Not many 21-year olds spend half their time in college and half working on exciting projects at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and few have their life’s goals clearly focused at such a young age. For Kirsi Kuutti, however, the sky is the limit, as she pursues her goal of becoming a full-time employee at NASA.
Kirsi is an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double major at the University of Minnesota Duluth who alternates between studying at UMD and with a Co-Op (Co-operative Education) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Duluth as Home Base
Kirsi grew up in Duluth, graduating from East High School in 2013. Since her parents are both teachers, Kirsi early on learned the value of working hard at her education, setting goals, and achieving them.
Her mother Elise Campbell is a second grade teacher at Vandyke Elementary School in Coleraine. Kirsi’s sister Alia is in eighth grade at Robert J. Elkington Middle School in Grand Rapids. Kirsi’s father, Ervin Kuutti, teaches art and photography at Duluth East High School, and her brother Sam is a student at Lake Superior College.
Kirsi acknowledges that she didn’t start out on the science “track.” She studied ballet for thirteen years with the Minnesota Ballet. “I came to the point where I had to decide to go on in dance professionally or continue recreationally,” she says.
She explains that it was at this crossroads, when she was a freshman that she decided to try something new. Her friends were interested in joining the robotics team at East. “I thought the team was just a bunch of nerds. But then I started working on the soccer-playing robot, and I was hooked.”
As Duluth East Daredevils FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition for Science and Technology) Robotics team kept growing, so did Kirsi’s interest in science and robotics. Her first year she was budget manager. As the years went on and the builds got more complex, she took on more and more leadership roles with the team, becoming captain her junior year.
“The team became my family during high school,” she notes. The Daredevils first went to the world championships her sophomore year and returned two times during her captainship.
Dreaming of Space
Kirsi relates that NASA first appeared on her radar one night during the robotics build season during her senior year at Duluth East. “I had a dream that NASA engineers were helping the team build a robot.”
She relates that she woke up, sat upright in bed, and applied for her first NASA Internship at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Kirsi even had to miss her East graduation ceremony to go to that first NASA internship.
Her interest in NASA continued into college as she interned at NASA Johnson and later became a Civil Servant participating in the U.S. Government’s Pathways Internship (Co-Op) also at NASA Johnson.
Kirsi explains that an internship is a one semester arrangement to work with an organization. A Co-Op is a multi-semester arrangement to work at an organization often leading to full-time employment upon successful completion. She notes that UMD has been very cooperative in allowing her to work on her coursework and continue her work with NASA.
Hands-on NASA Projects
Unlike many internship and co-op assignments in a variety of businesses and organizations, Kirsi has been completely hands-on at NASA working on a variety of fascinating projects over her four summers at NASA.
Her projects include fabricating a circuit board for a Solar Array Regulator for a deep space habitat, to allow for alternating between solar power and battery power; designing interface options for an Orion like space craft so astronauts can easily monitor life support systems statuses; producing an astronaut training video for a device that will be used on board the International Space Station; and building a fluid system to determine the accuracy of a humidity sensor which has the potential to help detect water on the Moon or Mars.
“I am always studying when I am not at NASA so I can feel well-prepared and feel that I have learned enough to be helpful,” she notes.
Of her goals of working at NASA full-time eventually, she says, “I would love to be an astronaut.” She names Ellen Ochoa, a veteran of four space flights, as one of her role models. Ochoa is the current director of the Johnson Space Center and was the first Hispanic woman to go into space.
Another of her Kirsi’s role models is Ginger Kerrick, Assistant Director for the International Space Station at NASA, who trains astronauts and has been a flight director.
Kirsi was chosen as the winner of the 2016 AAUW Minnesota Young Women for Equity Award awarded this past April at the AAUW Convention Banquet. The competitive award is given to the nominee who has shown leadership in a specific action that reflects the AAUW Mission: Advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. Kirsi’s advice for young women is to “find something that inspires you, that you are passionate about, and then go for it. Don’t worry if you are the only female in a class.”
She adds, “You shouldn’t stay in your comfort zone. Don’t ever relax or settle.” Clearly Kirsi takes her own advice as she looks skyward to a future that seems destined for great things.
Written by Sheryl Jensen as published in the Woman today magazine.