Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Inspires You?

I have recently been asked to go back to my high school for an alumni math/science/technology fields event. To quote the email  "We want a wall of JETS alumnae history to show these students that they are not going to wander aimlessly into their futures, that we have gone before them and that we’re here to light the way." 

The whole I idea I am now the one lighting the way is throwing me off.  I am normally the person looking to others for direction and now people are looking to me. When did this switch?  When I first saw this email I mentioned it to one of the site guys who has turned into the mentor I never asked for and he told me that not only was I going, I needed to go.  I look to him for a lot of guidance and direction right now (for everything from how to pitch a presentation to what football team is going to win this weekend... ) so this was the kick in the pants to know that I had to go. 

I still really don't feel like I am able to be that much of a guide since I am still looking to my own mentors daily but this may be where I can inspire.  Anyone who has gone through engineering school will tell you it isn't fun.  What you get on the other side of engineering school is where things are fun. Engineering school has allowed me to do what I love. I have had to chance to build satellites and robots, and most recently, launch rockets.  I've stood on launch pads, in the space shuttle, blow rockets, and in thermal chambers.  All because I took the leap of faith called engineering school. I will never know what some of the spacecraft I put up there have done since many are secretive programs, but I can only hope I have made an impact.

I have the people around me who continue to inspire me when things get rough and sometimes that is all I need. It amazes me how much a "you can do this" means from a trusted mentor or the proof that someone has gone before me so I am not blazing my own trail.  The one person or thing that keeps someone going or points them in the direction they didn't know they wanted to go may be of more use than a guide. Dreams are powerful things and I may be there to prove that they do come true which could be more useful that I thought. 

Now,  I hope I don't screw this up.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jackie O

Oh Jackie O.

It has taken me a while to finally get up the guts to try and put a fitting tribute together to a dog that was my better half. She was the peanut butter to my jelly, Batman to my Robin, the other pea in the pod. Jackie and I first met December 28, 2000; she was 6 weeks old, and I was 14.  This was the start of a bond that few will ever understand.  Jackie picked up her name from my mother who when asked what her name should be answered "Jackie O! She's a Jack Russell of course!" the family friends taking care of her at this point started calling her that and I never could figure something better out to change it.  She grew into the name Jackie O very well, never a moment of drama could be missed and her views were always known.

Her early years where characterized by the typical terrier stubborn streak. House breaking took longer than it should have since she did not have time to stop playing to go outside, but once she finally got it through her head, she never had a mistake.  She always challenged rules with an attitude of "wanna make a bet?" but quickly learned what were her toys and what were not. I am still impressed at how quickly she learned that and how she never strayed. I have memories of being woken up at 3 and 4 am with a tennis ball dropping on my head, toy piles under my bed, and licks all over my face to inform me that even if it was the weekend, it was time to get up, now!  She would get annoyed when she was left outside for too long since she wanted to be in on the action. 

My mother always said we deserved each other since we were both just as stubborn as the other.  Standoffs over something were common. Attempts to wake me with tennis balls lead to a no toys on my bed rule. This rule was constantly challenged with new toys, and on different parts of the bed. Just because no applies on that spot, with that toy, doesn't mean it applies here right? 

Her middle years were where we grew into the duo. Ash and Jack, A&J, whatever you called us, where one was the other was sure to follow.  Jackie slept in bed with me since she learned that under the covers was much warmer than on top.  (That later translated into cheaper heating bills, so I didn't complain too much when I moved out on my own with her) I couldn't fall asleep without feeling her next to me, and it took a few weeks in college every time I went back to school to get used to not having her next to me.  We did terrier trails, horse shows, and everything and anything. She became skilled at navigating airports in her bag and would be waiting in it as soon as she saw it come out so you couldn't forget her.  At terrier trails people were impressed with how well we read each other and we consistently cleaned up in youth handler and youth obedience where they mostly judge the duo.  I still feel bad for leaving her when I went to college, but she managed to wrap my mother around her front paw.  I would come home to a dog that was over weight and running the house.  She was always over joyed at seeing me, but she knew the game of ruling the roost was over.  It was during this period that she started being able to predict when I would come home. A few days before I would get home from school Jackie would move back into my room with no warning. She did this once when I had given no one warning I was coming, but Jackie knew.  She would also stop eating for a few days after I left her. 

Her last two years were the best. I always promised her when I left for school that after I graduated she'd go with me wherever I went. I kept that promise to her and she moved with me to Colorado.  She may have had to spend time alone while I was at work but that didn't stop either of us. Where ever she could go, she went. My back seat driver learned how to roll down windows in the car and got very frustrated when child lock was applied.  She learned about dog parks and frog hunting at Chatfeild. She almost knocked me on my rear end a few times trying to chase rabbits in snow.  She was very picky about her rear end touching snow which made winter very interesting, but it was very Jackie.  She was never one to let her views go unknown. If she was not happy with the situation she would happily let you know, or find a way to make herself happy with the situation. Once this involved leaping 3' into the air to pull a stuffed toy out of a grocery bag. Well played, Jacks.  She also spend nights sleeping outside the closet where I kept the squeaky toy that had a bed time since it wouldn't die. She was never one to give up easily.

Last October Jackie was diagnosed with Inflammatory Mammary Carcinoma, a very aggressive form of breast cancer in dogs.  We did everything right to try to prevent this from happening. We spayed her before her first heat which should have reduced her chance of mammary cancer by 99.5%, I paid careful attention to her lumps and bumps, and she got all her routine care. She also had to get the most aggressive form of mammary cancer, found in only 5% of all mammary tumors. My girl was quite the fighter though. She fought and fought for about  5 months.  Left untreated most dogs make it a month.

Through those 5 months she showed her true self in many forms. She became the hit of the oncologists office and everyone at the referral hospital knew Jackie O the second we walked in the door.  She was a large personality in a small body.  Her side effects from chemo were minimal and those that surfaced were faced with chicken broth and rice. She did have to have one tumor removed when she informed me she was going to remove it herself or we were going to have it taken off for her, this was on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend too. Her timing was never a strong point.  She then informed me the cone I stuck on her to keep her from removing her staples as well was not to her liking and she pulled it off over night along with some staple rearranging. Our vet joked that Jackie wanted to add her personal touch.  Jackie had skill for getting to the last treatment of a chemo protocol and then having a tumor resurface.  She finally hit the point where the cancer invaded her lymph system  and chemo had really stopped working.  At this point I had to make the impossible choice to stop putting her through Chemo and she was given 2-4 weeks.

Jackie made it almost 4 more weeks. During those few weeks we spent as much time together as we could.  I knew those moments could never be reclaimed.  On the last day of March she left me.  She had stopped eating nearly everything, even baby food which was always a favorite, and the light in her eyes was starting to fade. The little girl who had fought so much was still trying to fight for me as much as I was trying to fight for her. Her personality was still there since she was voicing her views and telling people off until the end. Her new brother (Walter) would not step foot near me when she was on my lap for fear she might get him. Letting her go is the hardest choice I have ever had to make.  Our vet who claims to never cry since she has to keep her distance started crying that day.  She was the one who pointed out to me only a year ago that I had my soul mate in a 15 pound bouncing, barking terrier.

Every day I wish there was something else I could to to have Jackie back, but there is not.  The back seat of my car is still empty, child lock is strangely off in the car,  the porch is still missing a guardian,  my bed is colder, and life is a little quieter and slower.  I realize how lucky I am to have had such an amazing dog. She was my soul mate dog and I know there will never be another like her.  She was a class clown, a dictator, and the best friend you never had rolled into one.  Her antics were always good for a laugh, and her tongue always cleaned up tears.  On the day I lost Jackie our vet passed on a comforting thought: we are all brought on the Earth to learn how to love, Jackie just learned very quickly.

Here's to you Miss Jackie O,  you will always be loved.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Men In My Life

Earlier this year I received news that one of my high school teachers was diagnosed with ALS.  To say this was a kick in the gut is an understatement.  That teacher was the one who pushed me on the path to becoming an engineer.  He mentored my high school robotics team, was my adviser, and was also the first person whom I would consider a mentor.   Looking back I realize there have been a few very strong mentors in my life. These would be the men in my life.

I remember many long days in the robotics lab spent learning about tools, how to build things, and why things work the way they do.  Loh taught me how to figure things out and why prototyping is so important.   He was happy to explain why a concept worked the way it did by building.  Torque was taught through gears and a robotics arm. This was my first introduction to hands on learning. Loh also helped teach me calculus and physics by showing me their applications.   I still remember Loh being my constant source of support during college applications and even to this day. When I got into MIT, I walked into his office with the admissions letter, said nothing, and handed to him. He nearly cried while reading it.  When I finally chose to go to Olin he said he was proud I chose somewhere that was a better fit for me.   When I got my current job launching rockets he asked to be kept informed of all the launches I worked and wants to hear all about what happens.  He was the first person who really encouraged me that I could be an engineer and go out and do great things.

In college I met Oscar.   He helped get me over my fears of not understanding things since I was suddenly thrust into a world of guys with egos who always said they knew everything.  Oscar took time to help me work through things so I fully understood them, then could apply them. He convinced me that I actually did know what I was doing and pushed me to reach beyond what I thought I could do.  Without Oscar I am fairly convinced I wouldn't have survived college. He also taught me one of the most important lessons, that I not only can I be an engineer, I am an engineer.

In college I also met Ben. He was a manager at a major defense contractor, I was, well, me about 4 years ago. Confused as to what I wanted to do post college, looking for guidance, and well, in he walked to my life. He was the person who gave me the courage to know that I could pursue a career in aerospace, and on top of that he helped me get one and is now helping me through it.  He recently retired but he is still apart of my life.

A little over a year ago I ran into a guy at work who works out at the launch site.  We some how fell into a mentor/mentee relationship after a few months and from him I have learned a lot about not only the industry I work in, but how to survive the working world.  Ron has been the one who told me I could do something when I doubted myself and helped make things happen when I started trying to improve things and someone yelled at me to get out of their sandbox. He has helped me learn to deflect harsh critics, and stand on my own feet. When things go well he has been the one ready with a pat on the back, but he has also been the one there when I have screwed up and needed help figuring out how to repair things.  Ron has always been there for a moment of levity when the going gets rough, and there even when my triumphs could impact him negatively. That to me is the true meaning of a selfless person. If I am able to learn even a few things from him I will be very lucky.

All of these men have shaped my life in dramatic ways, some more than others. Without them I would not be an engineer, not be in aerospace, not be a lot of things.  I am grateful for everyone of them.  Half of them have actually acknowledged they are a mentor, and the other half have not, but that makes no difference. What you learn from a person and take with you does not depend on a label.  I know what I have learned from these people is greater than they will know. Loh taught me about the quest for knowledge, Oscar showed me the confidence within myself, Ben pushed me to reach for my dreams, and Ron is helping me achieve them while keeping a sense of humor. 

"A great mentor guides without giving the answers, teaches through discovery, demonstrates without lecturing, provides support from backstage, observes without hovering, and leads by example."