Karen Yuen

Applied Science System Engineer - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Where are you from?

I am originally from Kowloon, Hong Kong, and moved to Apple Valley, Minnesota, when I was 8 1/2 years old. I still consider myself from the Midwest.

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

I remember learning English and hearing the expression, "Well, I am not a rocket scientist!" and I wondered, "What is a rocket scientist?" A lot of the time, they didn't know what to do with me in school, and they just asked me to go to the library to improve my reading skills. So I read what I could find about space.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I am an organic chemist who left research, who then worked as a category analyst for a food broker and Tropicana. I think the space program is the only place for people with funky backgrounds! There is definitely not a "one size fits all."

Who inspired you?

My grandma. She always believed in me and encouraged me in my education.

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

After a talk I gave locally, I got a letter from a student who told me that he knew what he wanted to do when he grew up -- he wanted to be a NASA engineer and that I had inspired him. I was so touched that I was shaking while reading the letter.

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

I say go for it. Never lose your curiosity and desire to learn more, I believe that it makes you better at your job. Public engagement is very important, so know what you are talking about. And it is fun -- think what would you want others to know more about and then go do it.

What do you do for fun?

I believe you only live once and should live it fully. I love being outside and anything outdoors would be great. I like to fly helicopters and I just got PADI certified for diving! But when I am indoors, I always curl up with a book or I am in the kitchen cooking. I love cooking for others!

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

Don't be afraid of math and science courses, and ask the questions -- more than likely, others don't know and are afraid to ask themselves. I was a late bloomer, I never liked math until I got to calculus and then the light bulb moment happened. It has been that way ever since.

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Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.