Alumni Spotlight: Nathan Smith

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Nathan Smith, class of 2020, is now working at NASA. Photo courtesy of Nathan Smith.

Graduating from college and searching for full-time employment is already a difficult task. Throw the onset of a world-wide pandemic with rising rates of unemployment into the mix and you’re facing an increasingly uphill battle. This is the situation that Nathan Smith, class of 2020, faced when he graduated from UD with a degree in Physics.

Immediately after graduation, Smith said, “[I] had no idea what was going to be happening with my life.” By persevering through many job applications, however, Smith landed a job working as a guidance navigation and control engineer at NASA.

But Smith’s journey to NASA started long before his application for this specific role. 

He largely attributes his career path to his networking skills. In fact, his biggest piece of advice for undergraduate students looking forward to the so-called ‘real world’ is to “learn how to network and learn how to interact with people and make meaningful relationships.”

Smith was able to connect with NASA through  Peter McDonough, brother of fellow UD student Meg McDonough, class of 2021, leading him to work as an intern at NASA for some time. Peter McDonough — a team lead for the EV 42 branch of NASA working on rocket flight dynamics — was an inside advocate for Smith during his hiring process both for his internship and his later full-time position.

During his initial internship, Smith did a lot of programming and coding, which developed  and demonstrated his skill set. “That’s why I got in,” Smith said, “because I knew programming and that’s what I could offer to the team.”

Since being hired, Smith has been working remotely like so many others post-COVID-19. With the increasingly remote working environment that students face post-graduation, Smith offered some advice for future UD graduates in a similar position. 

“Exercise, eat well and make sure you get out [of your home],” Smith said. He emphasized the importance of building a schedule that works for you and sticking to it. He suggested modeling your schedule off of a particular saint that you admire and discussed how your schedule may look radically different than many others.

“I am nocturnal,” Smith said, so he’s built his schedule around a later morning. “Maybe it works for some people to get up at 7 in the morning and pray. It does not work for me,” Smith said. “So if I pray … I do it at night before I go to bed.” By sticking to a schedule that works best for him, Smith has been able to succeed in his role at NASA for the past year. 

Reflecting back on his time at UD, Smith also discussed how his education has aided in his ability to thrive at NASA. He attributes his education with fostering “the ability to look at things that you don’t really understand and form cohesive and logical arguments to convince other people” — enabling him to “tell a story with data” which is a necessary skill in any research driven field.

Looking to the future, Smith plans to take his skills with him when he moves to West Virginia next summer. He’ll be working towards his PhD at West Virginia University and doing research, most likely on plasma physics.

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