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Wind Tunnels and Women’s Chorale

Wind Tunnels and Women’s Chorale

Laura King-Steen ’08 and her coworker and now-husband Michael King prepare a probe to measure droplet size and velocity in the Icing Research Tunnel at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

When Laura King-Steen ’08 was looking at colleges, science and music topped the list of interests shaping her decision. But it was the incorporation of faith into both of them that ultimately led her to Bethel. Her college experiences—and even Bethel alumni she had never met before—have since shaped her career trajectory in unexpected ways. Now as an icing cloud calibration engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, she studies the way environmental factors impact aircraft design. King-Steen shares about how Bethel helped prepare her for her work.

What brought you to Bethel?  

My mom is a Bethel alumna, so my connection started there. I visited other colleges that were nominally Christian, but that clearly weren’t practicing what they were preaching, so to speak. That made me all the more drawn to Bethel, where people seemed to act out their faith and train others up in it. I was also a big choir geek in high school and loved that Bethel had a strong choir. I enrolled in the “3-2” dual-degree engineering program, but two years in, I realized that I wanted to continue on to graduate school so it made more sense to finish my bachelor’s degree in physics and start my master’s degree sooner.

What Bethel memories stick out to you?

My freshman year, I lived on Bodien 3rd Floor and loved it. I was in the Women’s Chorale and then Bethel Choir; it was awesome! I was a RIOT Bible study leader (now called Shift), tutored in the MathLab, worked as a Teaching Assistant, and sang on one of the Vespers worship teams. I did my senior research project with Professor of Physics Keith Stein, helping him with computational work as he consulted with NASA on the Mars Science Laboratory parachute. That parachute design was used on the Curiosity Rover, which eventually explored Mars. I was one of two women in my graduating class to major in physics or engineering—and one of four in the entire department. Those women and I had a really fun relationship at Bethel, supporting and encouraging each other in a time when there were fewer women in the department.

What parts of your Bethel experience best prepared you for your current role?

My role is really part-engineer, part-physicist, so I kind of “stumbled” into a role that called for someone with the dual background that Bethel offers. Engineers generally want to find information for the sake of solving some problem they have (like designing a vehicle that can handle certain tasks given a certain environment), while physicists are happy to find information just for the sake of finding information (e.g. “We found dark matter!”). For my role, I need to be able to communicate to both scientists and engineers and operate from both mindsets—finding what’s needed to get a test done, but also stopping to think through the physics of a situation to describe the results we are getting. We also use laser-based drop-sizing probes, which draw on my background in optics. I was really grateful to have Dr. Stein for Fluid Dynamics as well as for my research project. He’s a physics professor but went to school for and does his current research as an aerospace engineer. Since I was heading toward aerospace engineering, this was a big deal for me!

One thing I really appreciated about the physics and engineering department was that I knew all my professors, and all my professors knew me. For years after, I asked them for advice on academic and career decisions. I got to hear them talk about their faith—both inside and outside the classroom—and I knew they believed what they were saying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “How is it you’re a scientist and also a Christian?” People get the idea that Christianity is anti-science, when that is not true at all. As a Christian physicist, my job is an opportunity to discover the amazing mind of God and how He so intricately orchestrated the universe to work—and also made it so that we could discover it for ourselves. Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” For me, it was a big deal to have role models who were both strong scientists and strong Christians. 

What has been your path since you graduated from Bethel?

I went on to get a Master of Science (M.S.) in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University; I guess I went from a small school in a big town to a big school in a small town! Another Bethel physics grad, Matt Borg ’03, was already working in a lab out there, so I had his connections to build on. My research in grad school focused on flow characterization in a hypersonic tunnel, which related closely to my original job at NASA: wind tunnel flow characterization. My first research project here was to do flow quality surveys for the icing research tunnel, and it became clear they really needed someone doing cloud characterization work full-time. I kind of stepped right into it!

Now I’m an icing cloud calibration engineer with HX5 Sierra, LLC—working as an on-site contractor at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. We have a wind tunnel that simulates an aircraft icing environment—namely flight speeds, cold temperatures, and a cloud of super-cooled liquid water drops coming out of a set of spray bars. “Calibrating” the cloud means measuring and adjusting the cloud uniformity, liquid water content, and drop sizes ranging from 2-2,000 micrometers (for comparison, a human hair is about 100 micrometers). Each day, I’m running a test or analyzing data, answering questions from customers or researchers about our cloud, and planning or preparing for upcoming tests.  

Does your faith inspire or inform your work?

Yes, but not in the way I expected. My faith inspires me to pursue excellence, truth, and integrity in the work that I do. It also pushes me to be loving toward the people I’m working with, which is more important than many people realize. Very few engineering jobs are “solo”—you’re pretty much always going to be working in a team!

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add about Bethel’s physics department?

I tell coworkers that my undergrad physics department had only five professors while I was in it. But when I add that within a few years, four of them had National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, that usually raises some eyebrows! I really loved being a part of the physics department at Bethel, and I’m grateful for the large role it played in shaping who I am now as a Christian and as a scientist. I think the professors in the department are amazing, and I’m truly delighted to see the department expanding into bigger things—expanded spaces, new majors, scholarships—so there might be more students in more disciplines who are learning to be both good scientists/engineers and strong Christians.

Find out more about Bethel’s physics and engineering programs.