Meet: Suzanne McCollum
Payload Project Manager for Neurolab
Johnson Space Center
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.
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.
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!
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
Ð 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 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
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.