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Meet Naia Butler-Craig

Today we’d like to introduce you to Naia Butler-Craig.

Naia, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I am from Orlando, FL born to amazing working-class parents who do business in marketing and catering. I’m technically a first-generation college student and now, first-generation graduate student. I have wanted to be an engineer for as long as I can remember. At age 5, I promised myself that I would become an astronaut and change the world and at age 9, I drew the entire underbody of a vehicle I was certain could run on air alone. From this, it was clear that I was born to pursue STEM. However, it was not until 8th grade, in an Earth-Space Honors class, that I discovered my unshakeable love and curiosity for space and its enigma. I also learned that Math was undoubtedly my strongest suit and something I truly enjoyed.

So, by the end of the 8th grade, when I began exploring career choices and colleges, I found the intersection between everything I had an insatiable passion for; science, space, engineering, and math. It was then that I discovered Aerospace Engineering and that it was comprised of everything I loved. Researching Aerospace schools led me to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and their summer programs. With my separated parents’ incomes considered, the $1000 price was definitely daunting. However, with help from my parents and my church family, my trip was funded. This camp afforded me the opportunity to fly a single-engine aircraft for the first time and subsequently, spark my love for flying. The following summer, I was sponsored to attend a summer camp at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott campus by the Boeing Company. These experiences solidified my decision in becoming an Aerospace Engineer.

During my undergraduate career I was afforded many opportunities that exposed me to research, and internships. The summer after my first year in college, at 18 years old, I achieved one of my life goals: I landed my dream job as a NASA Engineer with a semi-guaranteed full-time offer after graduation. Although a PhD in Aerospace Engineering has been one of my goals since middle school, it wasn’t until my second year in undergrad, when interning with NASA, that I knew exactly what I wanted my focus to be; Electric Propulsion. When I discovered this field, I decided to begin looking into grad schools and getting involved with undergraduate research to make me more competitive for grad school admissions. This is how and why I was able to become a McNair Scholar and publish my first technical paper as a junior in college.

I also found that the Georgia Institute of Technology had one of the premier labs for Electric Propulsion technology study. With the help of the McNair program, my parents, mentors and God, I was accepted into the Aerospace Engineering PhD Program under the advisement of one of the brightest minds in the field! I have since graduated with my bachelors of science in Aerospace Engineering from Embry-Riddle and successfully matriculated into my graduate program. Along the way, I have been involved in a number of extra-curricular programs and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Organizations like NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), Dreams Soar, Vision of Flight, and Tech Sassy Girls where I have been able to give back and that have all helped me develop into the young professional I am today.

Has it been a smooth road?
I have been through a number of things during my journey from rampant racism, familial struggles, financial struggles, failing a class, and mental health issues. I could generate a lengthy list discussing what I’ve been through but instead, I will explain how I got through an event, I wasn’t sure I could come back from. One of my favorite comeback stories is when I failed my Compressible Aerodynamics Course in undergrad. It was an insanely busy semester since I was traveling for Dreams Soar events, and serving as the region 3 Membership Chair of the National Society of Black Engineers. This requires, not only tons of travel but oversight of NSBE chapters in the southeast region of the US and the Caribbean. I also dealt with the rather sudden death of a person I considered to be an uncle, on top of a full aerospace engineering course load. The professor for this course was less than approachable, and towards the middle of the semester, he was pretty spiteful. The situation escalated to the Dean, who was very supportive but could not save my grade without a big W (late withdrawal) going on my transcript. I decided to take my first failing grade.

Luckily, I had earned As and a B in my other AE courses but my GPA still fell to a whopping 3.1. This was the spring semester of my junior year, so this would be the GPA that would go on ALL of my graduate school and fellowship applications. Mind you, I planned to apply to graduate schools with average GPAs of 3.6-3.8. I was rather convinced I could not get in any school, much less THEE Georgia Tech, or earn any fellowship with that on my transcript. Anxiety kicked in and convinced me that if I couldn’t get in any grad schools, that my lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut was completely shattered. It also told me that I am going to graduate a semester later so I can retake the course.

Needless to say, it was a rough time and in spite of the severe doubt in myself, I decided to retake the class the following semester. Because of the extra course, my semester course load went from 15 credit hours to 18 credit hours. This along with two on-campus jobs, undergraduate research, and a part-time teleworking job with NASA. I didn’t believe I could survive that semester but I did believe in the power of therapy, social support, and most importantly, God’s ability to do the supernatural. To make a long story, longer, I came out of that semester with the 2nd highest GPA of my undergrad career, a 3.78. I also got into the Envirochemical Engineering PhD program at Carnegie Melon University, and the Aerospace Engineering PhD Programs at Purdue University, and THE Georgia Institute of Technology. I was also awarded the GEM (Graduate Education for Minorities) Fellowship to support my graduate studies.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I hold a couple of job titles at the moment. I am a NASA Pathways intern working in the Science and Space Technology branch, and I am a graduate research assistant and GEM Fellow at Georgia Tech. I assist with research in the High-Power Electric Propulsion Lab at Georgia Tech with focus in plasma diagnostics and at NASA, I have had the opportunity to work on projects concerning CubeSat technology, and sub-kilowatt electric propulsion. This past summer, I worked as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratories where I got experience in the computational aspects of electric propulsion. This was a welcomed change of pace from my previous experimental research.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Lee Green Photography, NASA Glenn Research Center, Bridget Caswell, Rami Daud, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

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