'06 grad turns internship into career at NASA
February 25, 2010 By Leigh Ivey
Matt Steinfeld, left, and Chad Dike) is a systems engineer for
NASA's Radioisotope Power Systems Program.
The Mars Science Laboratory rover (above) will assess whether
Mars ever was (or is) an environment able to support microbial
life. The rover will carry a Radioisotope Power System, which is
used on missions where “it’s not feasible for spacecraft to use
solar power to reach a destination,” Briggs says.
After his junior year at Centre College, Jeff Briggs ’06 took part in an internship that changed his life.
For 10 weeks in the summer of 2005, he interned at NASA, conducting research related to fluid behavior in microgravity. Briggs gives credit to a Centre alum for helping him land the internship—one that led to his current position at NASA.
“I owe my first internship to a fellow Centre alum whom I’ve never met,” Briggs says. “The researcher who chose me said that he picked me out of the stack of potential interns because he had a good student intern from Centre a few years back.”
After completing the summer internship, Briggs returned to campus for his senior year. It wasn't long, though, before a manager at NASA began recruiting him for the next year.
“I was planning on starting a Ph.D. program in physics after graduating from Centre,” Briggs says. “But because my graduate program didn't begin until late September, the people at NASA convinced me to at least come back for the summer.”
He retuned to NASA for a second summer of research; then having completed his second stint with NASA, Briggs left for Dartmouth in the fall of 2006.
“Thinking my NASA career was done for the time being, I began working for a research group that launched rockets over the North Pole to study the Northern Lights,” Briggs says. “A year later, one of my managers at NASA called to see if I wanted to come back.”
“After building some scientific instruments that were launched on a research rocket from a tiny island in the Arctic called Svalbard, I realized I could leave Dartmouth with a master’s degree and decided to work for NASA full time. I came back in October of 2007, and I’ve been here ever since.”
In his current position, Briggs serves as a systems engineer for NASA's Radioisotope Power Systems Program, a position that he never imagined he’d hold.
“Having never taken an engineering course in my academic career, I ended up as an engineer,” he says. “When I was little, I think the answer to the question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ changed about three times a week. At one point in high school, I think ‘engineer’ might have made the list for a while, but I ended up passing on engineering school and came to Centre.”
That choice was a valuable one, for Briggs feels that his time at Centre prepared him well for his career.
“My double major in math and physics gave me the core set of skills needed to perform in the technical aspect of my job,” he says, “But the immense amount of writing, speaking and group discussion required from a liberal arts education has also given me a huge advantage.”
Equipped with the knowledge and skills he gained at Centre, Briggs is able to complete a variety of tasks at NASA.
“The best part about my job is that I have the chance to work on a wide array of projects, and it’s fairly easy to move within the organization. For example, in the short time that I’ve been with NASA, I’ve worked on microgravity research, economic models for advanced rocket development, performance models of supersonic jet engines, cost-benefit analysis for investments in aviation safety technology and Lunar surface operations for human missions.”
Currently, Briggs is working on the development of nuclear power systems for space missions, an assignment he says has been particularly exciting.
“Hopefully I’ll get to see a system that I’ve worked on launch from Cape Canaveral in a few years,” he says. “The system that I’m directly involved in developing is called the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, and it will potentially be integrated into NASA’s next mission for the Discovery Program, slated for launch in 2014 to 2016.”
While the destination for the next Discovery Mission has not yet been selected, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Mission, set to launch in the fall of 2011, will carry a Radioisotope Power System. These systems, Briggs explains, are used on NASA space science missions where “it’s not feasible for the spacecraft to use solar power to reach a destination. For example, to reach at the poles of Mars, which receive no light for part of the year, or for any mission beyond Jupiter.”
Greatly enjoying the opportunity to contribute to such important missions, Briggs plans to work at NASA for quite some time.
“I’d really like to see something that I’ve worked on make it to another planet,” he says.