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Soprano in a space suit: One student’s transformation

May 11, 2016

Finishing high school, Tessa Rundle ’16 had already penciled in the chorus to her life’s melody.

It was a no-brainer: She would ride her vocal cords into a music career. After all, Tessa grew up performing in musical theatre and playing the saxophone.

She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, just a half-hour from her home in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and declared a vocal performance major.

“That was the natural choice for me when I went to college, and I didn’t really know I was interested in science,” she said.

Looking back, even Tessa has trouble believing the seismic shift that’s brought her to the brink of a degree in physics from Carthage, a prestigious internship with NASA, and admission to an elite graduate program in aerospace engineering.

Other than one semester with the A. F. Siebert Chapel Choir, her soprano voice has been sidelined since Tessa transferred here in 2013.

She never fell out of love with music. Something else struck an even deeper chord with her.

A new career passion blossoms

Tessa Rundle, team leader for the 2015 Carthage Microgravity Team, helps prepare the experiment for flight aboard NASA's zero gravity aircraft.Tessa Rundle, team leader for the 2015 Carthage Microgravity Team, helps prepare the experiment for flight aboard NASA's zero gravity aircraft.It began with an astronomy lab course at the UW school. Taking the class only to fulfill a credit requirement, Tessa instead found the “mind-blowing stuff” captivating. Then she took introductory physics — and craved more.

She could have stayed put and simply changed majors, but the Physics and Astronomy Department at Carthage offered more ways to quench Tessa’s newfound thirst. Her excitement grew as she read about our students’ observation “runs” to Kitt Peak National Observatory and the microgravity team’s multiple research projects with NASA.

So she made the bold leap. Geographically speaking, the move to Kenosha covered barely 160 miles, but the two career tracks were light years apart.

“It’s a pretty dramatic switch,” she admits now. “A lot of people thought I didn’t know what I was doing. I got a lot of eyebrow raises.”

Fast-forward to spring 2016, and her story draws the same facial reaction. Only now, the brows go up because people are impressed.

This summer, Tessa heads to Houston for a highly selective 10-week internship at Johnson Space Center, where she will work on the engineering and design of space suits. To make manned spaceflight to Mars possible, the U.S. space program needs to develop suits that can withstand extended missions.

After that brief sampler, she will begin a two-year master’s degree program at the University of Colorado Boulder. It’s a consensus top-10 graduate school for aerospace engineering.

“I found something that I’m really passionate about,” she said.

That’s music to her professors’ ears. Besides teaching the material, Professor Kevin Crosby said Carthage faculty impart an appreciation for lifelong learning and self-reflection — and help students to figure out what motivates them.

“Tessa is a perfect example of how one student can leverage self-discipline and individual faculty attention to achieve a remarkable degree of success so early in a very competitive field,” said Prof. Crosby, advisor to the Carthage Microgravity Team.

Compensating for lost time

When she arrived on campus, Tessa had no idea that eventually she’d be the one pictured floating in zero-g on the College’s website.

Tessa Rundle ’16 on NASA's zero gravity aircraft June 9, 2015.She had more immediate concerns — like surviving her first math class in four years. Always assuming she’d sing her way through college, Tessa didn’t bother to take calculus or other college preparatory classes like many of her high school friends did.

Thankfully, she found that the Carthage physics and mathematics professors are “really good at getting information across in a way that anyone can understand.”

Engineering skills came next on her catch-up list. RockSat-C took care of that. Team members build experiments that are launched aboard a sounding rocket.

Tessa moved on to other NASA research projects, serving as team leader during her second year of zero-gravity experiments in the Undergraduate Student Instrument Project. As a senior, she latched on for the start of the CubeSat mini-satellite program.

It was quite a hairpin turn from 4/4 time to zero-g, so how did she navigate it so smoothly? Prof. Crosby attributes that to her analytical skills and a dose of healthy skepticism.

“Tessa defies the millennial stereotype, in that she absolutely hates false praise and mistrusts all positive feedback,” Prof. Crosby said. “Her motivation is purely internal, and she is her own toughest critic.”

Singing the praises of spaceflight

Tessa hopes eventually to squeeze in some time for music as a hobby. In the meantime, she puts her voice to work in other ways.

In March, she traveled to Washington with Prof. Crosby and Christine Thompson from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, which is housed at Carthage. She shared her story with legislative staffers to personalize the value of federal funding.

It wasn’t her place to share political opinions on Capitol Hill, but back on campus Tessa fiercely defends space program budgets.

“A lot of people don’t realize the benefits we get, besides being able to say, ‘Oh, we went to Mars,’” she said. “Everything that comes out of it has a lot more applications.”

She points to NASA reports that highlight the ways that aerospace technology has been adapted for dozens of earthly uses, like baby food, memory foam, sewage treatment, and retractable stadium roofs.

Although the broad heading of aerospace engineering could lead anywhere, Tessa’s goal is narrower. Once her education is complete, she wants to contribute to human space exploration.

That hazy plan she sketched out as a new transfer student has begun to take shape.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s definitely worth it,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s actually working.”