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Meet Dawn McIntosh

Photo of Dawn McIntosh

Astrophysicist

Career Fact Sheet Print Version

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"The challenge of discovering something new...
It's so fun and frustrating, exciting and irritating. It takes a long time,
but it's also the best feeling in the world..."

Who I Am and What I Do
I'm an Engineer. The group I work with does work with both the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. I'm working on a 3D simulator of one of the labs on the ISS. Scientists will be able to prepare a science experiment, practice it with the simulator, and save it to be used by the astronauts for training. Then the astronauts can show up, watch the scientist's version of the experiment, and practice it themselves. There's also a 2D simulator that they can bring up to the ISS with them. They can use it for review before actually running the experiment. Others in my group are working to improve the docking between the ISS and the Space Shuttle.

The things I like the best and least about my job are the same: I like and dislike the challenge of discovering something new. It's so fun and frustrating, exciting and irritating to figure out how to make a computer program do what you want, or analyze data and find out something you didn't know before. It takes a long time to learn something new, and that's hard for me, I like instant answers (those don't happen very often). But it's also the best feeling in the world when you finally figure it out. Not only am I relieved to have information after a long struggle, but I'm thrilled with the new information itself.

Growing Up
I grew up in Santa Clara, CA. That's right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. I've spent my whole life in Silicon Valley. And I've been to a bunch of schools: Lakewood Elementary, Bishop Elementary, Eisenhower Elementary, Hyde Junior High, Cupertino High, De Anza Junior College, San Francisco State University, San Jose State University, and finally Stanford University. Can you tell that I've moved a lot?

In grade school I could never decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. It changed all the time: gymnast, fire fighter, author, astronaut. In Junior High, I liked Computers the most, and Math second best. And in High School, it was English. I was never one of those people who know their whole life what they want to be. Just because you don't like science now, or think it's hard, stick with it, you might decide later that it's exactly what you want to do.

As a kid, I liked to read every single book I could get my hands on. In grade school, I got really good grades. It was easy for me, and I felt very lucky. Then when I got to junior high, school became much harder and I didn't do so well. Worse, I didn't know how to ask my teachers and parents for help studying. I struggled for a long time, and my parents and teachers did help me—even though I didn't ask, and what I discovered was that I didn't become stupid, like I thought, I just had never learned how to study. I'm still learning. Studying math is very different than studying English. And since there are lots of things I still want to learn, I have to figure out how to study better all the time.

Career Journey
When I was in Junior College, I had no idea what to do for a career. I liked English, Shakespeare, Photography, Ceramics, and Math. Science was OK, but not my favorite. One of my friends talked me into taking a basic astronomy course, even though I didn't need it to graduate. I fell in love with the class. (My friend dropped it). I knew in that class that I wanted to learn everything I could about Astronomy.

I got my Bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University in Astrophysics. That means I studied both Physics and Astronomy. I started my Masters program in Physics at San Jose State University, but I later decided to switch to Engineering at Stanford. When I finished my Bachelor's Degree, I applied for a job at NASA Ames as a contractor. I was hired by the Earth Science department and worked with a group studying the Earth's atmosphere. After a couple of years, I applied for a civil servant position (means I work for the federal government rather than a company) as an Engineer at NASA Ames. That was only 6 months ago. I'm still figuring out how to do my new job, and it's been fun learning a whole new field.

Personal
I'm married to a physicist. We live on a small sailboat in South San Francisco, and simply put, we are a couple of happy geeks. We like to talk about science or the news. We like to sail and to travel. I'm learning to scuba dive right now, and my husband already knows how, so we'll probably do a lot of that as soon as I'm certified. I have many other hobbies besides scuba diving. I like swimming, reading, martial arts, gardening, skiing, snowboarding, and playing with my nieces and nephews.

I have lots of role models. Some are from my personal life. My parents, who taught me the importance of family. They owned their own business—which sometimes can be difficult—and taught me to work hard, and to enjoy what you do. My sister, because she is one of the most capable people I know. My husband, because he is so easygoing, loves science, and laughs all of the time. Some are from my professional life. Dr. Adrienne Cool is an astrophysicist and has been one of my role models for years. She helped me learn how to do research, which is a lot different than studying books about science. It's also much more fun. Dr. Tim Castellano is an astronomer I know. He is a role model because he came back to college and became an astronomer after he'd already had a career in a different field. Dr. Yvonne Pendleton is another excellent astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center. She also spends much of her time teaching children about astronomy which I believe is just as important as learning astronomy for yourself.

Future Plans and Goals
More school! I love school. And I'm just getting started in my field. I have a lot of school ahead of me. First I'm planning on attending Stanford to get my Masters in Aero/Astronautical Engineering. Then, I'm hoping to go on and get my Ph.D. in Astrophysics. And a further goal—Go to space! That would be such a highlight for me.

Advice
Adrienne Cool has a sign above her desk at San Francisco State University that says: "Think, think, read, think, read, think." This is what it takes to understand and do science. It almost never makes sense the first time you learn or read
about it.

If you are trying to decide what field you would like to work on, my advice is to choose a career because you love it. Have you heard that before? Probably, but that's because many people don't follow the advice and then regret it. There are parts of science that I find really hard, but I always stuck with it. Mostly because I love it, and also because I'm super-stubborn.

Archived Webchats and Webcasts

Last Updated: June 12, 2002

 
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