It’s a fascinating time right now in the world of aerospace, as a variety of projects and ventures seek to usher in a new era of spaceflight — fueling the imagination of people with a passion for airplanes and spacecraft. Kristina Wang is a great example, and we’re pleased to introduce you to her as GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week. Get to know her below through her answers to our questions.
Job, hobby and/or other geeky pursuit: Graduate Researcher at the University of Washington, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. I also am drawn to the world of Do-It-Yourself. I love looking at something that’s commercially made and thinking, “I can make one of those for next to pennies!” Some highlights of my DIY career are: my homemade prom dress back in high school, a bike trailer I’m working on (entirely made out of PVC pipe and a plastic bin), and the beer I brew with my boyfriend, Ryan.
Coolest thing about what you do: The number of opportunities to do unusual things and meet extraordinary people. Being an engineer isn’t limiting — it’s quite the opposite. I’ve been lucky enough to dabble in lots of different projects. I’ve also had a chance to do things that I thought I could only dream of, like having an astronaut as a professor, and meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Most unusual job you’ve ever had? The eight months I spent in 2010 as a “Fungineering Intern” at Funovation in Colorado. During that time, I had the chance to build a functioning scale model of one of their laser maze games. The game is great, and can be found in fun centers around the world–a room is filled with haze, and lasers are beamed across the room in a tangled pattern. You have to get to the other side as fast as you can without breaking the beam. I had to design mini components, solder them together, and make the product easy to transport and set up.
What’s the current focus of your research, and what do you hope to learn? I’ve just made a jump to a different research area, so the focus is still being defined. I’m honing in on the vast world of Computational Fluid Dynamics, with the hope of being able to study turbulence modeling. As our computational tools continue to improve and computers become faster, it will be amazing to seethe kinds of strides we can make in propulsion and aerodynamic design of flying vehicles.
When did you get your pilot’s license, and what do you love about flying? I began flying in the summer of 2008 while interning for Cessna Aircraft Co. in Kansas, and passed my final checkride in September 2010 in Colorado, where I am from originally. The emotions that are paired with flying an airplane are almost beyond words. For me, the experience is liberating, fulfilling, and a greatmental exercise.
What attracted you to the study of aerospace in the first place? It is at this point I must add this disclaimer: I didn’t always have a passion for aviation and aerospace, like many of my peers. I believe I was the only one in my undergraduate class of 65+ who hadn’t seen Top Gun, Apollo 13, AND October Sky before starting freshman year. (I hope this doesn’t disqualify my existence as GotW, rather, I hope it encourages other late-blooming engineers out there!)
I had always loved math and science, and my dad encouraged me to explore different types of engineering as a high schooler. I was pursuing photography as a side hobby, and a friend of mine had a powerful telescope. I acquired some adapters, and we began teaming up to take astrophotography shots. Meanwhile, he taught me a lot about space. I was hooked.
What are your career ambitions? I want to help design future generations of air and space vehicles, making them more efficient and sustainable for human exploration.
Geekiest thing(s) you’ve ever done, built, or worn: I’m not sure what would win for geekiest! For one thing, I collect aerospace-related clothing and knick-knacks. I graduated my Masters in a bi-plane adorned dress (which I still wear to fancy aerospace functions), I have a sweater covered in planes, a solar system umbrella, and space and plane socks. One year in college, I was a Lego Minifig for Halloween. I even made little cardboard hands. I walked around the lab and school (and even the grocery store) with my costume on. Last year, I dressed as the main engine to the Space Shuttle. I borrowed the idea from my friend Nick (the same who helped me with astrophotography) — he had the same costume in undergrad. I ended up wearing the costume to see Discovery’s final launch (it was a little too warm in FL to wear the hat or solid rocket booster tube socks, though)!
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: Stay organized, and develop a well-scoped schedule that allows you to have time for family, friends, and hobbies (this probably means learning how to say “no” to some things). Break large tasks up into smaller, manageable checklists. Anybody who’s worked with or planned an event with me knows that I love making checklists, especially if they are color-coded!
Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Ok, I lied earlier. This is the question that may bump me from qualifying to be here. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a kid, and haven’t properly caught up for many years of deprivation. I’m afraid I’m not educated enough in Star Trek to answer this question.
Mac, Windows or Linux?My personal computer is a MacBook, I’ll have to learn how to use Linux soon for the computer I will use at work/school. As long as I have an internet browser, a text editor for Fortran/LaTeX, GIMP, and MATLAB, I’ll be happy! The only time I’ve had a need for Windows is because someone has sent me a .docx/.xlsx file that needs to be edited. Not good cross-platform practice!
Space Shuttle, Soyuz, SpaceShipOne or Blue Origin? There is going to be a definite bias for this answer: I was lucky enough to intern at Blue Origin during the summer of 2009 (I was the only female intern that year — something that isn’t too surprising, given the current percentage of women in engineering and the fact that Blue Origin hired 6 interns that year). The Space Shuttle program sustained a fantastic era of human space flight and science experiments to our country, but it was an over-budget project that failed to achieve its original projected goals of frequent flights and cost reduction for launching payloads. It was time to move on, but it is a shame we don’t have anything to immediately replace it.
Burt Rutan is my favorite aircraft designer of all time — his vehicles are such works of art, and seem to defy all design rules (if you haven’t yet, do an image search for “Burt Rutan Boomerang”). I’m not sure I can pick a “favorite” since I think it’s a bit of an unfair comparison: not all of them have had an opportunity to take a human into space yet, and the Soyuz is the only one that is currently launching payloads. As long as we are still striving to explore, let’s keep the competition going so progress can be made!
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Easy. Transporter! Too many times have I realized I need to be in two places at once, or I’m missing a great event because I’m stranded at my location. Plus, who can say no to free travel?
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … create an incubator for portable, cheap, and effective educational programs. Our K-12 educational system is suffering too many deficits, and students are being deprived of proper resources. This doesn’t just exist in sciences and mathematics, either! Art, music, and other extra-curricular activities are being eliminated or reduced at an alarming rate.
Your geek role models: Anybody who has brought science education or geek culture to the mainstream, and especially those women who broke the barriers for my generation. Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride, Tina Fey, just to name a few…
Greatest Game In History: Pictophone! It’s a hybrid of Pictionary and Telephone. It works best with 5+ people, and you need n^2 pieces of paper (with n being the number of participants). You each have a stack of n papers, and write a phrase on the first. You pass the stack to your neighbor, and they draw the phrase on the second sheet. The third person tries to derive a phrase based on the picture without seeing the original sheet…and so it goes. It sounds really mundane and tedious, but it’s actually really funny to see how creative your friends are.
Best Gadget Ever: The smartphone. As a communication device itself, it’s pretty amazing that we can get a hold of most individuals in our lives with a few clicks of a button, and even leave them picture, text, and voice messages (I know, I’m sounding older than I actually am). On top of that, we’ve come as far as to create little tiny computers in the palm of our hands, that can give us instantaneous information about pretty much anything we want. This is the stuff science fiction was made of just a few short decades ago!
First computer: My parents had an old-school Macintosh. The kind you play Dark Castle on, loaded from a floppy disc. It was awesome.
Current phone: HTC Incredible
Favorite app: OneBusAway
Favorite hangout: I love spending a sunny day outdoors with Ryan and our dog, Digby.
Favorite cause: The Unreasonable Institute. It’s an incubator for international entrepreneurs in all sorts of projects. They provide financial support, mentorship, and a six-week crash course with other entrepreneurs to help grow and implement their ideas. Every year, the projects range from sustainability efforts to educational programs to lowered-cost health care…it’s amazing!
Most important technology of 2011: Not the most important technology of 2011, but definitely one of the coolest…my friend showed me the first consumer light field camera (http://www.lytro.com/). You can focus photos after you’ve taken them!
Most important technology of 2015: I really hope it will be a new vehicle to take humans into space…
Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Don’t be afraid to seek the support and help of others. You’re never alone in your ventures!
Site: http://wake-n-make.blogspot.com — nothing to do with engineering in the least…at the suggestion of multiple friends, this is where I document my crafting, cooking, and brewing to share.
Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.
Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey, email@example.com.]