August 23, 2013
By Mike Killeen
It's easy to detect Nicole Kessler's love for NASA. After all, she had a front-row seat to some pretty out of this world stuff.
The 2008 College of Saint Benedict graduate worked as a flight controller at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, monitoring the International Space Station (ISS). She got to see the vault where moon rocks are kept from the six Apollo missions to the moon, hear legendary flight director Gene Kranz speak and see a demonstration of the new lunar rover.
"It was a very cool job," Kessler said of her job as a flight controller. "I love, and still love, telling people about the International Space Station program and all the cool things that happen on the ISS. There were also so many neat things going on at the Johnson Space Center that I was able to take advantage of."
Kessler worked with the Environmental and Thermal Operating Systems (ETHOS) group - one of four core systems groups for the ISS. As an ETHOS flight controller, she had duties both on-console in Mission Control and off-console in the office. The ETHOS console is in charge of the space station's internal atmosphere, thermal control, temperature and humidity control, environmental and life support systems and emergency response.
Kessler got her foot in the door at NASA through an internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. She conducted research on heavy water on Venus between her junior and senior years at CSB.
"The internship at Goddard taught me a lot about learning on the job," Kessler said. "I didn't have a lot of background knowledge on the research topic at the beginning of the summer. I remember spending a lot of time going through books and asking people questions as I was doing research. I was also able to continue the research at CSB in the fall and use it in my senior thesis, which was nice.
"Having the internship on my resume is also one of the reasons why I was called for a phone interview with United Space Alliance when I applied for the job at the Johnson Space Center."
The internship was one of two experiential learning opportunities she had while majoring in physics and minoring in mathematics at CSB. Between her sophomore and junior years, she went to China during the Summer Science Research Exchange Program.
"I personally think those were two of the most valuable experiences I had as an undergraduate," said Kessler, noting her research in China and at Goddard Space Flight Center. "The China program gave me a chance to study abroad as a science major - which can be difficult to do for a full semester with a science major. It gave me exposure to working with people in different cultures, allowing me to gain experience in intercultural communication before entering the workforce."
Kessler left her NASA position in 2012. She spent one year in AmeriCorps with the Minnesota Math Corps tutoring fourth- to sixth-grade students.
"I originally saw it as a way for me to move back to Minnesota and give back to the community while I figured out what I wanted to do next," Kessler said. "But it ended up being a really meaningful and wonderful experience that gave me a much stronger appreciation for teachers and what an important job they have.
"The students I worked with were great and they gave me a renewed interest in STEM education outreach. I hope to stay involved in STEM education outreach as a graduate student," said Kessler, who has begun studies at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs for a master's degree in science, technology and environmental policy.
Her first graduate class was actually over the summer, when Kessler took part in a sustainable cities project in India. The classroom work lasted five weeks, followed by research in India.
"It gave me a great jump start to my graduate education," she said.
Kessler said the academic programs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University pushed her career along.
"I personally feel that the physics and math departments (at CSB and SJU) put a lot of emphasis on helping students continue to grow and improve their problem-solving skills - which are essential in many different fields," Kessler said. "I also noticed that I had more experience giving presentations in front of large groups than some of my co-workers who had degrees in engineering or other sciences.
"I credited this to the liberal arts education — just one of the ways I felt the liberal arts education helped keep me well-rounded."