Alumni Profiles

Kimberly Ennix-Sandhu, Class of 1979

2019 Distinguished Alumna of the Year

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to receive Head-Royce’s Distinguished Alumna of the Year Award—but this year, the honor goes to a woman with precisely that job description. A jet-engine specialist, Kimberly Ennix-Sandhu ‘79 has worked at NASA for twenty-eight years. She works in an airplane hangar, tours the country collaborating with other NASA centers, and gives lectures to students interested in STEM.

Kimberly is the Operations Center Safety Lead of Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s largest infrared telescope. SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP airplane equipped with a 106-inch diameter telescope that flies “above the stratosphere for a clear view of the night sky.” It’s the only telescope of its kind in the world.

NASA adapts SOFIA’s scientific instruments depending on the needs of each research project. Kimberly spends her days designing, monitoring, and installing one of five scientific instruments onto the plane. “They each look at different wavelengths,” she explains. “The stars emit non-visual wavelengths of light. We install and remove different science instruments. I'm in charge of the safety team, of the whole installation, from its laboratory onto its truck, lifting it all the way up, to the deck, in position, and of course, reversing all of that.”

Managing a telescope that flies above “99% of air moisture” poses a host of challenges. “If we have a new instrument I’m working on the design. We call it “airworthiness,” making sure it stays where it’s supposed to stay when the plane takes off—so much vibration!”

SOFIA looks at infrared light, so can examine “the clouds of gas that will birth new stars,” Kimberly says. Aside from capturing jaw-dropping, cosmic images—firey, translucent clouds, striated purple swirls (see below)—SOFIA allows scientists to further understand the origin of galaxies and black holes, as well as the atmospheres of Pluto and Mars.

This summer, Kimberly will travel to New Zealand to supervise SOFIA’s night-time flights. “We want a very very long night,” she explains, to optimize the telescope’s images. “The bulk of our flights happen during the winter. How do you have two winters in a year? You do the second in the southern hemisphere.”   

Travel is a frequent part of Kimberly’s job. The year the film Hidden Figures premiered, NASA sent her on a speaking tour across the country. “I must’ve talked to 5,000 students,” she says. Their most common question: How did you get interested in STEM?  

“My road to STEM was a circuitous one,” she admits, as she wanted to study visual arts. “There was no such thing as ‘STEM’ then. Yes, we had science fairs but that was it. There was nothing that purposefully gathered a group of girls and said ‘hey we encourage you to do this.’”  

What surprises her audiences most, however, is that “Anna Head had an all-female mathematics staff. Several of my science teachers were female, too. Lead by example. It never occurred to me that women don’t do math because that’s all I saw.”

Long before Hidden Figures hit the silver screen and even before the book was sold on shelves, Kimberly Ennix-Sandhu knew the history of female computers at NASA. In fact, when she was in college, she worked “on the very IBM computer they show in Hidden Figures, that same room.”

“Back in 1961, they needed a whole cadre of female computers to get [the computer] to run,” she says. “By 1981 when I came along, they were strictly using one or two engineering students. I caught it right in its last one or two years.”

“To see a movie like that get such acclaim is really satisfying, but on a personal note, when I first came here [to California] I was not working for NASA, I was working for the Air Force in their ballistic missile section. We were tasked with making rockets burn hotter, higher, and faster. I inherited Katherine Johnson’s equation. I was using that very equation she used in the movie, to do rocket trajectories. I knew this history. I said [to my bosses], ‘You know a female mathematician put this equation together’ and I was laughed out of the room. So it was nice thirty years later, I was proven right.”

From room-sized computers and slide rules to desktops and Macbooks, Kimberly’s career has adapted alongside technological advances. “I’ve been typing since Microsoft Word 1.0,” she says, laughing. Where others might be daunted by the speed of tech, Kimberly remains ever-flexible. “Right as I entered work—it helped—that my job required writing papers, technical papers.” She has published over twenty-five. “They no longer let the secretary do the typing, so I had to do it, which is great because I was forced to learn how to type back there at Anna Head. It was my worst class, but I use that skill to do research constantly. It’s been really interesting.”  

Kimberly’s advice for women of color looking to get into STEM is: “You have to believe in your dream. I still see women being treated like I was treated thirty years ago in college. Tennessee was only a decade outside of Jim Crow laws. Only a handful of us African American females were in the engineering school [at UT Knoxville]. We got all kinds of dirty balls thrown our way. My [white] roommate didn’t want to roommates. She slept in another room. I ignored it, because I was there to get my degree, plus I got a double room for the price of one.”  

Acknowledging the difficulties, Kimberly pauses and says, “All of that weighs on you. It gets you. Again you have to seek out positive affirmation. I went on and joined a sorority. Don’t get sad. Get glad. Get active.”

Kimberly’s active engineering career, making rocket engines “hotter, higher, and faster,” traveling and teaching girls and women to achieve their starry-eyed dreams, is incredibly inspiring. It will be an honor to present her with the 2019 Distinguished Alumna of the Year Award at this year’s Alumni Weekend and Reunion on April 27.

Magnetic fields in the Orion Nebula. SOFIA’s HAWC+ instrument is sensitive to the alignment of dust grains, which line up along magnetic fields, letting researchers infer the direction and strength. Credits: NASA/SOFIA/D. Chuss et al. and European Southern Observatory/M.McCaughrean et al.