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Meet: Suzanne McCollum

Payload Project Manager for Neurolab
Johnson Space Center

photo of suzanne mccollum


Who I am:

I am the JSC Payload Project Manager for Neurolab, which means I am responsible for all of the human life sciences experiments on board the Neurolab mission (those that use the astronauts as test subjects). Since the human experiments are developed and managed at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), the team working on them is commonly referred to as the "JSC Project." I always thought NASA was cool and interesting growing up, but never thought I'd end up working here.

What I do:

Several years ago, NASA put out an "Announcement of Opportunity" and investigators from all over the world proposed experiments to fly on the Neurolab mission. NASA Headquarters, through a peer and scientific review process, selected certain experiments to fly on this mission. Once the experiments were selected, we here at the Johnson Space Center were assigned the human experiments and began the process of working with the investigators to develop and implement their experiments.

I am responsible for managing the team of people here at JSC that gets to figure out how to do the experiments the investigators proposed in space. We have to figure out what types of equipment they need, how we can build it so it will work safely in space, how it will fit within the Spacelab module, and also how much it will cost. We then go off and build the hardware, test it to make sure it all works as it's supposed to for the experiment, train the astronauts on how to use the hardware and perform the experiments, and integrate the hardware into the Spacelab. I don't actually do the designing, testing, and crew training; my job is to look after all of these activities and make sure they're kept on schedule, within the budget we are given by NASA Headquarters, and that they stay within the resources given to all the human experiments (like storage space in the Spacelab, power, and crew time).

I also serve as the point of contact to the Mission Manager and others for the whole JSC project. Though I have an engineering degree, I don't do hard core engineering like crunching numbers. But, I need to have an engineering degree to do this job so I can understand what the JSC project team is doing and to make sure the whole project is coming together properly. One thing this job has taught me is that there is much more to being an engineer than math and science - you really need to know how to write and communicate well with others.

My Career Journey

I prepared for my career by obtaining my bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering, at the University of Colorado - Boulder. I chose this degree from a process of elimination, as it seemed the most interesting at the time. As a freshman in college, I read an article on life science applications and microgravity research - which I found quite interesting.

As my school did not have a program in bioengineering, I took extra classes in biology and chemistry to enhance my engineering with life sciences. It seems the only place that does life science type research in space is NASA, so I looked into internships. This resulted in my discovering the Cooperative Education Program here at NASA, which is where you take off school for a semester to work, then go back to school, and continue alternating like that until you graduate.

I started my first semester at NASA (we call them "tours") in the spring of my sophomore year. I went back to school in the summer, returned to co-op for NASA in the fall, back to school the next spring, then co-oped at NASA the following summer. I spent my whole senior year at college and once I graduated I came to work for NASA, which I couldn't have done without co-oping. The co-op program is an outstanding program for students. It is great to co-op as it gives you a break from school, a chance to earn money, and also gives insight into what it's really like in the work world. It is an opportunity to find something you really like, and for me it provided a year's worth of work experience (along with my degree) when I graduated.

Influences

I sort of followed in my dad's footsteps, as he is an electrical engineer for Lockheed Martin - I also have an older brother who is an engineer. I was fortunate to have several good math, science and English teachers, though all my teachers were good. I had a good education. Both my parents were always very supportive of whatever I chose to do and always encouraged me to do my best. They gave me the confidence to know I could do anything I set my mind to and made sure I never gave up.

Likes/Dislikes about career

I really like working with all kinds of different people - on Neurolab I have been able to meet people from all over the world, since we are using hardware that other countries' space agencies have built and we also have investigators from all over the world. I also like the fact that my job is never routine or boring. It is different every day, because the experiments evolve over time, never staying the same. What I like least about my job is being responsible for the budget and its limitations, although it is a necessary part of my job.

Advice

One thing I'd like to tell students is to always keep all your options open. It is good to have goals, but don't get so narrow-minded that you miss out on other unexpected opportunities. This is important, regardless of whatever age you are. I am a perfect example of this, having decided late in high school that I wanted to be an engineer and not a musician! If I hadn't kept taking math and science throughout high school, I could have closed that door forever and not be where I am now. Don't be afraid to explore all your options in deciding on your future and be sure not to close any doors!

Personal Information

I grew up in Parker, Colorado, which is southeast of Denver. I lived there from the time I was in 5th grade until I moved to Boulder for college. Living close to mountains was wonderful, allowing me to enjoy hiking and camping, which I love. I can snow ski, but it's not one of my favorite activities. I love music, and play the piano and the organ. I like the organ best, because it makes a greater variety of sounds (and lots of noise!). As a child, I wanted to be a professional musician playing the organ at church. When I was a junior in high school, I completely changed my mind and decided on engineering instead. I figured I could keep my music as a hobby and not as how I earn my living.

I now live in the Clear Lake area of Houston. I recently got married, and my husband Brady and I have one dog named Gatsby. I adopted Gatsby from the Houston Humane Society six years ago when he was six months old. He looks part German Shepherd and part Chow, but I'm not sure exactly what kind he is. He's pretty big - about 70 pounds, and I love to take him for walks and play with him in the yard - sometimes he can catch a Frisbee! I also love to read and have always been a bookworm since I was a kid. I loved to read all the time. Now I enjoy reading anything intriguing sci fi, mystery, and everything by Stephen King. I also love to travel to see new and interesting places, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Brady and I went to New Zealand on our honeymoon, and we're looking forward to many more exciting trips together. I also like to travel with just my girl friends and will keep that up even though I'm married now. My favorite food is cheese, and I love anything with cheese in it.

My family

My parents now live in Virginia and my dad still works for Lockheed-Martin. I do have one brother who lives in League City. He has two kids. When my family gets together, the activities we all enjoy are eating, watching college football, and playing cards.

Future plans and goals

Personal
I want to become more active in my church again, as my job has kept me pretty busy. I used to be very active in my church, serving as a deacon for three years. I am also on my church's environmental committee. I would also like to get back into my music more. I have an organ at home, and as practice makes perfect, I'm getting pretty rusty. I feel as if I'm losing my ability from not playing.

Career/professional I really wish I could speak another language. With Neurolab, I have worked with people from other countries - Canadians, French, Germans, and other Europeans. They all speak excellent English, but I can't speak any other language and I really wish I could so I could speak to at least some of them in their native language as opposed to mine. If I ever make up my mind on what language I'd like to learn, I'd like to take some classes.

Right now I am very focused on Neurolab, getting it finished and it being successful. After that, I'm looking forward to working on STS-95 where one of the Neurolab experiments will be reflown with Senator John Glenn as one of the subjects. I also look forward to working on implementing life science experiments on the International Space Station.


 
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