UT Alumn Travis Imken Hooks 'Em

Job Title

Systems Engineer

Employer

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Location 

Pasadena, California

Why did you decide to pursue an aerospace engineering degree?

A lot of the work in aerospace engineering is unique, especially on the space side. I wanted to work on something interesting—to create something that is one of a kind.

Describe your current position.

I am a systems engineer, focusing on project-level engineering for JPL’s flight missions.

What do you like most about your job? What do you find most challenging?

As a systems engineer, I have the opportunity to jump around and focus on problems as they come up. Since we bring together complex subsystems, when something goes wrong, I work with a team of other experts to penetrate into the details and solve those problems. 

What I find challenging is that though we may have experienced similar problems before, we’re creating missions that are first of a kind, and the best answer isn’t always immediately known. Every day has an element of research and engineering to find these solutions. 

If you participated in student projects and/or organizations, how did your experience in these groups help prepare you for your career?

I worked for four years as an undergraduate student in the satellite design laboratory and stayed there for another two years during my master’s research. The cool thing was that we were funded by NASA and the U.S. Air Force to work on missions. We pitched our mission concepts to them, but the implementation and problem solving was left to us. We learned a lot by figuring out things like, “How do I make this device work, or how do I fit everything into this box?”. This experience taught me how to be flexible and do independent research, ultimately helping me to think like a systems engineer.

Were you involved in any fellowships or internships? 

I did one internship at the NASA Johnson Space Center and one internship at JPL. 

Do you recommend any particular focus for students other than academics to improve themselves as potential candidates for jobs?

The nature of the aerospace industry is that you’re trying to answer questions that have never been answered before, or to solve a problem where the end goal may be known but you don’t fully understand the path of how you’ll get there. Opportunities like working with a professor or a graduate student in research can be beneficial, but so can learning a new programming language on your own or just learning more about the art and history of space flight. 

Are there courses at UT you wish you had taken? 

I wish I had taken more electrical engineering classes. At one point I wrote a bad procedure for a power system, which later caught fire and turned into a black crisp due to a wiring error in a test. I realized that I didn’t really have an intuition of circuit and device behavior. This inspired me to take some electrical engineering electives outside of my degree plan.

What has been your most influential ASE or EM course and why?

In retrospect I think it was the systems engineering course. It was the foundation of everything I do today, even though I didn’t always fully appreciate it at the time. I actually saw the professor of that class at JPL after I had been working for a couple years and told him how applicable all of the material was to my job. It’s great to have a class that is immediately applicable and relevant to a career!

What is one piece of advice you have for current students?

Every week is busy and there’s always something going on so it can be difficult to find the inertia to go get involved with a student organization, do research, or to spend time for self-education. The hardest part is taking that first step. Once you find that new home and comfort zone, you’ll find that it will naturally fit in with your academic career. 

Do you have a favorite memory as a UT aerospace student?

I participated in a freshman interest group (FIG) and two of those guys ended up being my best friends through all of undergrad. We took classes together and worked on homework assignments together until the end. I look back at those days with nostalgia. 

List three things that most people don't know about you.

  1. I’m an avid skier.

  2. I was in the Longhorn band for five years.

  3. I have a pet cactus.

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