DETROIT (WWJ) — Elizabeth Barrios says her career dream officially began when she was just 10 years old.
She and her family had taken a trip to the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“We took the visitors tour and every little thing they showed us made me more excited to learn about NASA, space, rockets and more,” Barrios said. “I was completely sold when I walked into the visitors center and was able to walk underneath the giant Saturn V rocket. I told my Mom I was going to work for NASA someday.”
As of Dec. 14, she’ll be another step closer to making her dreams come true. Barrios — with her mom and others watching — will walk across the stage during Wayne State University’s commencement ceremony to celebrate the completion of her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Wayne State’s College of Engineering.
Earning a degree is just one item checked off the list, however. The Riverview native will graduate with a vast amount of internship and co-op experience under her belt. She has worked with R&D heavyweights BASF and the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, and she had no less than four separate internships with NASA.
Barrios worked hard to secure those NASA internships.
“I applied multiple times,” she says. “I was denied many times, but I kept at it. Fortunately, I also had the assistance of professors Steve Salley and Gina Shreve, who wrote letters of recommendation and provided guidance.”
As a 2011 participant in the NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program at the Kennedy Space Center, Barrios learned about materials science research topics such as the efficacy of different antimicrobial materials in water treatment systems, the development of chemical sensing tape for the launch pad, the fabrication and testing of composite products, the failure analysis of various materials, and the research of In Situ Resource Utilization.
“For instance, with regard to chemical sensing tape, I worked to help identify any chemical leaks as early as possible to avoid delays in launch and improve overall safety,” Barrios said. “It was during this internship that I discovered I liked polymers.”
A member of Wayne State’s Alpha Gamma Delta social sorority, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, Barrios also worked as an intern in 2011 at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. There, she said she worked in groups, honed her leadership skills and learned how to extract oxygen from lunar soil, among other things.
Barrios’ third and fourth NASA internships, in 2012 and 2013 at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, were focused on making lightweight antennae for flying vehicles to reduce weight and save cost.
“Through these internships I was able to get into aerogels research, a super-lightweight solid that’s greater than 98 percent porous,” Barrios said. “It’s probably the area of research I’m now most passionate about.”
As a result of conversations and guidance from NASA mentors, Barrios is now focused on getting to work on her next to-do item: earning a doctorate in macromolecular science and engineering.
“I’ve realized that I want to make and discover things that will benefit manned and unmanned spaceflight,” she said. “I want to conduct my own research. To do that, I need my Ph.D.”
Barrios will begin course work toward that goal in January at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University.
Though it’s been a long time since she first looked up at the Saturn V rocket, she’s determined to keep working toward her dream of working at NASA — no matter the time and work in front of her.
“If you are passionate about something, you’ll find a way to be good at it,” she said. “This stuff doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m smart with my time. I’m focused on putting in the work. If you want to do it, anything can be done.”