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Alumna Spotlight: Powtawche Williams

Powtawche Williams: Reaching for the Stars

williams_large01Growing up on a Choctaw Indian reservation in Mississippi, Powtawche Williams recalls looking up at night and seeing the stars.

“I realized how beautiful the sky was,” she says. “And it prompted my interest in astronomy.”

For Williams, who today is a flight path control specialist and navigator on the Cassini project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, her love of the stars fueled her lifelong ambition: to work in the space program.

Her family moved to New Orleans when she was in the fifth grade. There, one year later, her class studied a unit on space travel that culminated with them watching the televised launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Despite the tragedy of that shuttle flight, Williams took away from the experience a stronger understanding of what careers there might be for her in the space program.

“It made me more curious,” she says. “I learned about engineering and the different jobs available, and it became my focus to do well in math and science.”

Those abilities would eventually lead her Rice University’s School of Engineering, where she studied for her M.S. and Ph.D. under the mentorship of Professor Angelo Miele. Coming off her undergraduate experience at Stanford, Williams was at first surprised by Rice’s intimate size, but says she found the atmosphere here welcoming.

“Rice’s smaller size allowed me to be independent and grow stronger in my independent thinking,” she says. “And I was able to work across different departments, not just in my studies in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.”

Williams’ interdisciplinary curriculum included courses in computational and applied mathematics, as well as in astronomy, and she wrote her dissertation about the optimization of low thrust in a hypothetical mission to Mars.

Following her graduation from Rice, Williams went to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, part of a project called Mission Jimo, which was designed to examine the solar system’s largest planet and its moons. When Jimo shut down, Williams was transferred over to the Cassini Project.

“Cassini has been in orbit since 2004,” she explains. “And its mission is to study Saturn and the moon Titan. The exciting thing about Titan is that we think it’s what primordial earth may have been like, so this is a chance to see our own past.”

Work on the Cassini project should have ended in 2008, but now it looks like the project will continue through at least 2017. The reason for the extensions, says Williams, is that the navigation and spacecraft teams have been able to conserve propulsion on the orbiter, allowing it to stay in space longer, giving Williams and her fellow scientists more opportunities to study the gas giant and its moon.

“I am so thankful to be here,” says Williams. “I am just amazed.”

Williams, who eventually wants to teach and conduct further research, knows that while the foundations for her love of space were planted very early in her life, her Rice experience played a formidable role in where she is today.

“Rice paved the way for the work I am doing now,” she says. “And it helped me continue my love for the solar system.”

—Holly Berretto, Engineering Communications