Becoming a Rocket Scientist
Theresa Benyo already had an exciting and fulfilling career as a project manager at NASA. With a great job, a house, a husband, two kids, and hobbies like musical theatre what more could you want? Academically speaking, she’d already earned a dual bachelor’s degree in physics and computer science from Kent State University (1988) and master’s degree in computer science from Case Western Reserve University (1995). But, for her, there was still something missing. She’d always been fascinated with nuclear physics since she first saw NASA astronauts walking on the moon, on her parent’s television. Always a top student in high school and college, she figured why not go back to school and take some more physics classes to see if her love for physics was still there. After taking a few refresher courses, she realized her passion was still there and decided to enroll in the Ph.D. program in the Physics Department. NASA fully supported her decision and gave her a full-time fellowship so she could complete her course work in 18 months. In 2013, she defended her dissertation and earned her doctorate which allowed her to take a new direction at NASA as a theoretical physicist. She’s now researching the effect of gamma rays on materials and couldn’t be happier with her decision to go back for her doctorate.
On March 18, Jim Maxwell (Marketing and Public Relations Communications Specialist at Kent State University’s College of Arts and Sciences) visited Dr. Benyo at her office at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio to learn how a two-time Kent State alum became a real rocket scientist. With it being both Women’s History Month and “Physics Month”, a part of Kent State’s celebration of “A Year of Science”, we couldn’t have found a better alum to shine the spotlight on this month.
College of Arts and Sciences (CAS): In a nutshell, what do you currently work on at NASA?
Theresa Benyo (TB): I lead the nuclear diagnostic activities for the Advanced Energy Conversion (AEC) team and help guide experiments, analyze data and review theories. I split my time between the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and the NASA’s Plum Brook Campus in Sandusky where they can simulate the radiation conditions of outer space.
The type of things I’m working on are mainly at Plum Brook Station and it’s rather strict access. I cannot go into detail about the research, unfortunately. I can tell you that I’m researching the effect of gamma rays on a variety of materials to see how they react. Papers on the subject are currently restricted to NASA-only personnel.
I always loved nuclear physics since undergraduate school at Kent State, but also was excited about computers and how they are used to help different science disciplines. NASA was the top place I wanted to work at since I was young and when the opportunity came up to join the team here (NASA), one year after graduating from Kent State, and do research on parallel computing, I took it.
Slowly the area of parallel computing matured enough that there wasn’t much work in that field starting about 12 years ago. I then contemplated going back to school for my Ph.D. in physics since I missed that field so much. I started to go back in 2005 and it recharged me and my focus on physics. It felt like coming home because a lot of the faculty members were there from when I was an undergraduate student. It wasn’t easy, but it just kept nagging at me and then I found out, hey, this is really enjoyable.
CAS: Tell me about your dissertation work at Kent?
TB: I wrote my dissertation on the results of my study on magnetic fields and weakly ionized gases to slow hypersonic airflow and extract energy out of the airflow entering a supersonic jet engine. I originally wanted to work my thesis on something nuclear physics related, but seeing as how NASA supported my going back to grad school and there wasn’t much nuclear physics research going on at the time, I had to work on something other than that. That’s why I chose magnetohydrodynamics and worked on computer modeling in that area related to supersonic jet engines and hypersonic flight. From there, support in hypersonic research at NASA melted away and I was made aware of the current research I’m working on and is exactly related to what I really want to work on. It’s been a long journey, but I finally made it back to nuclear physics.
CAS: What led you to Kent State University and eventually NASA?
TB: I attended Notre Dame Academy, a very good college prep school in Chardon, and earned an Honors College scholarship to study physics at Kent State. I always liked math and physics and wanted to study atoms and understand how radiation works, so I double-majored in physics and computer science at Kent. It was quite fulfilling and rewarding. I realized that this is where I was meant to be. The summer after my sophomore year I landed an internship and later a full-time position as a physicist at Bicron Corporation. But, it was always a dream of mine to work at NASA and, in 1989, I landed a position at NASA Glenn Research Center as a computer engineer.
In 1995, I took on the role of project manager at NASA Glenn and later I was promoted to aerospace engineer and performed theoretical research on magnetohydronamics for hypersonic flight.
CAS: How did Kent State help you become the person that you are today?
TB: One thing that I liked about Kent State was that it was geographically close to where I grew up in Parkman, Ohio, so I didn’t have that anxiety and stress of being far away from family. It was a state university, but it wasn’t overwhelming and it wasn’t in a city, which made it a really good match for me and where I came from. The Physics Department was great because it was small and you could get attention. You didn’t feel like you had to compete with hundreds or thousands of other students. You could really focus on learning. Dr. David Allender was my thesis advisor. He and Dr. Michael Lee were both very influential to me as an undergrad and grad student. Their teaching styles were both very engaging.
I also worked in Dr. Mary Neubert’s organic chemistry lab at the Liquid Crystal Institute. She was a great lady to work for and I cherish my work experiences there in the late 80’s. I even helped with moving the institute from off-campus near the old Robin Hood Inn to the building in between the Chemistry and Physics buildings which now is shared between those two departments. I went to a retirement party for Dr. Neubert at the current LCI building which is very nice.
One thing that I always admired about her was that she not only focused on organic chemistry, but she had a creative outlet with painting. For me, I do musical theatre as a hobby and it really helps you keep a balance in life, which is important. I like variety, and I’m a big picture person, so I’m not the type to get involved in the minor details of something and that kind of lends itself to being a theoretical physicist because you need to have a big vision.
CAS: What advice would you give current students pursuing a degree in the sciences like you did?
TB: Do what you love. Learn about things that you love and you can’t go wrong. If you hit obstacles, and you will, just keep going and learn from those challenges, because it is not going to be easy. Math and science paths are pretty challenging. It’s almost like the medical field to me.
CAS: It’s Women’s History Month. What type of things did you have to overcome as a female in the sciences?
Things have come a long way since I first started. Men and women do think differently and biologically approach problems differently. But, I think if you recognize that, we can actually use that to our advantage in our research because diversity of thought is really important. Actually, we just named our first female director of Glenn Research Center, Janet Kavandi. She’s very astute and very engaging and yet also down to Earth, so she’s kind of a model for me to follow. She’s a former astronaut, so she’s seen a lot and she’s tough.
Overall, I think it’s been an adjustment because the sciences have been a male-dominated field, but it’s evolved. It really has evolved. I noticed it from when I was an undergrad student to a grad student. And, the Physics Department at Kent State is still relatively small, but there are a lot more women in the undergrad program now and that’s great! I was the only female undergrad student in my class. Also, the current faculty female to male ratio in the department at Kent is awesome.
The culture has changed. There is less of a stigma. It used to be that you need to get married, etc., but now a woman can choose from many different options.