Last year, Lana Wagner, a third-year mechanical engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), enjoyed her summer working in Professor Conor Walsh’s Biodesign Lab as part of the Harvard Program for Research in Science and Engineering. This summer, she wanted to experience industry so she took an internship with Rocket Lab, a fast-growing aerospace manufacturer and launch services provider in California. Wagner had never considered working in aerospace engineering, but sometimes one summer internship is all it takes.
“Space is such an exciting emerging industry, and these companies are putting out a lot of innovative work,” she said. “They all seemed very fast-paced, and I find that I thrive in that environment. Aerospace wasn’t a path I’d originally envisioned for myself, but I’ve always had a propensity for taking on new challenges and solving problems that require me to push my knowledge outside what I already know.”
For her internship, Wagner joined the space vehicle design team within the space systems division. She helped design and produce ground support equipment to assist with thermal vacuum chamber testing for satellites before launch.
“It was exciting to work on something that could be used by November or December of this year, and to be responsible for the full design process, from coming up with a concept in my head to communicating with machine shops and vendors to get it fabricated,” she said. “It was also my first time designing on such a large scale. I had to consider a lot of new factors in designing for something that had to support loads of hundreds of kilograms.”
To get herself ready for her internship, Wagner joined the Harvard Rocket Propulsion Group (HRPG) last year. That provided an entry into the world of aerospace engineering, as the group and Harvard Satellite Team are designing a satellite that NASA could launch as early as next year. Between her classes and year with HRPG, she arrived at Rocket Lab ready to go.
“Each intern had a 12-week-long project they’d take responsibility for, so it was really cool to become an expert in one specific project,” she said. “I learned how to communicate with different groups, such as satellite engineers, the manufacturing team, and the assembly, integration and testing team. It was definitely a challenge to put all those separate inputs together, weed through all the feedback I was getting and decide what path to follow. But it taught me a lot about going through the design process, integrating design features and constraints and being confident in and taking responsibility for my own design decisions.”
Taking charge of her project taught Wagner the differences between professional engineering and designing for a class or club project. Being assigned a substantial project also made her feel like a full member of her team.
“I was very fortunate to spend my summer in an environment like this,” she said. “I felt like I was being treated like a full-time employee. The work is very fast-paced and has real stakes. If you don’t deliver robust designs by the necessary deadlines, that’s contract money going down the drain. Everyone at the company was really motivated and passionate about getting things done correctly and on schedule and getting these missions into space.”
Wagner’s newfound interest in aerospace engineering has already affected her academic choices. She’s currently taking “ESE160: Space Science and Engineering: Theory and Applications,” a course she likely wouldn’t have taken had she not had such a great summer experience.
“After this amazing experience and all the wonderful people I met on my team, especially my mentors, it definitely seems like it could become something I’d be interested in pursuing in the future,” she said. “This summer taught me how to push my academic training to solve real-world challenges, and that I have a whole lot more to learn. I’m excited to grow my knowledge this year and apply it to my internship next summer. I’m also eager to bring more focus on space to Harvard, having had this experience.”
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Matt Goisman | email@example.com