Amy Quartaro is always on the move. Since arriving as a student in Texas Engineering three years ago, she has interned with three companies, participated in a co-op program with NASA, joined multiple student organizations and moved cities so many times that, she jokes, even her parents can’t even keep up with her.
But not much seems to slow her down — not even a diagnosis of profound hearing loss during her freshman year, which led her to receive a cochlear implant last year. We sat down with Quartaro, now a senior in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering, to learn about what drew her to aerospace engineering and NASA and how she balances school, extracurricular and work activities.
Why did you choose aerospace engineering as your major?
In high school, I knew that I wanted to be involved in the co-op program with NASA, and I had started to become interested in robotics, systems integration and systems engineering. Aerospace engineering provides an interesting combination of systems engineering and physics, so it really came down to the coursework that drew me in.
What have your work and internship experiences been like so far?
After freshman year, I worked for the distribution company Andon Specialties in an office that dealt with semiconductor products. It wasn’t space-related, but it was great to work, earn some money and gain that extra experience. After that, I interned at METECS, which is a small company that contracts with NASA. They gave me challenging work that was really rewarding.
The following fall, I worked at the NASA Langley Research Center (LARC) in Virginia doing robotics research, and it was a dream job. I went back the following summer to continue work at LARC and then transitioned to Houston at the Johnson Space Center in the fall for my position with the NASA Pathways program. I have three more internships to complete through the program, which typically leads to full-time employment.
What kind of work are you doing with NASA moving forward?
I just finished working in Mission Operations for the International Space Station. I was in the planning group so I played a role on the team that schedules and manages how long the astronauts can work, what they can work on and what experiments need to be done. It was definitely one of the coolest places to work! I did operations with flight controllers and was able to sit in the control room for a day. The Johnson Space Center is so big and there is so much going on. There was always something to do.
This summer, I will work in the mechanical systems branch working on the doors, latches and mechanisms that are put on space shuttles. All of it is super crucial to keep the astronauts alive and safe.
And while accomplishing all of this, you’ve also experienced a huge personal change. How have you balanced your hearing loss with school and work?
Through all this, I have finished two years of school, three internships and have gained experience working in a professional environment. I went from being barely legally deaf in 2014 and using hearing aids to hearing significantly less and qualifying for a cochlear implant in 2017. At that point, I was hearing 30 percent of speech in my right ear and only 17 percent of speech in my left ear, with hearing aids.
I have found that the best way to handle it has been to simply power through, but I have had some hard days. The cochlear implant has really helped. I am able to follow the train of thought in class and conversation and hear more than a few words. Before, I would have to find someone and ask them what happened or what was said, which hindered my participation and conversation. Now, I can actually be more vocal because I can hear more of what is being said.
What advice do you have for students who are faced with a big, unexpected obstacle?
Stuff happens! When there are obstacles that keep getting in your way, accept it and don’t shy away from the challenges. There are so many people who are experiencing different things and going through permanent situations like disabilities, and it makes you stronger if you can own it, work with it, accept who you are and go from there.
But it is helpful to have a strong bond with people. A lot of people talk about work-life balance for careers but that’s also very relevant for college. Having friends to hang out with outside of class is a big stress reliever. I’ve been in Theta Tau, the professional engineering fraternity, since freshman year and that’s been my rock while I’ve been here. When I am going back and forth between working and school, I am able to come back to the friends I have had in that group for four years.
All in all, you have to make your journey your own. I’ve loved my time in the Cockrell School and I’d like to think I’ve been successful.