News Column


January 28, 2014

By Mike Bush, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

Jan. 28--Tiffany Tafoya is one of those rare double exceptions: The 24-year-old is both female and an ethnic minority embarking on a career in the largely white, male world of aerospace engineering.

An undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, Tafoya is working toward a degree in chemical engineering with a focus on materials engineering. She also works at UNM's space electronics lab, the Configurable Space Microsystems Innovations & Applications Center, which is just about always referred to by its space-age acronym, COSMIAC.

COSMIAC is replete with "clean" rooms, 3-D printers, antennae, satellite monitors and other scientific gadgets and equipment. To use a website definition, it is a place "where the power and potential of reconfigurable microsystems is being unleashed to meet the needs of future aerospace and defense systems."

Tafoya is right at home.

In late November, a satellite built by COSMIAC researchers and students blasted into orbit from a NASA facility on the East Coast. The satellite still has not begun sending the signals from space that it was designed to transmit, and although they try their best to project optimism, the researchers and students clearly are getting worried.

"I'm a little frustrated," Preston Edwards, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student, said a month after the launch. "But I'm still holding out hope."

Tafoya agrees. So does COSMIAC's director, Christos Christodoulou, and his deputy, Craig Kief. They are a team.

The satellite goes by the name "Trailblazer." Until it came along, satellites contained specially designed parts that were tested individually to ensure they could operate in the unforgiving environment of outer space. Trailblazer's mission was to change all that. It was also intended to pave the way for the design and construction of additional COSMIAC-built spacecraft.

Edwards came to COSMIAC two or three years ago, following an internship with the Air Force Research Laboratory. He helped design the Trailblazer, the solid works or 3-D models included in its structure.

The engineering students are already at work on COSMIAC's next satellite. One quick look at Nick Boynton, a 22-year-old electrical engineering major, and it's easy to see he loves his work. He and Tafoya suit up, then enter a clean room -- also known as a Helmholtz cage -- which is designed to be contaminant-free. It will soon be wrapped in copper wiring, which will interrupt the earth's magnetic field, simulating the atmosphere of outer space.

The cage is named for a 19th century German scientist, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz. Housed in a nondescript three-story office building conveniently located not far from Kirtland, COSMIAC is a "hub of aerospace activity from educational and economic-development points of view," Christodoulou says. And students like Tafoya, Edwards, Boynton and a dozen or so others who work at the lab "are the next generation of workers in this field."

After all, he adds, it is they who will attract new businesses to Albuquerque and help those who are already here.

When COSMIAC was formed in 2008 by an act of Congress -- with considerable prodding by New Mexico's congressional delegation -- it took up a mere 2,000 square feet and had 1 1/2 employees, Kief says. Today, it is 11,000 square feet with 10 full-time workers, not counting the students.

Kief notes that the laboratory and UNM School of Engineering are trying to attract more students of color and females. "UNM is a minority-serving institution," he says, so it only makes sense. But it's something that's easier said than done.

"We now have a NASA grant with Drake State Technical College, a traditionally black college in Huntsville, Ala.," he says. In all likelihood, Drake State will soon be sending students to COSMIAC.

"Students come to us from all over the U.S.," says Christodoulou. "But not minorities." Moreover, he says, "it's very difficult to get females into engineering."

Tafoya believes she is lucky. She was inspired by her grandfather, who was something of a self-made engineer and who helped her get a foot in the door. But it was an aunt, who worked at Sandia Labs, who took her along on a take-your-daughter-to-work day several years ago. At the time, Tafoya was in middle school. After that, she was hooked.


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Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)

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