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Southwestern Alumna Becomes Orbital Debris Scientist at NASA

Alumna uses computational modeling of “space trash” to keep astronauts, satellites, and the international space station safe.

Growing up in Pearland, Texas—just outside of Houston—was quite the treat for Southwestern alumna, Alyssa Pampell Manis ’07. The mathematics lover (and major) has always admired NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

“NASA’s right down the road, so it was always something in the back of my mind—that it would be a cool place to work,” says Manis.

That idea in the back of her mind came to life in March of 2016. Manis is now an Orbital Debris Scientist at NASA working hard to protect astronauts, satellites, and the international space station from collisions through computational modeling and data analysis.

“Specifically I’m in the orbital degree program and modeling team, which means we look at computational models to predict what the future environment might look like in terms of how much debris there might be from standard launches and collisions (in space),” says Manis.

But she didn’t get there overnight—it took a lot of hard work. After graduating from Southwestern, Manis became a high school math teacher in the Central Texas region. She soon realized it was graduate school that was calling her name. In fall 2008, she pursued a master’s degree in computational and applied mathematics at Southern Methodist University, and then decided to further her education by earning her PhD there.

“Then I moved back to my hometown, got married, and started a post-doctorate at Texas A&M University at Galveston doing tsunami modeling,” says Manis.

Manis can easily recall when her passion for computational and applied mathematics struck her—it was during a prestigious, ten week National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) internship program in Boulder, Colorado while studying at Southwestern.  

“That was one of my first experiences with the more applied research side of things, and I really enjoyed it,” says Manis. “That is what initially sparked the move towards applied math and looking at how we can use math to answer questions and solve real-world problems.”

Which is exactly what she is doing at NASA today. One major focus for her team is the international space station and characterizing that environment in order to keep the people working there safe.  

“There’s a lot of data analysis, such as looking at the current environment to get a better understanding of what it actually is that we’re looking at up there,” says Manis. “We have to rely on ground-based sensors, radars, telescopes, and some in-orbit sensors as well, but there’s a lot of unknowns, so there’s a lot of analyzing data.”

Manis attributes much of her ability to problem solve to being exposed to a variety of disciplines at Southwestern.

“Thinking about things in different ways, I think that definitely helped in terms of having a broader sense of looking at the world,” says Manis. “It’s the kind of investigative nature of what I think Southwestern promotes and the entire environment of being free to ask questions and explore different avenues.”

Manis says her position at NASA is rewarding, and often feels surreal. She hopes this opportunity turns into a long-term career at NASA—using her math skills to impact others and be a part of something bigger than herself.