UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering University of California San Diego
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Shonte Wright
Jacobs School alumna credits successful career in rocket science to UCSD’s MESA Engineering Program

The Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program has inspired thousands of students, and one of the most notable success stories is Shonte Wright, who graduated from UCSD in 1997 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. “Being a member of MESA was vital to my matriculation. Initially, I was an intimidated 17- year old entering the AMES department (now MAE). I was one of two or three African-American students in a classroom of more than 100. That intimidation was heightened every time I overhead the words ‘they have to let so many of them in.’” After joining MESA, however, Wright’s confidence skyrocketed. MESA provided an academic community of students with common backgrounds and experiences, and promoted achievement and career success.

“After my sophomore year, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a thermal science emphasis,” says Wright. “My plans were further solidified after working with Professor Vistasp Karbhari in the Jacobs School’s structural engineering department, who so eloquently introduced me to the thermal characterization of composite materials.” According to Wright, the Jacobs School’s challenging curriculum and rigorous coursework, combined with MESA’s valuable support, prepared her for graduate work at North Carolina A&T State University where she completed her master’s degree and investigated power sources for deep space missions.

Today, Wright is a thermal systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), where she designs and tests spacecraft hardware to ensure that it performs efficiently despite extreme temperatures in space. One of Wright’s current missions is the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) scheduled for launch in 2003. She is responsible for heater design, thermal testing and tracking thermal resources, and functional requirements. Wright says such heat transfer work can make a critical difference in space exploration. The Mars Pathfinder, for example, performed well in the planet’s harsh environment, where the surface temperature can drop to nearly -100° C. The Pathfinder was able to exceed mission requirements and obtain even more information than anticipated for analysis on earth.

Wright says she appreciates the skills she learned in team engineering at the Jacobs School.

“I spend a lot of time collaborating with other engineers to define thermal hardware locations on spacecraft. I ensure that the thermal control needs are met and that we have designed hardware layouts that can be reasonably implemented. Consequently, I spend a lot of time working with spacecraft mock-ups and flight hardware.” NASA has recognized Wright with a JPL Notable Organization Value-Added (NOVA) Award for initiating the JPL Thermal Tool User Group, and a JPL Level C Award for her supporting role with the Center Space Mission Architecture and Design.

Wright did thermal design studies for the propulsion module of the Europa Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2008.

Wright dedicates much of her spare time to inspiring young students—determined to continue and build upon the tradition of outreach from which she benefited immensely. She gives science presentations to elementary school kids in underserved communities, mentors and tutors high school students in Pasadena, CA, and leads tours and other JPL-related outreach events for elementary and high school aged students. Wright did thermal design studies for the propulsion module of the Europa Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2008.

Looking back, Wright is quick to credit much of her success in academics and at NASA to the Jacobs School and its MESA Engineering Program. “Glynda Davis, the Jacobs School MESA Director, has done tremendous things for MESA. She has worked diligently to see that students within the program get the academic help they need to succeed, and the career access and preparation required to excel at the next level.”