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Chemical engineering December graduate one step closer to career dream
December 09, 2013

DETROIT (Dec. 9, 2013) – Elizabeth Barrios’s 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. 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,” Barrios says.

       
 

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 in chemical engineering from Wayne State’s College of Engineering.

Earning a degree is just one item checked off the list, however. The Riverview, Mich., 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, as well as held 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,” says the member of Wayne State’s Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority, American Institute of Chemical Engineers and Tau Beta Pi. “It was during this internship that I discovered I liked polymers.”

She worked that same year as an intern at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where 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 “things that fly” 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. It’s probably the area of research I’m now most passionate about,” she says.

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. I want to conduct my own research. To do that, I need my Ph.D.,” says Barrios, who will begin coursework at Case Western Reserve University this January.

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. 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,” she says.

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Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution of higher education offering 370 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 28,000 students. For more information about engineering at Wayne State University, visit engineering.wayne.edu.