Elizabeth Jens: If I had a thin skin I don't know how long I would have lasted

Elizabeth Jens .jpg

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

At very young age, Elizabeth Jens developed an interest in space exploration – largely precipitated by Patrick Moore's Mission to the Planets, a book gifted to her by her father. Through a number of factors; unwavering dedication, perseverance, sheer grit, and, as she acknowledges, a “little bit of luck”, she had her dream realised when she began working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Originally hailing from a Torquay, a small beach town outside of Melbourne, the path to working at JPL was not straightforward. Acknowledging that a relocation to the United States was inevitable if this was the industry she wanted to pursue, Elizabeth completed her graduate studies at Stanford University in aeronautics and astronautics before applying to JPL.

Advance recently caught up with Elizabeth to talk about her journey to Los Angeles; covering topics from her experience applying to Stanford, to the gender balance in the space industry, to her gratitude that Australian-style coffee is becoming increasingly popular in LA.

What does your role at JPL involve?

JPL is a federally funded research and development centre, under the NASA umbrella. NASA itself is made up of a bunch of different centres that are spread across the state and each NASA centre has a different set of expertise. There’s a centre that focuses on propulsion and rockets doing large scale launches, there’s a centre that focuses on astronauts and training and there are centres that focus on aerodynamics and basic research.

I spend 30% of my time working on what’s called a hybrid rocket, including looking at whether we could make a smaller version of it to potentially help enable a new class of small spacecraft to go to other planets so that we can get a greater scientific return with fewer dollars spent.

The other 70% of my time I spend working on a subsystem that is going to go on the next NASA Mars Rover, due to be launched in 2020.

Was there any way you could have pursued a career in space exploration in Australia?

No. Australia had elements of the space industry when I was living there, and there was some research being conducted at some universities involving CubeSat satellites that were going to orbit around Earth. It’s really interesting work, but it wasn't what got me excited; my passions lie within space exploration.

What is the focus of JPL?

JPL's focus is a robotic exploration of the solar system. It’s how we’ve learnt so much about the other planets. Most of the spacecraft that I grew up hearing about; Cassini, Galileo, came out of JPL.

After you graduated from Stanford with such a specialised degree, was it easy to gain employment in the industry?

Absolutely not. It’s quite hard for a foreigner to work in the aerospace industry – particularly space work – because a lot of the spacecraft fall under the International Traffic and Arms Regulations (ITAR). This means you either have to be a permanent resident or you have to have an export license issued for you, and the process of getting the export license is quite arduous. A lot of smaller companies don't even know it’s an option, and even if they do know, many of them don't have the funds and the legal support to be able to organise that for foreign nationals.

I was really lucky that the particular rocket that I was working on was something that JPL was interested in, and during my graduate studies, I did a couple of internships where I spent time at JPL, getting to know the group I now work with. I think it’s important for people to know you and your work if they’re going to go to invest in you. It's hard to justify when you are just a name on a piece of paper!

How did you overcome that uncertainty?

I think it’s important to accept you can try and do everything possible, you can try and tick every box, but there’s always a certain element of luck at the end.

When I had my interview for the position, the chance of having an export license issued for me was slim. It just so happened my resume fell into the hands of my now supervisor, who knew the lab that I was working in at Stanford.

I will admit I was very determined that I would end up working at JPL, and I kept thinking that if I worked and studied hard enough; why couldn't it be me?

Is the next goal a trip into space?

It would make me extremely happy to actually be an astronaut and go into space, but that may take me a little while yet!

What does it involve?

Again, there’s an element of luck involved. You could do everything right and then have one small thing deem you ineligible for an application.

I think all of us in the industry understand that there is a lot of resources that go into the astronauts, so it's understandable that they are that selective, as frustrating as that may be on a personal level. What I do think is heartening, is as we learn more about what affects the human body in space, the selection criteria have changed to reflect this new knowledge as well as to account for any medical advances. For example, if you have bad eyesight, but is correctable to 20/20 vision, you are still eligible.

Have there been many Australian astronauts reach space?

The only Australian astronauts that have gone through NASA have had dual citizenship. I’m currently on the path right now for a Green Card, and then hopefully citizenship – when I can apply. I keep reminding myself to enjoy every step because if I am ever lucky enough to get to the stage of applying to be an astronaut and miss out because of something arbitrary, I want to make sure that I have enjoyed the whole process and have no regrets about it.

What is the gender balance in your industry, are women very much a minority?

In graduate school, we definitely struggled in the aeronautics and astronautics department to have anything close to equal representation of women. MIT was working on a program where they were actively working to have 30% female representation across all departments, even undergrads.

I will say, it’s not for lack of a desire to have equal representation, it's whether you have suitable candidates and whether people want to keep pursuing an education at that level, especially for the graduate studies. Stanford was 100% supportive, they gave any support that we asked for and were really proactive about trying to help fix the problem.

When I got to JPL, there were 5,000 people in the lab and actually quite a number of females. JPL have also been active in increasing their female representation. My manager on the Rover work I am doing is a female, and I love working with her – I think it's the first time I have had a female manager in the field.

It’s something that the industry definitely recognises, I think that I have been lucky enough that I have been involved with institutions that take a proactive and positive approach to try and rectify that.

But, having said that, if I had a thin skin I don't know how long I would have lasted.

How did your fascination with space begin?

When I was in primary school, my dad was on a tiny country flight and happened to be sitting beside one of the Apollo astronauts. As it turned out, he was giving a talk in Geelong, 25 minutes away from us. It was the first time working in the space industry seemed so obtainable, just seeing that man standing there.

What do you like about living in LA?

What I love about LA is the ability to get away to some really beautiful places with just a few hours’ drive. I go up to the Sierras most weekends. I go up there to kayak, camp and hike, and it's just beautiful.