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Meet: Carolyn Mercer

Chief, Optical Instrumentation Technology Branch
NASA Lewis Research Center

My Job
I am an aerospace engineer and an optical engineer. I studied both aeronautics and optical physics, and I've spent most of my career inventing new ways to use lasers and light to measure aerodynamic properties like gas temperature and density. This is important because new aircraft designs must be tested to make sure they'll work. With lasers we can measure flows without disrupting them. Imagine trying to measure the velocity of wind going by your car window. You could stick a special probe called a pitot probe out the window to measure the pressure and infer the velocity (the old way), or you could shine a laser beam out the window and detect changes to the light to determine the velocity (the new way). There are pros and cons to both ways.

My job has been to improve the capability of optical measurement techniques to make them work better, last longer, and cost less. Specifically:

1) I have worked to measure the flow inside internal combustion engines (like in cars) to test designs for improving fuel economy.

2) I co-invented a way to use structured laser illumination to measure the shape of solid surfaces for manufacturing processes.

3) I invented a liquid crystal/laser device to measure fluid temperature, density, or concentration for microgravity science.

I currently manage a group of 13 researchers who are all inventing new ways to measure using optics. One person is inventing a way to measure the air velocity inside an aircraft engine compressor operating at very high speeds, and another person is trying to measure the surface pressure on ice shapes that grow on airplane wings. Others are measuring the chemical properties of combustion gases inside jet engines, developing electro-optic sensors for use on Mars, and inventing ways to use optical fibers to measure the health of aerospace engines.

My job is to make sure that the researchers are working on the right things to satisfy NASA's needs, doing a good job, and being rewarded for their work. I must secure the resources that the researchers need to do their jobs and provide career growth opportunities for them. In order to understand all parties' needs and capabilities, I meet with NASA program managers and managers in industry, as well as the researchers. I complete the necessary paperwork to let my senior management know what's going on and to give credit to the researchers. I serve on various review boards, and I make presentations to groups of people to let them know what we're up to.

My Career Journey
I must admit I never planned very far in advance for my career. In high school my favorite subject was Math, and I liked English and Current Events very much also. I thought I might become a lawyer or mathematician, but was attracted to engineering by winning scholarship money. I thought I'd just give it a try because I didn't really understand what engineering was and figured I'd switch to something else if it got boring. Well, it never got boring and here I am, still in engineering!

I got my job at NASA by first working as a summer student intern. I got that summer slot by listing "optics" as one of my interests. I'd read a book about holography in the library the week before I filled out the application form, and thought holography sounded like fun. NASA was looking for optical people then and there weren't many people trained in optics (there still aren't), so I got very lucky. I did a good job as a student worker and had good grades in school, so I was hired as a permanent employee after graduating with my Bachelor of Science degree. I worked for a year then went back to night school for my Master's. I didn't really want to go back to school, but there seemed to be so much to learn and there was a good program locally. That turned out to be a really good idea, because it made it easier to get my Doctoral degree. I went away to school for a year to study for the Doctoral degree, then did my research back at NASA. Regardless of what you may have heard, getting a Doctoral degree can be a lot of fun--at least it was for me. I really liked the subject matter and I found a department in a school that suited me very well. I had never really considered management. But when my boss retired, he recommended me as his replacement. I figured I'd try this too and, so far, so good!

Childhood Influences on my Career
As a child, I loved puzzles--mostly the "logical deduction" puzzles where you have to figure out who-sat-next-to-whom and what-they-wore given a series of facts. I also liked mechanical puzzles and "quickie mysteries." I loved to read, primarily literature. I liked to sew and to study foreign languages. I liked to ride my bike, ski, skateboard, and play with my friends. I liked card games, including solitaire. How does this relate to my current career? Don't try to link everything too closely, but I guess independent, primarily intellectual activity is a common thread. That's pretty much what I still do on a day-to-day basis.

Personal Influences on my Career
My parents always heavily emphasized school. That was my "job" and I was expected to do well. My Dad was the one who recommended engineering instead of math. I'm sorry to say that my professors were pretty passive, neither encouraging nor discouraging me. I got good grades though, and good scholarships. The scholarships were very influential in keeping me in engineering.

My advice is to study hard, to study subjects that interest you, and to study subjects that other people are willing to pay for. Don't study something that you think will make you a lot of money in the future if at least the first two of these criterions aren't met. The future is very unpredictable.

Personal Information
I've been married for 11 years and we have a two-year-old daughter named Claire. She stays home with her Daddy three days a week and stays with a friend two days a week. She's a beautiful child and we spend most of our free time with her, playing with her and taking her to parks and museums and shows and libraries and coffee shops and bookstores. Until Claire was born, I was a crew member on a J-24 sailboat. We raced twice a week on Lake Erie and did pretty well. I also like Tai Chi and yoga very much, as well as hiking and bike riding. I read a lot. I was on a Latin American novel kick for a while; "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is one of my favorite books. The last book I read was Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." I've never really liked science fiction because the characters seem so shallow, but this one was really good. When I was a kid I went to ski school every weekend through junior and senior high school. But I don't live near the mountains anymore, so I don't ski very much.


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