Dawn McIntosh

Dawn McIntosh

Computer Engineer - Ames Research Center

Where are you from?

I grew up in the Bay Area, Calif. I am still living in the Bay Area. What I like about it is that it has great weather, a lot of outdoor activities and it is culturally diverse.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

I have two. I remember as a child sitting in the back seat during a long drive with my family and watching the Moon outside the car window. I noticed that, even with all the turns we made or even if we drove straight, the moon didn't move, grow or change. It suddenly occurred to me that the moon was really big and very far away.

What really turned me on to astronomy was my first astronomy class in college. I didn't need to take this class. (I had actually already finished all of my science requirements.) However, my friend persuaded me to take the course with her. She eventually dropped it, but I kept going because I found it fun and so interesting. I loved it.

How did you end up working in the space program?

When I earned my undergraduate degree in physics with a concentration in astrophysics, I had an opportunity to work at NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC) as a contractor in the Earth Science department. It was interesting science, and I learned a lot! Later, I became a civil servant for NASA in the computer science division. I am now working as a computer scientist at ARC.

Who inspired you?

Several teachers and advisors inspired me in college. One college professor in particular is Dr. Adrienne Cool. Dr. Cool is an astrophysicist and has been one of my role models for years. She didn't view science as a difficult problem to somehow overcome, but instead looked at it as a fun challenge. I really liked that perspective, and she helped me learn how to do research, which is different than studying books about science. It's also much more fun.

What is a Computer Engineer?

Being a computer engineer can mean many things. For me personally, it means that I lead and manage research and software development teams; making decisions about which direction we should go regarding resolving a problem. The DASHlink collaborative website is a good example. We developed DASHlink to connect NASA researchers and the broader data mining and systems health community in order to easily share research and data. I am currently starting a research development project dealing with modularized satellites.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

There are so many! One particularly memorable moment was when we had been developing technology for a virtual environment to train astronauts. We were working with the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas and had a chance to present our work to some really high level people. We were convinced that we had just developed it enough to present and impress our audience. The meeting went unbelievably well. It was fantastic!

My second favorite moment may come as a surprise because it has to do with the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. I woke up, saw the news and was devastated. I had been here at Ames when we had lost a robotic Mars mission, and people were so upset then. I thought that it would be infinitely worse since this tragedy involved people that we knew and cared for personally. When I returned to work on Monday morning, it was not at all depressing -- it was inspiring. Everyone wanted to be of use, they wanted to contribute, and they wanted to make a difference. It was very moving to see people coming together with similar goals: How can we find out what happened? How can we find out how to fix it? And how can we find out how to prevent it in the future?

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Do internships at NASA, or elsewhere if you prefer, each and every summer. I see such value in this. When high school students graduate they are so often asked what they are going to do when they grow up, and they believe that they have to have an answer to that question. But really, in order to know you must see the day-to-day world of a career and sample it first; that way you can make a wise decision in picking your career. Internships give you that day-to-day. And you don't have to intern just for science and engineering companies. Internships in all fields will give you perspective and skills needed for any job.

Also, check out the college you think you want to attend and make sure it is a good fit. The school that was best for me was one where I could be considered a peer in the classroom. For me this meant that it would be alright for me to ask a lot of questions. This tended to be smaller classrooms. I took classes at Stanford, and it wasn't quite a good fit, for many reasons, one being that it was a competitive, rather than a collaborative environment. So pick your school carefully.

What do you do for fun?

I mountain bike -- biking the trails of the Santa Cruz mountains is a favorite. I love to travel. I am hoping to go to Alaska next! I read both non-fiction and fiction books. I just finished "For the Win" (Cory Doctorow) -- a fascinating fictional book about the global community of gamers. And I'm in a classics phase; my two most recent classic reads are "Art of War" (Sun Tzu) and "The Invisible Man" (Herbert George Wells). And I like to eat. I like to try new foods and new restaurants!

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Yay! I am so glad you are studying these subjects. Stick with it! If you are passionate about science and math or engineering, then you should absolutely pursue them, because these subjects are perfect passion fields. If you find them challenging and difficult don't give up. Science and math or engineering subjects are supposed to be challenging and difficult. And there are many options for careers by knowing these skills. There are more options for you than just wearing a lab coat or becoming a professor.

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Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.