As a child, Taylor Kerl always had her eyes focused skyward.
Now age 27 and only four years into her career, the Beatrice, Nebraska, native is being honored as one of the world's top young aerospace professionals.
As a systems engineer for Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, Kerl develops propulsion systems for satellites and NASA spacecraft, and was recently chosen to receive the 2020 Promise Award by Space and Satellite Professionals International (SSPI). The honor is given annually to the top three selections from among the people chosen to for SSPI's annual "20 Under 35", a list of the top international aerospace professionals ages 35 and younger.
"This was a great pick-me-up, especially in this time we're living in now," Kerl said. "If you look at my relatively young career, you can't help but see how all the experience I had at Nebraska is driving me where I'm going."
In the College of Engineering, Kerl was involved with the Aerospace Club and helped to develop four payloads that were sent up on NASA rockets. She also performed undergraduate research projects, including a $200,000 NASA-funded project, and helped to develop a university course that teaches students the skills necessary for managing NASA projects.
At Maxar, Kerl is also a peer leader and mentor for newly hired employees and interns.
"When people ask, 'How did you do all this so quickly?', I say there are people all along the way – a great support system of mentors and teachers and peers – helping me to get to where I want to be," Kerl said. "I feel I have to part of that for someone else. It's funny, I think that's the Nebraska in me."
Kerl shared some of her experiences in this virtual interview.
Congratulations on being chosen for this prestigious award. How did this come about for you?
"I'm very excited and humbled and honored because the whole nomination process was a surprise for me, I wasn't privy to anything going on behind the scenes. One of the directors at my company started the nomination. He solicited letters of recommendation from people inside my company, letters from folks at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is where I spend a lot of my time. He also reached out to Tim Wei and Karen Stelling at the College of Engineering and got letters from them. There were people from all across my transition from my time in academics to my time in the "real world" – the corporate world – on how they've interacted with me.
"It was a very good surprise. What a pick-me-up, especially in this time that we're living in now, to hear how you've impacted people and that someone appreciates the work you're doing."
What is Maxar Technologies and what is your role with the company?
"Maxar is a Space Infrastructure and Earth Intelligence company at its core. We offer end-to-end solutions from Earth observation and analytics to building satellites and developing things like robotic arms, payloads, propulsion systems, and satellite manufacturing. Once we build the satellites and they're in orbit, a lot of them take photos of the Earth, so we do a lot of Earth Intelligence in that way – taking the photos and processing the data we get back from them. It's a really cool company to be part of. You get the whole spectrum of how you use space data.
"A lot of the work I've been doing the past few years is developing electric propulsion systems. My biggest project has been developing an electric propulsion system for a mission that we're working on with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Arizona State University that will explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche. This is the first time this type of propulsion system has been used for this kind of mission. It's really exciting not only for the company but for the broader electric propulsion community.
"More recently, I've taken on some leadership positions. I'm an interim program manager for two NASA Tipping Point studies for the Power and Propulsion Element of NASA's lunar Gateway, a human outpost around the Moon. I'm also working as a guidance navigation control lead on a brand-new type of spacecraft build. In that role, I'm the point systems engineer for mission and analysis and design, the propulsion system, the dynamics and control analysis, and the systems pointing team – essentially all of the groups involved in how we maintain our connection with the Earth. That's been a new leap, this leadership opportunity, in terms of my professional growth."
Are you doing outreach or other things that were part of the nomination?
"Within our company we have intern programs every summer. This summer, I helped our women's network. Since everybody's remote, even the interns, trying to connect women in the company is difficult. There are women, including young women, in the company who have had success and have career navigation strategies that might help some of the interns who are coming in and interns who are transitioning to full- or part-time positions following their internships. I got to connect with a lot of young women in that way."
"I've also been a mentor to a lot of the new hires we bring into the guidance and navigation control group. That's been exciting to help people who are young like me, just coming out of school, make the jump from academia to the business world and show them how to efficiently use all this cool knowledge they have."
It's so unique of someone of your relatively young age who has been able to accomplish what you've been able to accomplish in such a short time since college and then be able to be a mentor to someone. How did you develop the skills that help you succeed as both an engineer and as a mentor/role model?
"I was always looking for mentors and people who thought more like me and weren't only academic people, because that's never who I was. Now that I am gaining more experience and have some of that wisdom to feed back to people who I see myself in, I want to give that back because I know how beneficial it's been to me over the years.
"I think that's where it comes from. I've had incredible mentors in my life. It started in school. I had this idea of what I wanted to do – aerospace. But Nebraska didn't have an aerospace program, so I got integrated right away into clubs that gave me the space experience while I was still getting my education. In particular, Karen Stelling, and the relationship I formed with her during my undergrad time was second-to-none. A lot of the leadership skills, the mentorship skills, and the 'here's how you navigate being a technical contributor and a fellow human' skills I got from her. The skillsets she's bringing to the College of Engineering and the way she impacted my life are profound. I'm always looking back to Karen."
You mentioned Nebraska doesn't have an official aerospace program. How did you find ways to keep your academic dreams going?
"Straight out of high school, I didn't come to Nebraska for that reason – they didn't have aerospace. I went to the University of Arizona instead. When I was at U of A, I loved everything about it. I had no complaints. But I grew up in Nebraska, and it was a thing in my family that you love the University of Nebraska. You love going to game days and wanting to be there on campus. I always had that idea I would be a Husker, and I felt there was something missing.
"My sophomore year, when I transferred to Nebraska, I made an agreement with myself, knowing full-well when I went in that I wasn't going to get an aerospace degree, so I was going to have to make something for myself. That's why I was so integrated into the Aerospace Club and everything else I did. I knew that I had to forge my path if I wanted to meet my goals.
"I so deeply wanted to be a Husker that it was all worth it. Now, when I look back, I fully believe I wouldn't have had the opportunities at any other school."
When you were at Nebraska, the Aerospace Club had four payloads go up on NASA missions. How valuable was that club to you?
"For any space kid, wanting to work for NASA is always in the cards. In terms of preparing me for working with NASA, that club experience was invaluable. I was far ahead of my entry-level peers when it came to how to compile, conduct and perform in NASA design reviews, specifically from the experience I had with the programs – like RockSat and NASA USIP (Undergraduate Student Instrumentation Project) – we had at Nebraska. I already knew what it was like to sit in front of a board of NASA engineers. That wasn't anything new. I knew the type of material that was included in a preliminary design review, a critical design review. That part undergraduate experience, without a doubt, is the single most-concrete thing that prepared me for industry."
Maybe there's a lesson there. It can be about getting the degree and creating your own pathways. Do you see that much among your peers in the aerospace field or are you sort of the unicorn – the only one who takes that path?
"I think I'm in the minority, or one of a few, that's for sure. Especially in the propulsion role, not having the aerospace background is unusual. People are surprised sometimes when they learn I never took classes like orbit dynamics."
So how do you get past that supposed gap in your experience?
"It was the same type of thing as getting my undergraduate degree. I knew there were going to be bits I was lacking in. So, I had to take the mind-set of, learn as you go and ask a lot of questions. I have to say, 'You're right, I never took orbits, but could you teach me this? I will learn quickly. If you could sit down and walk me through, I will pick up on it.' It was a lot of entry-level work and knowing I was going to have to work a little bit harder to get to the same baseline of understanding that a lot of my peers had in this area. But that wasn't something that was necessarily new to me, it was just me in a new environment."
At 27, you're in a fairly early, starting stage of your career. What do you do next?
"I haven't had the chance to think about it. On one hand, I'm so grateful for the opportunities I've had so far, especially being so young and so early in my career. It's a little odd to grapple with what to do next. I do, however, feel that I've landed in a company and a position that really supports my growth and where I want to go. I guess I'm along for the ride. I just have to keep reaching for the opportunities that come along the way and not be afraid of exploring some new paths. I have this great support system of mentors and teachers and peers that are helping me get to where I want to be."
Do you still have goals you're looking to meet?
"I feel that I'm in this season of recalibrating. I'm in this stage of wondering what's going to be next and where do I go from here? Right now, I'm leaning into project and program management. That absolutely feels the path I want to be on, especially with NASA project management. I love the challenging technical problems and working with all the different centers. I think I have been so lucky to be so young and integrated in these types of far-reaching missions."
I know it's a cliché, especially in aerospace, but the sky's the limit, right?
"(Kerl laughs.) Yeah, just got to keep reaching for the stars."
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