Up, up and away…
A Walker’s graduate is now completing a year-round internship at a NASA division
Morgan Locandro ’16 moved to California in January to begin her year-round internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA where she works on engineering projects including designing different mechanisms for space missions. A self-declared “nerd” and a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Locandro says her love for mechanical engineering began in her junior year at Walker’s during one of Walker’s Lacuna Programs where students are encouraged to take classes outside of their typical studies.
Knowing that her love of all things mechanical was increasing, her friends from the skiing and field hockey teams encouraged her to check out Walker’s robotics club. Locandro jokingly says, “They enticed me with food to get me to attend the first meeting!” After that first meeting, Locandro says she fell in love with robotics. Although there were no spaces left in the club, the faculty coaches made an exception. “I was really excited about joining the team,” Locandro said. “And all of my teachers and friends matched my excitement.”
Locandro shares that joining Walker’s robotics program was one of the things that most influenced her academically. “After starting robotics, I enrolled in computer science, advanced calculus and physics classes. These classes really solidified my interest in mechanical engineering and also in coding,” says Locandro. “I think the opportunity to take these types of classes while in high school was super helpful in guiding me toward becoming an engineer.”
She compares the “power” of building robots to that of Batman. While the superhero had no special powers — he could neither fly nor shoot laser beams from his eyes — he did have a knack for building gadgets. “It was Batman who made me realize you don’t need superpowers to change the world,” Locandro said. “Robotics gave me my bat code.”
“When I was in high school, I think I learned mostly mechanical things, but I have since tried to broaden my work to learn more about electronics, coding and controls,” she said. “To me it’s always just been about playing around and making things because they are cool or funny.”
Locandro says that Walker’s was instrumental in instilling in her a love for robotics and engineering and that the instructors at the School understand why the girls are so passionate about the robotics team. “Everyone saw the value in what we were doing the same way we did,” she said. “All the excitement helped me explode and go for it.”
There was one teacher in particular that drove Locandro’s love of robotics. “He was very excited and passionate about the program and specifically about giving high school girls the chance to get involved and excited,” says Locandro. “I think his passion and excitement for robotics were really infectious and I definitely caught the bug.” She adds, “Through him especially, I saw the importance of sharing my passion with others and how doing so could have such an impact on their lives.”
Locandro said that Walker’s helped her prepare for college by allowing her to study what she loves. “At Walker’s, I always had the chance to do what I loved and I think that being passionate has allowed me to do really well in college because I learn and study for the pure enjoyment of the subjects, not because anyone is making me do it,” she said. “A lot of the learning at Walker’s follows a similar path — you get the chance to focus on what you love.”
Robotics is a place where Locandro said she feels she can be herself. “Robotics is the place where it is 110% OK to be a massive nerd,” Locandro said. “Being that nerdy kid who wants to spend her Super Bowl Sunday wiring a robot in the basement instead of tailgating with friends is encouraged.” All those nights in the basement really paid off.
At RPI, one of her friends suggested attending an information session about JPL and although she had not planned on participating in an internship, she was very interested after her friend explained a little more about the company. “When I heard about everything they do, I got really excited and decided to go for it,” she said. She said it was her ability to design and use design software packages which got her foot in the door.
As for working in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field, Locandro says she is drawn to things that appear challenging. “I love doing things that I would have looked at five years ago and thought it was impossible,” she said.
Five years from now, Locandro said she hopes to be working at a place like NASA or somewhere that explores outer space. As an engineer she says that working on projects at a company like this makes her feel like she’s a part of something bigger than herself.
“I love seeing how engineering can make an impact on the world and I want to be a part of that,” she said.
Locandro’s message to girls and young women looking to get involved in a STEM discipline is to not get discouraged by the stereotypes out there. “You just have to ignore the image and the stereotype,” she said. She says that STEM studies are not all that intimidating and she wished people were not intimidated by them. “It’s not how much you know or how smart you are, it’s about being passionate about something you love.”