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5 Questions for a Scientist: Materials Engineer Jake Hochhalter

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.


Get to know Jake

Occupation: Materials Research Engineer
Institution: NASA Langley Research Center
Field: Engineering
Focus: Structural Mechanics

Jake is a material research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, where he uses experiments and computer simulations to predict how structural materials in aircraft and spacecraft will perform while they are being flown. That research on material behavior is done in advance so that reliable aircraft and spacecraft can be designed, keeping the pilots and astronauts safe during their mission. Jake went to university for 10 years to learn how to do those things and received his PhD from Cornell University in 2010. He has worked for NASA since 2009. You can learn more about his research at ResearchGate.

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
I research how materials and structures age while they are in use, as a part of an airplane or space vehicle.  Those experiments and simulations happen a long time before NASA designs and builds an aircraft or spacecraft, which might be used to help study something in our atmosphere (like climate change) or in space (like Mars). The goal is to make flying them as safe as possible.

 2. When did you first become interested in your field?
My interest in engineering and science as a career path did not surface until I was in college. Actually, I started my freshman year as a philosophy major. I loved philosophy because it posed challenging questions, and really made me think critically in ways that I never had before. However, I did not like that there was no fundamental method for finding solutions to those challenging questions. After switching to engineering, I learned how to apply mathematics and physics to solve problems that I felt had more impact on the world, and I never looked back.

 3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
No matter what topic you are researching, the goal is to discover and to gain a perspective that has not yet been achieved. Once you experience that feeling, you, too, will be hooked!

 4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
A typical day for me, and scientists in general, involves a lot more planning and reporting than you might expect. Much of the day-to-day work of a scientist involves reading and writing journal articles, developing theories, setting up lab equipment, and writing proposals to get funding to do the research that you think is important. There is a lot of background work to do, which leads to successful experiments and simulations.

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
I think there are two main things that you can do to prepare yourself for a career in science. First, develop your skill set by taking as many science courses and pursuing as many internships as you can. Second, find the field that you are passionate about by talking to scientists and reading articles about ongoing research in various fields.

Image credit: Jake hochhalter

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