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Meet Clarkson

Maria Lang '11

One Giant Leap For Clarkson

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Quick Facts +

What’s your favorite hobby?
Playing piano and singing; playing tennis

Where’s the best place in Potsdam for a late-night snack?

What will you study in graduate school?
Electric propulsion (Aerospace Engineering)

Besides space, where else do you want to travel?
Jamaica and Australia

Over the past 51 years, NASA has bestowed the title of astronaut on roughly 300 exceptionally qualified individuals. If you’re a kid with a dream, you have far better odds of being drafted by the NBA or acting on Broadway than stepping foot in a spacecraft. But Clarkson senior Maria Lang isn’t discouraged by long odds. Lang, a mechanical engineering major and math minor from Texas, has the talent, the persistence and the support — the “right stuff,” indeed — to join the exclusive ranks of NASA’s finest. 

Lang wasn’t one of those kids who grew up launching model rockets and dressing up in a space suit on Halloween. Her first passion was the piano, then science, math and eventually the military. In high school, She dreamed of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lang chose Clarkson instead after being accepted as a S-STEM scholar, a federally funded award given to only 15 incoming freshman each year. Lang would later be chosen as a McNair scholar and a member of the Clarkson Honors Program, two more remarkable opportunities for one-on-one faculty mentorship, leadership training and early research experience.

Through the Honors Program, Lang has been paired with a Clarkson faculty member for four years of original research. Arriving as a freshman, Lang didn’t know what kind of research would be the best fit, but Honors Program associate director Hayley Shen helped connect her with Professor Suresh Dhaniyala in the department of Mechanical & Aeronautical Engineering. Lang and Dhaniyala’s close mentoring relationship was launched during a nine-week research internship the summer after Lang’s freshman year.

“I love the early research experience that the Honors Program provides,” says Lang, who helped Dhaniyala analyze the properties of nano-sized aerosol particles. “While other students are only taking introductory classes, you can apply what you learned in the classroom to real problems. It also helped me build up my resume much faster.”

Lang believes the research experience on her resume was key to landing a coveted internship the following summer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  One summer of mingling with astronauts and participating in cutting-edge research at Goddard converted Lang into a full-on space fanatic.

“Talking with astronauts and watching the videos they took when they went up in space — it was just crazy,” says Lang, who isn’t in it just for the zero-gravity thrills. “I really want to go into space with a propulsion system that I’ve helped to create. I want to be both an astronaut and a research scientist.”

NASA internships aren’t guaranteed year over year. For a second internship at Goddard, applicants are expected to pursue NASA expects applicants to pursue positions directly with NASA researchers who match their interests. Lang’s passion is propulsion, so she e-mailed her resume to the head of Goddard’s propulsion branch. When she didn’t hear back, Lang called the guy on the phone — three times. When he finally picked up, he was so impressed with Lang’s credentials (and her persistence), he nominated her for the prestigious NASA Academy program.

“NASA selects eight to 15 undergraduates and graduate students from all over the world,” says Lang, who was joined in the leadership training program by students from Cambridge, MIT and top universities in Japan and France. One day a week, the NASA Academy participants met with top researchers inside and outside of NASA, including the first Nobel laureate from Goddard, the NASA Chief Scientist and industry CEOs.

The other four days a week, Lang worked in the NASA propulsion lab on fuel “slosh” dynamics. As a spacecraft burns up fuel, the remaining fuel can slosh around inside the tank, causing unexpected torque and stability loss. Lang’s responsibility was to make three-dimensional models of the slosh to develop controllers that dampen the motion. Thanks to Clarkson, she was fully prepared.

“For my honors thesis, I’m using computational fluid dynamics analysis to do my research,” says Lang. “So I actually had that skill already and applied it to solve problems at NASA.”
Back on campus, Lang is active in the Society of Women Engineers. Her favorite annual activity is helping local Girl Scout troops earn their Discovering Technology badge during an overnight at Clarkson.

“As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have that kind of outreach,” says Lang, whose mother couldn’t afford to complete high school in Korea. “I wasn’t really exposed to space and science at an early age, so I want to help young girls find their passion in the STEM fields.”

Learn more about the S-STEM and McNair scholarship, which is extended to first-generation college students and students from underrepresented backgrounds.