Houston Super Bowl!