Published: Aug. 31, 2018
Kristin Nichols

Name: Kristin Nichols
Hometown: Tulsa, OK
Major: Aerospace PhD student
Advisor: Dan Scheeres, Celestial and Spaceflight Mechanics Laboratory

It all started in elementary school when a planetary astrophysicist visited my class and told us all about his work searching for life on other planets and uncovering the mysteries of the universe. That was the start of the dream of one day working at NASA to explore the solar system.

My desired role in space exploration has evolved over the years—from being the first female astronaut to walk on the surface of Mars, to directing astronaut EVAs on a new planetary surface from Mission Control, and now to designing missions to small bodies in our solar system—but my goal to be a part of this grand off-Earth endeavor has never changed.

As a college student, this journey began with choice of my undergraduate program as a top NASA-recruit and led to me becoming a NASA Johnson Space Center co-op student throughout my BS and Master’s-level studies.

Going for Graduate School

As I neared the end of my undergraduate degree, I felt like there was still so much left for me to learn and I wanted more time to dive into the topics that most interested me.

With its program in Aerospace Engineering Sciences, CU Boulder was a natural next choice for PhD.

I began working with Dr. Dan Scheeres three years ago on development of a small body environment model that examines the dynamics of charged dust on asteroid surfaces, which can be used by current and future mission planners to design missions to these small bodies.

Under my advisor’s direction, I was able to secure the prestigious NSTRF (NASA Space and Technology Research Fellowship), enabling me to directly work with NASA experts on development of my models.

Having an advisor that is both well-ingrained in the field but also down-to-Earth and easy to talk with about both research and life-related goals was my number one reason for attending CU.

Dr. Scheeres is an incredible advisor who gives me enough guidance to get going on a topic but ultimately allows me to make my own decisions regarding research direction. Having an advisor like him who is both well-ingrained in the field but also down-to-Earth and easy to talk with about both research and life-related goals was my number one reason for attending CU.

In addition, finding a program that offered courses in the material I wanted to learn and had experts on staff that I could learn from one-on-one was must. CU’s Astrodynamics program is one of the best in the world and you will be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable expertise base anywhere.

A location and lifestyle where I could be happy outside of work and school was also part of my decision. Having a well-balanced life during my graduate degree was something I needed.

That meant opportunities to get outside for hiking, camping, and skiing, and also having access to fun nightlife and a delicious food scene. Colorado’s Front Range checks all of these boxes. It’s truly the best place I’ve ever lived!

My favorite part about my research here at CU is that I am able to combine my background in engineering with my love of space and science. It really is an 'Aerospace Engineering Sciences' degree program, which is exactly what I wanted!

There could not be a more exciting field to work in right now and I feel so incredibly lucky to be a part of it! The opportunities I’ve had here—both professionally and personally—have been unparalleled.