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Meet: Susan Ramsey

Habitability Design Center Lead
Johnson Space Center

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
-- Theodore Roosevelt

Who I am and What I do

I lead a team of architects and engineers in developing human factors design requirements and creating conceptual designs of "habitability" hardware --hardware used by astronauts for living in space. My areas of expertise are human factors, conceptual design, and human-subject research.

The Habitability Design Center (HDC) takes a "human-centered" approach to designing space hardware in an effort to increase crew usability, productivity, and safety on-orbit. The HDC's current primary projects include hardware needed for living onboard the International Space Station -- a waste and hygiene compartment, a galley, refrigerator/freezers, and food accessories. Other hardware that the HDC has recently played a role in designing are a "sleep station" for the crew, and a conceptual "wardroom table" for eating, socialization, and recreation.

Activities included in my job description are: development and review of both human factors and hardware design requirements, conceptual design of hardware for the International Space Station, analysis/evaluation of design concepts, research on the effects of design and layout on humans in space analog environments, development of requirements and designs for crew accommodation systems in future space vehicles.

The best things about my job are:

  • I get to use my engineering background, as well as my background/interest in human factors, to influence the design of both current and future space hardware.
  • I spend most of my day interacting with people -- from engineers to astronauts to designers. Although I am still working in an engineering environment, I spend very little time in a "lab" setting, which suits my personality very well.
  • I feel like my work is important to human space flight because we specifically address the needs of the humans, and work to design hardware around the human need.

The worst things about my job are:

  • A large amount of documentation is necessary in a government agency, because of regulations, and I therefore spend a lot of time doing paperwork.
  • Funding for the space program greatly affects many of the projects I work on, so it is sometimes frustrating to see a quality project never make it off the ground because of funding limitations.

Education and Career Path

I attended Texas A&M University, majoring in biomedical engineering with the intent of going to medical school. However, after taking a combination of engineering and physiology courses, I realized that my true love was in engineering, not medicine. A project that I had worked on in one of my courses dealt with problems humans face during zero-gravity in space flight. This peeked my interest in NASA, and encouraged me to apply for a cooperative education (co-op) job at Johnson Space Center.

I worked as a co-op student at JSC for three semesters during college -- working in Communications and Tracking for the International Space Station (flight control), and the Anthropometry and Biomechanics Facility in the Space Human Factors branch at JSC. During my co-op experience, I had the opportunity to both work in the Space Human Factors group at JSC, as well as take both undergraduate and graduate classes in human factors at Texas A&M. Emphasizing my bachelor of science degree in the field of human factors engineering allowed me to combine my two interests of engineering and the human body.

Advice to kids/students pursuing careers in this area (or any area)

I was advised by my father to get an engineering degree because of the doors it would open for me when I graduated; I think this is some of the best advice I've ever received. Although I did not start college with intentions of ever working as an engineer, I am so thankful now that I had that degree program to fall back on when I decided not to go to medical school.

In addition, I've seen by working in the "real world" that an engineering degree holds a great amount of value. Firstly, engineers are valued for their unique problem-solving experience and expertise. The primary trend of any engineering curriculum is centered around problem-solving, and therefore when engineers enter the workplace -- whether they're doing hard-core engineering or not -- they have a very good background for being problem-solvers.

In addition, basic engineering principles are used extensively in many different jobs. Even though my current role does not require me to solve differential equations or thermodynamics problems, learning the general principles involved in both of these, as well as other engineering principles, has helped me to understand the overall challenges presented when designing a space system.

A general understanding of many different aspects of the engineering field makes my job easier from a "systems engineering" perspective. Based on this, I would advise students to pursue an engineering, or other technical, degree if you have any interest in this field. Having an engineering degree does not lock you into doing engineering for the rest of your life, but not having one can prevent you from entering a technical field in the future!

Growing Up

I grew up in Spring, Texas (NW Houston). I attended Benfer Elementary School, Strack Intermediate School, and Klein High School. As a kid, I liked to read books with medical stories and medical biographies. They got me interested in the human body and physiology. From the time I was five years old, until my sophomore year in college, I wanted to be a pediatrician.

I looked to my parents as role models, and they always inspired me. My mother got her bachelor's degree, and then stayed home with us as a full-time mother. She taught me about the importance of setting priorities, and making tough choices in life. She also taught me that I can do anything that I set my mind to do. My father has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams (whatever they may be), and to "Carpe Diem!" ("Seize the day"). He has always believed in me, and encouraged me to always set my goals high and not accept failure.

Personal

I live in Webster, which is in the southeast Houston area, in an apartment -- but hope to buy a house in the area soon! I have a calico kitten, named Lily.

Both of my parents come from somewhat rural areas, so we like getting outside and walking through the woods together. I also enjoy cooking, shopping, making crafts, sewing, reading, and volunteering.

Future Plans and Goals

I am getting married in October (2002), and hope to buy a house soon thereafter! No plans for kids yet, but definitely plan on having at least two.

As far as work is concerned, I am interested in combining my technical/engineering skills with a management job in the future. My current role is giving me some experience with management of a small group of people, while still allowing me to do technical work and keep up my skills. I greatly enjoy this mix, and hope to continue in this role and gain more valuable experience. Eventually, I would like to gain more responsibility in the field of management and lead a larger group of people. I would, however, like to stay in the area of technical management (leading engineers, designers, and scientists).


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