Earning a chemistry Ph.D. launched this alumna to success at NASA
Oct 19, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
For three years, Lynn A. Capadona’s job was to simulate a nightmare scenario for an astronaut – a fire aboard a spacecraft.
From 2012 to 2015, Capadona was chief engineer of the Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration Project (Saffire) at the NASA John Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland, Ohio. She designed the system that would run the fire experiments in various microgravity environments.
“It was an intense few years,” Capadona says. “I did a lot of problem solving, using a balanced approach between what solutions may cost, how technically feasible they were, how they impacted a tight schedule, and at what level of risk to the mission.”
The results can affect spacecraft design. “Understanding how fire behaves in microgravity and how different materials propagate flames in space is immensely important for the development of future crew spacecraft,” Capadona says. “Especially as NASA begins to explore farther with plans for Mars exploration, the top priority is creating a safe environment for astronauts.”
The three Saffire missions accomplished their goals, she says, but “there is still so much more to learn about how fires behave in different environments, like those with reduced pressure or elevated oxygen.” Three more Saffire missions are planned for 2019.
Capadona’s problem-solving approached was honed at Georgia Tech, where she received a Ph.D. in chemistry in 2004. “Earning a Ph.D. demands the mastery of critical thinking – and not just related to the discipline of the degree,” she says. “Devising multiple solutions to a problem is a skill I use almost daily in my job.”
As an undergraduate at Boston College, Capadona learned of Georgia Tech’s reputation. She knew that Tech’s chemistry department was doing research she had been exposed to while working on her B.S. in chemistry, which she received in 1999. But six other graduate schools were also tempting her.
What made Tech stand out from those other schools? “It just felt like I fit,” she says. When visiting Georgia Tech before committing to a graduate program, Capadona recalls, “the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry provided open access to faculty, students, and administrators. It was almost reverse-interview style. The experience with faculty and students seemed genuine. I liked the flexibilities the program provided.”
Once in the Ph.D. program, discovering that graduate school was not going to be easy undermined her confidence, she says. Working on her doctorate would wear her down before it built her back up.
In graduate school, Capadona learned much about herself. “Georgia Tech confirmed to me that I know my strengths well,” she says. “I also know my weaknesses even better. To climb uphill battles or overcome challenges, I learned to rely heavily on my strengths. At the same time I surrounded myself with people whose strengths are my weaknesses. I’ll never have a perfectly complete skill set in every area, and I learned that’s alright.”
Even though she earned her Ph.D. in chemistry, Capadona joined NASA as a chemical engineer, and soon after she held different job titles. It all has to do with how NASA uses its talent, she says. “What I found as my career matured was that my discipline training provided me the basis to broaden out technically. That’s the way I got to do something bigger.” NASA encourages that kind of career growth and supports individuals who demonstrate the correct skills to take on higher level positions, she adds.
She credits her success at NASA also to her stint in Tech’s Technology Innovation: Generating Economic Results program, part of the Scheller College of Business. TI:GER helps researchers move technologies from lab to marketplace by matching them with non-technology partners, such as business experts and attorneys. “You learn to communicate with people who may not have the same specific training as you do,” she says. “If you can master that skill, the possibilities are endless.”
In 13 years at NASA, she has conducted research on next-generation materials, worked on technical troubleshooting teams for the Space Shuttle program, managed requirements for the Orion spacecraft, led late-phase technical efforts for a payload that’s still operating in the International Space Station, and managed the Saffire experiments. She now holds a management position with NASA’s systems engineering team.
“I am continually challenged and continually learning," she says. "Being successful in this and any of my jobs means working with a lot of different people across NASA and with outside organizations.”
She attributes her success in this aspect of her job also to Georgia Tech. The diversity of Tech’s student body, she recalls, made her well-rounded as a graduate. The experience with diversity, she says, “helped me weave different contexts, experiences, backgrounds, and opinions into everyday decision-making in my job.”
Advice to Students
Interacting with students from various backgrounds is one of Capadona’s tips to Tech students. “Take advantage of what the campus has to offer. There will never be another time in your life where your job is to learn about whatever you want. Pursue the things you like, even if they don’t come easy.
“The environment I was provided as a graduate student fostered a lot of independence, even when I thought I wasn’t ready for it,” she says. “It pushed me then, and I push myself in my career now.”