Nari Hwangpo in Iceland.

Where are you from?

I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the U.S. when I was seven years old. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

This is probably not the most ideal way, but during my first year of college, one of my classmates told me I should not major in anything science related because it’s rigorous and girls should stick to what we’re good at, like fashion or marketing. Although it was a little discouraging at the moment, it actually motivated me to persevere and graduate with an aerospace engineering degree.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I started interning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during my senior year of college. When I graduated, I began working on NEOWISE and Spitzer as a systems engineer and sequence engineer, respectively.

Nari hiking in Joshua Tree
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park in California.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I’m a systems engineer. I think the best way to describe a systems engineer is “jack of all trades.” As a systems engineer for flying missions, I monitor the spacecraft’s health and perform routine spacecraft updates. For developing missions, I support any mission operations system development, including risk management, requirement updates and traceability, trade studies, and test bed activities. Basically, if you’re good at multitasking, then I think systems engineering is for you.

"Engineering can be daunting initially, but if you work hard, it will all pay off in the end and you’ll have one of the coolest jobs in the world, in my opinion."
- Nari Hwangpo

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

NEOWISE because it’s my first mission, Spitzer because discovering exoplanets like the ones in the Trappist-1 system is awesome, and last but not least is Europa Clipper—because who doesn’t want to find life beyond Earth?

What has been your biggest personal challenge, and how did you overcome it?

My career path has been far from ideal in many ways. After high school, I decided to pursue a career in the real estate field instead of going straight to college. Everything was working out nicely, but after working in the field for a few years, everything became routine and unchallenging. When I realized that path wasn’t for me, I decided to go back to school, which was one of the hardest decisions I had to make at that time.

Nari at Runyon Canyon
At Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles.

Who inspires you?

My mentors here at JPL. Seeing how passionate they are about what they do is inspiring. One of my mentors, Don Royer, has been working at JPL for a little over 50 years now and he likes to tell me stories about past missions. One of the stories that resonated with me was his time on the Ranger program, one of the first unmanned space missions to the surface of the Moon in the 1960s. Learning about missions from people who actually lived them is one of the incentives for working at JPL. One day I hope to have as many inspiring stories to tell young engineers.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Engineering can be daunting initially and requires a lot of work, but if you work hard, it will all pay off in the end and you’ll have one of the coolest jobs in the world, in my opinion.

Nari at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California.
Nari at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California.

What are some fun facts about yourself or something people might not know about you?

One of my passions is cooking. I love to cook all kinds of food, but my favorite cuisine and the one I’m most confident about cooking is Korean food. I also love to travel, especially to places with lots of nature. I enjoy exercising and some of my favorite workouts are yoga, hiking and spinning. I also have a Maltese named Mr. Lee. He’s almost 10 years old.

What is your favorite space image and why?

This is the NEOWISE (Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). It’s my first mission as a systems engineer at JPL.