Please tell us about yourself

Michelle Easter’s career trajectory is an interesting one. It’s not every day you meet a 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!

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Your story is a cool one. You  made a leap into Mechatronics. That’s probably not the typical path. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

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.

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 (Stevens Institute of Technology) 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.

You landed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sort of by chance. How did that happen?

I was nearing the end of the summer after my junior year in engineering school, and had heard from fellow classmates that if you wanted to go to grad school, you should start applying in the fall of your senior year. I started doing some research to find out what kinds of options were out there and what the grad school application process entailed. I basically stopped searching when I started reading about Caltech. I reached out to a girlfriend whose friend’s husband, Capt. David Lehman, worked at JPL. I was hoping she would connect us so I could ask questions about Caltech.

It all happened really quickly and totally unexpectedly—after sending him my resume, he asked if I had ever considered employment at JPL. I was floored, thinking simply, “no.” The next day he passed my resume to the Mechanical Systems Engineering, Fabrication and Test Division at JPL. After a phone interview, they invited me to fly out for in-person interviews. It was super surreal. When I got the offer later, I basically jumped around my apartment with excitement on the phone with my girlfriends. I was blown away and knew this could trigger the beginning of a totally new life for me.

You’re a Mechatronics Engineer. What does that entail?

Mechatronics is a really fun field that combines mechanical design, electronics, and software. It’s similar to robotics and applies to so many modern devices—almost anything with moving parts that requires power. As a Mechatronics Engineer you can create a mechanism and bring it to life using electricity and code, building a system or device that can perform whatever task you dream up. It’s a really creative, hands-on, and interdisciplinary world within engineering.

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.

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.

What advice would you give to others interested in a similar career?

Don’t doubt yourself and don’t hold back. You can really surprise yourself when you get outside your comfort zone with the intention to learn. Also, get hands-on, project-based experience. If you have a hard time finding an internship, just build something for fun. Hands-on work is a critical path for driving home engineering concepts, and gives you relevant experience to discuss in interviews.