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Meet: Kathleen Fikentscher

Test Engineer, 12' Wind Tunnel
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

Who am I

Right now I am in training to be a test engineer. I was hired at NASA Ames Research Center in June, after graduation from college. As a test engineer I will have two roles: the shift engineer role and the test engineer role. Right now I am training as the shift engineer. When there is a shift going on in the wind tunnel I am the person that everyone goes to; I am the interaction point between the tunnel operators and the computer people and the instrumentation people and the customer or researcher. I also interact with the test manager who has developed the test.

After I have experience as a shift manager I will be trained as a test manager. The test manager meets with the user and plans the test. We test scale models of actual aircraft inside the wind tunnel to ensure they are flight worthy.

My Career Path

When I was ten years old my family and I took a trip to Kennedy Space Center. That is when I first began to dream about a career in aviation and aerospace.

My senior year in high school I had an English assignment requiring me to compose a resume as if I had graduated from college and was looking for my first job. On the resume I claimed to be a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., (the number one supplier of aerospace engineers and one of the top 25 engineering schools in the world), seeking a position as an aerospace engineer, Wind Tunnel Testing. Under "Accomplishments and experience," I claimed to have received a grant from NASA to perform tests in wind tunnels. Without realizing it I was plotting a course for the future.

In August 1993 I joined approximately 100 other freshmen in the program. Less than 15 percent of my classmates were women. Only one of three students was expected to graduate. I knew it was going to be hard, but I had no idea how hard.

During my senior year I began to focus on aircraft design. Once you can put it all into the big picture, you realize that everything you learned actually does have a purpose. "It actually fits together!"

During my junior year at ERAU, I was selected as one of three students to work with the Chair of the Aerospace Engineering Department at ERAU on a NASA research grant. My research to improve certain techniques used in wind tunnel testing resulted in a paper entitled "Optimization of the Helium Bubble Flow Visualization Technique."

I presented the paper at the AIAA Student Conference at California Polytechnic State University in March 1996, and at the NASA Space Grant Symposium at the University of Arizona in April 1996. I also presented at the Pacific Symposium of Flow Visualization and Image Processing in Hawaii. Of the 130 presenters representing 17 countries, six were women, and 20 were from the United States. All had a Ph.D., or were in the final stages of getting one. I was the only undergraduate. It was a very exciting experience because I was introduced to so many people from around the world and to so many different things.

Career Likes

I think the positive parts of my job are seeing the test go on and the interaction with the other people. The negative part is when we have a problem. Yesterday we hit a problem and now we are waiting on a part and for two days there is nothing to do. I don't do well when I can't be busy.


If you want something and you're really interested in it, go for it. Even if someone tells you no. They can't push you back any further than where you are. You can't lose anything. You can only gain. You shouldn't give up. It can get very hard, but keep pushing If you have a goal or a dream, you should really work for it.


After my first year in college I found my studies so difficult. I was considering not going back, but my advisor Dr. David McMaster encouraged me to come back and keep trying. In the end I finished in four years instead of the normal five.

Personal Information

I was a gymnast for a few years. I practiced three hours a day. I like outdoor activities, skiing and swimming. In college I did gymnastics coaching. I would like to do that again but not until I figure out what my schedule is going to be with school. For now I am shopping and planning to move into an apartment with a co-worker. Right now I'm staying with my aunts.

My immediate goal is to be a test engineer. Ultimately, I would like to do research. I plan to start in January getting my masters at San Jose State University and then on to Stanford University for a Ph.D.


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