Catching Big Air: Q&A With SSL Systems Engineer Dr. Ellen Taylor

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Ellen skiing moguls in Colorado.

Ellen Taylor is a project systems engineer at SSL who has worked on COS, CHIPS, THEMIS, ICON, GLIDE and ESCAPADE missions.

Karin Hauck is Communications Manager for the Multiverse education and outreach group at the Space Sciences Lab.

Karin: Where did you grow up ?

Ellen: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, since elementary school. I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but really early on, we moved to Boulder.

Karin: Are your parents scientists?

Ellen: Yes. My mom is not as much a scientist—she is a neuropsychologist. She’s a professor at the University of Denver. My dad is a computer scientist. He started as a professor at University of Michigan and then at University of Colorado, and later on started his own software design company. So they both have more scientific backgrounds.

Karin: Did you like science and/or nature as a child?

Ellen: I loved science and nature—actually, a little less science and nature than just math. When I was little, in kindergarten, my mom said I would tell people that I wanted to be an astronaut, so something got me that early (laughs).

Karin: That’s cool! Do you think you had a realistic idea of what that entailed?

Ellen: I think it was just the whole idea. I remember liking space a lot all the way through elementary school and middle school, and just being very interested in looking at the stars and that kind of thing.

Karin: And could you see the stars from where you lived? 

Ellen: In Colorado, yeah. We were against the foothills, so [there was] not a lot of light from the city, and we spent quite a bit of time looking at the stars

Karin: We’d have family get-togethers at a lake in NH where you could lie out on the dock on sleeping bags, so you didn’t get that crick in your neck that you get while standing. Everyone seemed to know different constellations or different aspects of observing so we could compare and contrast.

Ellen: That’s exactly the same thing  we would do, we would go to a lake with my whole family. A lot of my extended family is in New York and we’d go to a lake there every summer and be on the dock looking at the stars. It was great!

Karin: Were there were there other science-y things that that you noticed in the world around you that intrigued you?

Ellen:   In general I was—and still am—a very outside/outdoors type of person. Especially growing up in Colorado, you do a lot of hiking, and with my mom, we did a lot of skiing growing up. We spent a lot of time in the mountains and in general [enjoying] that natural, outdoors way of being.

Karin: Did you have any mentors or teachers along the way, especially before you got to college?

Ellen: One person I remember very well was a math teacher in middle school—Mr. O was his name.  Okavich was his last name but we called him Mr. O. He was fantastic,  one of those teachers you connected to immediately. I remember really wanting to go to the class every day. He had an incredible personal story where he had escaped the Holocaust. I remember him telling that story to the class and it created an amazing connection with him and also with what he was teaching. 

Karin: What grade was that? 

Ellen: I think that was probably eighth or ninth grade. I remember having geometry with him, so it was before high school. 

Karin: Other mentors?

Ellen: My second favorite teacher was my physics teacher once I got to high school.  Just another great guy—Mr. Briggs. I really liked the classes and the stuff he was teaching. He was kind of a hands-on person and he was very lab oriented. He was a free climber or a mountain climber. I might have to google him—I could totally get it wrong, but I remember he did a lot mountain climbing and that was a big part of him, we definitely knew that’s what he did most weekends. Then in class he was very hands-on with physics experiments and we did a lot of labs—way more interesting than doing some book-work for physics.

Karin: That must have made it fun for the students.

 Ellen: Yeah, it also helped that I could not stand English or writing or reading!

Karin: Say what?! 😉 What was your path to SSL—how did you end up coming here?

Ellen: I went to  college at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU Boulder). Got my Master’s and PhD there. At that time, I did a lot with LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) and with Space Grant. One of the things I spent a lot of time doing, both in my undergraduate and graduate years, was working on sounding rockets with Space Grant and spending my summers out at Wallops Island. We had a bunch of student-run projects that were just great so I knew that was the kind of environment I was looking for. We were doing some kind of design reviews and stuff, and through that I got involved with a guy named Gerry Murphy and DesignNet Engineering,  which was a sort of consulting group. He was helping out Ossy (Siegmund)’s  group (at SSL), knew him well, and was doing the COS (Cosmic Origins Spectrograph) instrument, so I started working with him. He knew I was interested in looking around the Bay Area— my husband was looking at possibly doing a clerkship for a judge out here—we were looking in DC also—and Gerry said, “I know a lab that needs people.” I already was doing some systems engineering stuff for these sounding rockets, and SSL was looking for a systems engineer for CHIPS. So I got hired doing the systems engineering for CHIPS through DesignNet and stayed with design as more of a consultant to SSL for years, probably five years, or something like that. At least through the CHIPS program. Then I went from there, and just stayed and never left!

Karin: It sucks us in! (laughs)

Ellen: It’s amazing, it’s really funny! Yeah, I was telling Bill [Craig] the other day that I didn’t have to apply to that [job] back in the day. And University of Colorado had assured admission, so I never had to apply to college, and I have never done an interview for a job.

Karin: Wow, you’ve never had a formal interview for anything?

Ellen: No, with Gerry I was just talking to him after the review and he was starting up this company and I said “Yeah, sure,” and then we went to talk with the people out at the lab and they said “Yeah, that sounds good, why won’t you just do that if you’re coming out?” It just happened. 

Karin: That’s amazing. Lucky you!

Ellen: Yeah, that’s probably why I haven’t left—too worried about an interview (laughs).

Karin: Right! OK, what do you think is the most interesting or unanswered question in your field? 

Ellen: So, the easy one is: what sort of life is out there? and not even whether there’s life out there—I think there is—so what does it look like, what form does it take?  That’s the huge existential big question. In my field, what interests me is thinking about 10, 15 years down the road and finding out what we can do with the technology, like are we going to be landing on Mars ten years down the road? Is it going to be longer than that? Are we going to be making oxygen there? IT sounds like they were doing that with some of the experiments with Mars 2020. And what does space exploration look like the short term, in my lifetime? I would love to see what the answer is when we get there. 

Karin: Yeah, the Mars stuff lately is so interesting, with all the pictures and some put together as a movie. The landscape looks like Utah or something. If you travel through that part of the country—the part that you’re from, actually—you go through areas where all you see are rocks, and no plants or anything, and that’s what Mars looks like to me.

Ellen: Exactly, it just it actually doesn’t look all that foreign.

Ellen Taylor on console as the THEMIS Project Systems Engineer in the Mission Operations Center, moments before the launch. [photo credit: Bryce Roberts].

Karin: Can you describe some high points working on your project? 

Ellen: The best days are the launch days, and the days running up to the launch. That’s just hard to beat. Testing gives the same sort of feeling: when you have put something together and it finally works and you can see it all work together. Those are definitely the fun days. 

Karin: And low points?

Ellen: The bad days are when things don’t work and  or when you get stuck in a lot of meetings and you’re just kind of going around on the same topic with different answers each time, instead of being able to make a decision and move on. 

Karin: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of work? Sounds like you’re pretty busy is there anything that might surprise people that you like to do?

Ellen: My biggest passion outside of [work is] skiing. I skied when I was at CU, I was on the ski team there and I would ski, I don’t know, 90 times a year, all the way through college

Karin: That’s a lot, you must be a really good skier.

Ellen: I ski a lot! I grew up skiing and I was a freestyle skier at CU—freestyle is where you do the bumps and where you do the jumps in the middle, so that’s what I did for quite a while. It was it was great. And nowadays, we do a fair amount of skiing—though not as much as I would like!—but we and the kids do a lot of skiing and still absolutely love that. We go to Tahoe, and my mom still  lives in Colorado, so we go back there to ski, as well. My sister is in Utah, in Salt Lake, and so we go there to ski also. Our big trips in the last number of years have all been ski trips. We went to Austria with the kids to ski there, which was awesome. We went to Saint Anton, you fly into Switzerland but then you can take a train. There are a bunch of little ski areas and lodging and you can ski from one area to the next, it’s a fantastic place. So we did that, and then we went to Steamboat Colorado last year, and Telluride Colorado the year before, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, etc. So that’s kind of our family thing.

Karin: Any other interests? 

Ellen: The other thing I try and sneak in when I’m working from home is tennis. I’ve played a lot of tennis recently, I did that in school as well, and so that’s my other time sink. Then it’s just family, kids, and all that. 

Karin: Thank you so much — it’s great to chat with you.

Ellen: You’re welcome – hopefully, we’ll see each other in person sometime!