Making Significant Strides

How work for Hubble and Webb led to a new, fulfilling role managing Roman’s software systems.

Ariel Bowers
Ariel Bowers

Ariel Bowers is driven. Since her grandfather first handed her a telescope, and books about astronomy and engineering, she has pursued these passions. First, she earned her bachelor’s in computer science and quickly went on to earn her master’s in space systems engineering, both from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Her journey has been supported by many more mentors, which is why she also volunteers her own time to tutor and guide current high school students. Read on to learn why she is so passionate about her work at the institute.

When did you first become interested in astronomy and how did that lead to roles at STScI?

My grandfather, who was really into astronomy and space science, bought me my first telescope when I was 7 years old. Almost immediately, I was hooked on the stars. In fifth grade, I started asking about jobs in the field and he handed me a book to explore the options, which included engineering. My high school has a strong STEM program that offers advanced research and that led me to STScI. Soon, I was working on research with Max Mutchler to build a mosaic of the Carina Nebula using data from the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. I went on to write a paper about the mosaicking techniques used and the characterizations of the dark Bok globules in the image.

While earning my undergraduate degree at Hopkins, I also participated in the institute’s Space Astronomy Summer Program and contributed to several research projects. I helped calculate the luminosity functions [or distributions of brightnesses] of a series of galaxies with astronomer Dr. Brad Whitmore, and was able to continue interning with him through college. After I graduated in 2013, I joined the institute as a research instrument analyst to support Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 instrument calibration and engineering activities. Since I have a love for software engineering and astronomy, it was a great place to start.

Why did you apply for a role to support the James Webb Space Telescope—and then the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope?

As I earned a master’s in space systems engineering at Hopkins, I applied for a role in the integration and testing branch for the James Webb Space Telescope to shift my work more toward systems engineering. As an integration and test engineer, I supported testing for all parts of Webb’s Science and Operations Center, including data management and supporting other ground segment testing activities. This team ensures that the software that will be deployed for Webb’s ground segment is functioning as expected through rigorous verification and validation.

In 2018, I accepted the role of the integration and test lead within the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope’s Science Operations Center team. With Roman, we’re at the very beginning, which is really exciting and why I was interested in taking on the role. We’re developing our plans, processes and procedures, and moving from the planning stage into the execution phase. We’re putting what we’ve developed into practice. Some of the systems we had in house for Webb are no longer in house for Roman. For example, its mission operations center is at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and parts of the proposal planning system are run offsite, so the complexity of the testing has increased. We have to test how those interfaces interact with our systems, and continually work to ensure we’re collaborating and communicating well with our partners.

You were recently promoted to systems manager for Roman’s Science Operations Center. What does this position entail?

I provide Science Operations Center-level coordination of the software development, configuration management, and system releases pertaining to testing and operations activities for Roman. Software must be released at particular cadences and match certain specifications for us to test our systems internally and with our partners. The mission’s schedule prior to launch is shorter than Webb’s, which means that our teams need to have the appropriate processes in place on a slightly faster timeline. I’m very excited to have joined the Roman team to help define and implement these processes.

How has working from home due to COVID-19 impacted your work?

Our staff is truly dedicated. We’re reaching our milestones and completing projects since we began working from home in mid-March. It’s been tough, but we’ve been able to deliver timely, quality products. Once I got acclimated to working from home, I had to find a new balance with my coworkers, family, and friends. It’s been a tough year, but I am very fortunate to have a career at STScI doing what I love. Although we can’t be face to face, we’ve made a concerted effort to get together to talk. I’ve also spent more time calling people instead of sending emails. Even though we’re isolated, I think we’re communicating a lot more than before. I find myself picking up the phone more easily or starting a conversation on Slack. As much as possible, I also have virtual lunch with a longtime colleague to relax and talk about the day.

What do you enjoy about the culture at the institute?

It’s really inclusive. You can sit and talk to anyone about anything and learn a lot while educating each other. It’s quite different than most engineering organizations, because STScI can have an academic feel, which means there is a lot of communication between the science staff and engineering staff. This allows us to explore, share ideas, and come to creative solutions to fulfill our science and engineering objectives.

Why are you an active volunteer?

I am just as passionate about education as I am engineering. I have personally seen and felt the effects of academic mentorship and witnessed the impact my family of educators has had on their students. My volunteerism has become less of an activity and more of a responsibility—to my community, and, in particular, to the students I see myself in—which is why mentoring and being a board member for the Ingenuity Project, which offers an advanced STEM program for Baltimore City students, is so important to me. I’ve mentored students for a semester or several years. It depends on what they need, whether it’s support with a course or advice as they take steps on their journey to a career. I have come to realize that ensuring the success among African American and female students in STEM is not only possible, but unequivocally reachable and is as essential as any other portion of my job description.

Article updated February 2021.