Miami Experience leads alumni to John H. Glenn Research Center

By Jesús F. Jiménez, assistant director of digital content

When she started at Miami University, Dr. Lyndsey McMillon-Brown ’13 saw mechanical engineering as her “back up plan.” When NASA approached her about an internship, her adviser gave her simple advice: When NASA calls, you answer.

Today, Dr. McMillon-Brown works as a research electrical engineer at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, one of five Miamians currently at the center.

The others are:

  • Jim Mullins ’94, facility manager of four different facilities
  • Nicole Smith ’97, chief of the Explorations Systems Office
  • Ben Van Lear ’04, Orion Productions Operations, European Service Module lead
  • Colleen Van Lear ’04, Radioisotope Power Systems Program Integration manager

“I’m still at that point where I need to pinch myself every day to make sure I’m not dreaming,” said Colleen Van Lear, who has been at NASA for three years. “I’m just so grateful that my love of space and something that I considered an interest or a hobby is part of what I get to do every day.”

The best toys

Halfway through her freshman year, Nicole Smith started looking around for a challenging major and picked aeronautics.

“I thought, ‘They have the best toys.’”

After graduation, Nicole interned for the Johnson Space Center in Houston and went on to earn a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Cincinnati. Today, she manages a broad portfolio of projects supporting Orion, Space Launch System, Human Landing Systems, Human Research Program, International Space Station and Advanced Exploration Systems. Previously, she was project manager for Orion testing at Plum Brook Station, completing environmental testing of the Artemis I spacecraft, which is the next spacecraft that will take humans to the moon. It is expected to launch later this year.

She was recently featured on Miami’s Love. Honor. Learn. webinar platform to celebrate Women’s History Month.

From paper to space

Jim’s older brother Jeff ’87 also attended Miami, so Jim saw it as a natural fit.

Because Miami did not offer an aerospace engineering major, Jim explored the paper science and engineering major. After Miami, he worked in the paper industry for about seven years in various engineering roles and management roles.

Jim, who met his wife, Sharon Elizabeth (Montain) Mullins ’94, at Miami, started at NASA as a mechanical test engineer and now works as the facility manager of the Chemical Propulsion Research Complex (rocket lab), Creek Road Cryogenics Complex (cryogenics fluid management), Fuel Cell Test Lab and the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER – Planetary Simulation chamber).

Reaching for the stars

Colleen and Ben are a Miami Merger, having worked together on a senior design project. Ben was a senior at Miami when NASA reached out in search of mechanical engineering co-ops. Upon graduating, he went to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

One of his biggest accomplishments was a few years ago when the European Space Agency delivered the first service module to the Kennedy Space Center.

“The team worked together there over the next couple weeks to join it to the U.S. Module, the crew module adapter, and to start mating up all the power and electrical and water and oxygen and nitrogen systems and checking those out,” Ben said.

Colleen grew up dreaming of working in space travel, checking out library books to read about Voyager’s missions to the outer planets. In college, however, she majored in manufacturing engineering and engineering management and entered the automotive and HVAC industries.

For about 15 years, she interviewed with NASA, ultimately earning her current position in 2018.

She is working on the Dragonfly mission, a rotorcraft that will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Its tentative launch date is in 2027.

“When I talk about Dragonfly, I can’t help but say ‘It’s so cool,’ because it’s not your average backyard drone,” Colleen said. “It’s roughly the size of a smart car and will be powered by radioisotope power system as well.”

A back up plan comes full circle

Dr. Lyndsey McMillon-Brown, who earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Yale, said one of her biggest accomplishments so far was studying how Mars dust and dust conditions impact solar degradation.

“This was a great opportunity for me, fresh out of grad school, to lead a small team, design the project and nurture this from start to finish,” she said.

Managing this small team, which received an award for its work, paved the way for her current project. Lyndsey leads six researchers in a $2.5 million effort to develop a new class of solar cells that can be manufactured in space and on the moon.

“I found a lot of great mentors at NASA who have been really helpful for me as I take on this new role … and kind of stretch myself,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot and had a lot of fun.”

Dream scenario

These Miamians have big dreams: A long-term presence on the moon? Maybe even Mars? A return to Neptune? A closer look at exoplanets? For anyone else with dreams of working at NASA, these Miamians say go for it.

“NASA is almost like a small city, so we have people of all different backgrounds,” Nicole said. “We’re not just engineers and scientists. So, if it’s a student who is in accounting, and they also think space is pretty cool, they can come work with us, too. We have a lot of different types of opportunities.”

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