Michelle Easter’s career trajectory is an interesting one. It’s not every day you meet a high fashion model turned Mechatronics Engineer. Michelle recently sat down with Innovate Pasadena to talk about landers, robotics, growing up on a farm, and living the dream at JPL. Read on for her fascinating story and the good work she is doing to build an army of engineering foot soldiers. You could be one, too!
Your story is a cool one. You are a former model who made a leap into Mechatronics. That’s probably not the typical path. How did you end up an engineer?
It was not an immediately obvious decision for me to choose a career in Mechatronics; it was something entirely new for me. I grew up on a farm where my dad taught us how to use power tools which at an early age gave me the confidence to imagine and then execute a design. When I graduated from high school, I swapped coasts and landed in Los Angeles to pursue my modeling career. Fast forward several years and as the recession hit, the high fashion industry slowed and I moved to New York in order to continue modeling.
Inspired by the energy of NYC, I decided to give it a try with school. In my first academic semester I took a handful of general education classes and had an immediate flashback to that sense of pride I used to derive from school.
Although I fully loved being in school, I chose to take the summer months off. During that break I decided to take on a pet project, literally, building a doghouse for my frou-frou dog. I looked at the arsenal of power tools in my apartment and decided to call my dad, who is a farmer and an industrial mechanic, and asked him if I could get some lumber from the sawmill back home on our farm in Maryland.
With lumber in hand, I measured my dog, started sketching, and designing a super cool structure. But, I couldn’t build just any old structure. Once I started laying out panels I started to really think through plans for the composition of the roof.
In New York, it can get hot and muggy so I wanted the roof to have extra ventilation. As it turns out, you can buy chipped solar panels on eBay and while they have reduced efficiency, I calculated the power output based on the surface area so that I could use them to power a little fan into the ceiling of my puppy castle. In the end, I decided not to use solar energy for the doghouse because the reduced efficiency meant I would have needed a wrap-around awning to get enough surface area, and decided to go with a passive ventilation design.
All of a sudden a few things dawned on me: (1) I’m choosing to build this structure for fun so maybe it is something I should pursue in my life, and (2) I don’t have any education but yet I’m doing this. It led me to believe that I might be able to do something cool if I actually took classes in this area.
So, at 26 you officially enrolled in school and specialized in engineering, a profession that is typically dominated by men. Could you have ever predicted that?
Once I realized my aptitude during my first few semesters and after taking on a few side projects, I decided to take a Math class and I crushed it. This was a pattern that followed for me with math & science. I quickly knocked out core requirements so that when I was ready to transfer to an Engineering School I was poised to choose between a major in Physics and Mechanical Engineering.
I had an amazing mentor who guided me through my degree in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Robotics. I did a lot of coursework in software analysis and design which in combination with the degree gave me a fairly broad based background. My work at JPL has been a good match for my degree integrating different components of my education: Physics, Mechanical Engineering, CAD Design, programming and robotics.
Now, if you had asked me six years ago if I would have thought I’d be working at JPL today, I would have laughed in your face. I like to think that I’m a good example that anyone can do anything. If you see something you want to do, focus your efforts, and ask for advice along the way, you can do anything.
That’s an amazing story! How do you use your degree at JPL?
A good example of being able to put my degree to use at JPL is one of my current projects, which coincidentally is also my favorite. I am working with the sampling team for the Europa Lander. JPL received funding for a study to explore how we can land on, acquire and analyze samples of Europa’s surface. Right now we are conducting experiments to simulate cutting into the moon’s surface to understand how to design such a system.
What’s unique about this assignment is that this type of lander does not exist. The rovers and landers that currently exist have mostly been designed for Mars, an environment completely different as compared to Europa’s icy shell. On a scale of habitability, you have Earth which we know is super habitable because we are here, then you have Mars, which is a tough environment but similarish, but Europa is hella cold—it’s -200 Celsius. There’s no atmosphere on Europa.
Our sampling team is building different types of testing infrastructure to simulate the Europan environment. For example, I’m working with two thermal engineers to build a cryogenic vacuum chamber with four airlock chambers and a giant robotic arm inside. We are developing different cutting tools to mount to the robotic arm to see how they respond when facing a simulated Europan surface. By doing this we can build a huge dataset and determine which tool designs will be most effective given the range of conditions that the Europa lander could encounter. Right now, this is very much a research & design project and I love how quickly we are able to test and prototype our designs.
What other sort of projects do you get to work on at JPL?
I have been assigned a project working on a small instrument for an Earth observing CubeSat to monitor water vapor levels in our atmosphere. I’m responsible for designing a rotational mechanism that reflects RF signals into a receiver. This will be the first project that I get to design that will go into space next year.
Another project I’m working on is called Starshade, a telescope mated with a giant origami-inspired deployable shade that will look for planets that might be earth-like. The telescope and shade will search for habitable planets that might orbit other stars. My role is to design precision alignment hardware along the petals of the shade to properly mount onto the hub. I love that team and project!
Finally, the last project I’m working on is an active motion control system for testing landers and things that we design for space, but testing them on earth. An important application for this is for gravitational offloading. It’s developing into a network of nodes with motor-driven pulley connections that can be hooked onto a payload and used to actively maintain the exact gravitational load that you want. So, for instance, on Mars we have to simulate 1/3 Earth’s gravity to accurately test a design so our system would offload 2/3 of the weight of any system tested on Earth and destined for Mars.
All of that must keep you busy but yet in your spare time you founded a non-profit called Mind Makers. What does Mind Makers do and how do you do it?
The idea for Mind Makers developed last summer and the inspiration came from my own experience. I had a firsthand account for how much my life changed as a result of leaving modeling for engineering. I never knew that I wasn’t happy before because I was blinded by the shiny things, and now I’m so much happier and fulfilled by my educational pursuits and job.
The mission of Mind Makers is to provide an approachable introduction to engineering, developed by engineers for adults who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to science and math. Adults put limits on what they’re capable of whereas kids are fearless. We want to disrupt people’s perceptions of what they can do with engineering and who can do it.
We do this by developing a curriculum intended for adults from unconventional backgrounds, or at least those not traditionally served by engineering. Examples of demographics served include Veterans, former foster care adults, single moms who couldn’t go to school, people who are underserved by traditional STEM outreach, etc.
Have you done a proof of concept for Mind Makers? How do you plan to teach STEM concepts to adults?
Our overall deliverable is to develop a structured 6-8 week curriculum. Each week there will be a workshop with a hands-on project teaching skills like soldering, elements of robotics, computer programming and electrical and mechanical engineering. While participants are working a team of engineers will be working on an interactive art exhibit which incorporates the deliverables from the weekly workshops into a fully-functioning engineering exhibit.
One of the end goals is to educate engineering foot soldiers who can then go out into the community and teach kids the same engineering concepts that they learned. It is empowering both for people to learn but to also teach others.
To test our concept, we hosted a propagating boot camp last winter. I took our leadership team, whom aren’t all engineers, and taught them how to lay-out and solder circuits to make RF-controlled LED bows and bow-ties together. The people I trained then became instructors for a second boot camp with a group of girl scouts. And then these girls ended up leading workshops teaching what they learned during the NASA Space Apps Pasadena Women in Data Bootcamp this past April. All three levels of the propagating boot camp came together at NASA Space Apps. We even had one of the girl scouts teaching Deborah Diaz, CTO of NASA, how to solder. It was rad.
What are some examples of skills that you’re able to incorporate into Mind Makers projects?
During the Women in Data Bootcamp at the NASA Space Apps-Pasadena Challenge I conducted a mini-lesson on binary conversions. I provided instruction on how to convert letters or numbers into the binary system and explained why engineers use binary with respect to hardware. We made these cool acrylic modules which have LEDs, resistors and batteries and using binary code taught participants to encode their initials into the light display. This exercise demystified two things: a primary language of computers and circuits and a physical DIY maker activity in soldering to make LED lights work as desired. This was a demo version and we have since redesigned it and plan to use the same concept once the program begins.
Last but not least, what aspect of technology excites you most?
Robotics! Robotics is awesome because you can start with nothing and say “I want to build a robot that does ‘fill in the blank’ and it can be anything.” The process of beginning with a mechanical design, assembling it all together, writing code and then making it come to life is a process that is really exciting.
For more information about Mind Makers, to volunteer or sponsor, visit http://mindmakersproject.org/.