Vanessa Aponte has been interested in science for as long as she can remember, since she first built a terrarium in the fifth grade. But the Puerto Rican elementary school student didn't think she had what it took to become an astronaut until much more recently.
Now a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Aponte has taken a large step toward that goal. With knowledge of aerospace and chemical engineering, micro-electromechanical systems and other areas, she is working with NASA to develop a miniaturized biological sensor for monitoring an astronaut's immune system during long-term space flights. She hopes one day to fly in space herself.
Her achievements in the pursuit of a lifelong dream will be featured in an article in the August/September issue of SHPE Magazine, the official magazine of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. The article will highlight the research being done by 10 Latina Ph.D. students selected as role models for students across the country.
"When somebody challenges me to do something I'm nervous or even terrified about, like speaking in front of a crowd or writing a big proposal, I smile and then say 'Yes, of course I'll do it,' " said Aponte, who is recognized by professors for her positive attitude. "The bigger you dream, the more daring you have to become. There are many things that will challenge you along the way, but at the same time, there will be people that will see your potential. You have to trust their experience and learn from those times when things don't go as well as you planned."
Aponte began her college career at the University of Puerto Rico, where she earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. As an undergraduate, she came to CU-Boulder as part of Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training, a program that encourages underrepresented students to pursue graduate study in science and engineering.
A turning point in her career path came when she attended a presentation by NASA astronauts at CU-Boulder's BioServe Space Technologies Center. BioServe is an interdisciplinary research center in the College of Engineering and Applied Science that focuses on life sciences research in the space environment.
"I walked out of the conference and it was one of the happiest moments of my life," recalled Aponte. "They made me realize that becoming an astronaut was within my reach."
Aponte completed her master's degree in chemical engineering in Puerto Rico with a grant from Kennedy Space Center focusing on advanced spacecraft life support systems. She went on to win a fellowship from the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science supported by NASA.
In fall 2001, she started her Ph.D. in the specialty area of bioastronautics at CU-Boulder and cited BioServe's vast experience in space flight as an attraction. BioServe has flown an average of two experiment payloads per year for the last 12 years. In June, she will begin working at Johnson Space Center, splitting her time between Houston and CU-Boulder where she works with faculty adviser David Klaus.
"Vanessa has a positive outlook on life and a 'do what it takes to get the job done' attitude," said Klaus. "These traits, in addition to her solid academic foundation, will take her far in reaching her goals."