Powtawche (Williams) Valerino, PhD

Powtawche (Williams) Valerino, PhD


First Native American PhD Engineering graduate at Rice University!

It was a childhood dream for me to obtain a graduate degree in engineering with an emphasis in space applications. I was further motivated by my research experience in the NASA-Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (NASA-SHARP) and the NASA-Undergraduate Summer Research Program (NASA-USRP). I developed strong relationships with my mentors who offered wonderful guidance and encouragement, so it was a natural progression for me to follow through with my graduate school endeavors.

Before pursuing a Masters degree in mechanical engineering, I completed the B.S. program in mechanical engineering at Stanford University and worked as a summer intern at the NASA-Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. GEM helped me realize my dream by providing financial support for my Masters degree at Rice University, and summer work opportunities at NASA-Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX) and NASA-Stennis Space Center (Hancock County, MS). Ultimately, I completed my doctoral degree in mechanical engineering at Rice University where my research related to the optimization of interplanetary trajectories to Mars via electric propulsion.

I learned about the GEM fellowship from my undergraduate advisors at Stanford University.  Knowing that I was fascinated by research and the space industry, my advisors felt GEM was a great opportunity for me. GEM appealed to me even more because not only would I gain industry experience while obtaining a graduate degree, I could establish long-lasting professional and personal networks through annual GEM technical conferences and meetings.

As a GEM fellow, I interned at the NASA-Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX and worked on the X-38 vehicle (International Space Station lifeboat) team. It was remarkable to be part of the technical activities, and also see the international cooperation via the European Space Agency (ESA). It was this experience that confirmed my goals of working in space-related engineering research activities, especially in a team environment.

I work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA as a member of the Cassini Navigation team. Cassini is a spacecraft that is currently orbiting Saturn and its thirty moons. Scientists believe Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, resembles a primordial Earth. As such, the major objectives of the Cassini spacecraft are to study Titan, by use of the Huygens probe that descended onto Titan’s surface in 2004, and continuously observe Saturn, Titan, and other moons until the main mission ends in 2008.

As a member of the Cassini Navigation team, I am one of six maneuver analysts who design and provide analysis on orbital trim maneuvers that allow the Cassini spacecraft to stay on its reference trajectory. You can learn more about Cassini’s exciting activities at the following website: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm

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