Editor’s Note — This is part of a conversation series highlighting outstanding Husker alumni on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Medium page. Today, we’re featuring Taylor Winkelmann-Kerl. After a trip to the Strategic Air and Space Museum in elementary school, Winkelmann-Kerl was determined to become a rocket scientist. She came to Nebraska as a mechanical engineer searching for aerospace experience, and immersed herself in the aerospace field, gaining experience through undergraduate research and Aerospace Club. Today, that interest in aerospace has turned into a career as she works on the NASA Power Propulsion Element.
Where did your interest in aerospace start?
When I was in elementary school, we took a field trip to the Strategic Air and Space Museum that blew my mind. I remember looking at my dad at the end of the day (who had chaperoned) and telling him I was going to be a rocket scientist. Ever since then, I was the odd kid who set the goal and didn’t waiver from it. I honestly can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. I’m lucky that even once I learned what it actually meant to be an aerospace engineer, that I still enjoyed it and wanted to pursue it further. I’m even more fortunate that the dream still lives on now that I’m in the industry.
You were pretty involved during college, from the Aerospace Club to undergraduate research. How did that help you prepare for post-grad life?
The skills and experience I got from the Aerospace Club prepared me more than anything else for what it’s like in the industry world. The academic principles that we learned in class surely set great foundations and taught me ways to think about problems, but the actual application and execution of those academic endeavors came through in my extracurricular activities. When I started my job, I already had years of experience presenting to NASA design review boards due to the Aerospace Club and USIP, though I understand now that those review boards were much kinder to undergrad students than they are in “real life.” Ha! But in all seriousness, I had a jump start at understanding expectations and how to ask and answer questions in those crucial situations that every design engineer has to go through at some point, which has helped me set myself apart from my peers.
Talk a little bit about the work you currently do.
My current role is acting as the Deputy Program Manager for Propulsion Development on the NASA Power Propulsion Element (PPE). PPE is one spacecraft of many that will create the lunar gateway, which will act as a space station around the moon. Gateway is a key component of the NASA Artemis mission that will put the first woman on the lunar surface and set our foundation to send humans to Mars. As the name indicates, PPE will provide the primary propulsion and power systems for all of gateway. We are developing the highest power electric propulsion system ever built to get to the moon and keep us in a stable orbit, paired with a state-of-the-art chemical propulsion system for agile control of the gateway stack. On top of that, the entire system will be refuelable for longevity and as a demonstration of the technology that will propel humans to Mars. My role is to guide the technical progress and execution for the entire propulsion and refueling systems.
You’ve already accomplished a lot at a young age and are paying it forward through mentorship. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to you to provide that guidance/support to others?
I’ve always thought that outreach and mentorship were highly valuable. It’s always nice to have a friendly face to bounce ideas off of and it’s important to hear from people who live and breathe the thing that you are working to learn more about or better yourself in. It’s even more important to have diverse groups of people in that mentorship network so that you can find someone you resonate with. I was/am always looking from folks to learn from and I think that it’s important to give that back. You never know when you might spark something great for someone.
How did it feel to receive the 2020 Promise Award from Space and Satellite Professionals International?
I was totally shocked when I got the notification and honestly felt quite a bit of imposter syndrome. I work with so many brilliant people, both young and wise, whom I deeply respect. I have so much to learn from them and often look to some of my peers and think “wow, I hope I can be more like you…”. So to hear that they recognized me as a leader was so humbling, exciting, and reassuring that I’m on the right path.
Is there one thing you learned in your time at Nebraska that you’ve taken with you and continue to use every day?
It sounds harsh, but I learned to be OK with people underestimating me during my undergrad and I have to address that same sentiment nearly every day in my work life. As a young woman, young engineer, and young program manager, I often get talked over or dismissed in an aggressive and predominantly white male industry. What matters most is to keep working, keep pushing, and keep pursuing the passion because at the end of the day folks will come around and it will have been worth it.
Was there someone at Nebraska that had a big impact on you?
Karen Stelling was (and still is) an adviser to the Aerospace Club that made a massive impact on my life. Karen was the type of mentor I needed. She came from industry; she knew what life was like outside of academia, and could provide “real life” context to problem-solving. She was a leader, a woman in the field, and genuinely, a kind and approachable person. She taught me so much about acknowledging that there are different versions of success, learning how to lead people and technical progress. I could go on and on… I look back on my time at Nebraska and the story would not be complete without Karen.
What advice would you give to a college student?
You have to get involved outside of the classroom. There is so much more to being a productive teammate and human outside of college than academic excellence! Find something that fuels you and allows you to grow in other areas besides your books. It’ll boost your resume, make your life easier down the road, and hopefully, you will have some fun while you’re at it.