Alumni Spotlight — Michele Wilson
Featuring Alumni from the University of Memphis
Department of Physics and Materials Science
It is a pleasure to feature Michele Wilson—an alumna of the Physics Department of the University of Memphis (B.S 1993). She has worked on projects covering a wide range of technical topics for organizations such as the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Teledyne Brown Engineering, Photon Research Associates, and Davidson Technologies. This provided opportunities to apply physical principles (along with those of other disciplines) to projects as diverse as waste water monitoring and treatment to those involving launch and intercept systems and supporting space exploration. In addition to applying her technical skills, she has also taken on the responsibilities as a program manager. We are grateful that Michele has taken the time to share some reflection on her journey — from her initial awakening of the wonders of science to her time as a physics student at the University of Memphis. Finally, she shares valuable insights for prospective and current students as well as the motivating example of her career path. She illustrates some of the ways that the study of physics can foster growth in conceptual understanding and the development of skills. These are important factors (among others) in preparing for, and supporting, a career requiring continual learning and contributing towards the solution of some of the most challenging technical problems facing our society. We hope that you enjoy and find it to be a source of ideas and inspiration. -GB
Hi....my name is Michele Wilson (B.S. 1993). I was a proud member of the UofM Society of Physics Students, and still have my SPS shirt with Schrodinger's equation on the back. I loved studying Physics, and the UofM Physics Department really felt like home to me in my time there.
My college journey started out at a very big, out-of-state University renowned for
its Engineering program. I was in the Aerospace Engineering program, which I had decided
would be my major at the age of 8 when I saw Star Wars and my Dad took me to Kennedy
Space Center the same year. My first Physics class had over thousand students in it
– we took night time tests and had to present ID to be issued a test. It was a major
culture shock for me, coming from a small town in West Tennessee where I had been
one of the smartest in my graduating class. I figured out when I took Theoretical
and Applied Mechanics – a 5 hour class that combined Statics and Dynamics in one semester
–that I did NOT think like the students who were good at engineering. And that, plus
the near failing grade, was enough for me to question the goal I set for myself back
when I was still in single digits. I dropped out for a few years and didn't really
know what to pursue.
I always loved science though, so I decided to go back and study Physics, which is what lead me to UofM. When I showed up on campus to register one cold January day, they sent me to Manning Hall, where I walked in the office and met Dr. Robert Marchini, who would become a long-time friend and mentor. I'll admit that I was a little worried about the upper level classes – but as Dr. Marchini and Dr. Michael Garland, the department chair, conversed in bad puns and told funny stories about Physics department mishaps, I felt more at ease. I should say at that time, the UofM Physics Department was leading the trend of women in STEM; probably half of the physics majors during my years there were women. It wasn't long before I felt like I had found a place that welcomed science geek girls like me.
One of my first classes was Dr. Marchini's Theoretical Physics, using Mary L. Boas' "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences." No write up about my Physics journey would be complete without a shout out to this class, Dr. Marchini and Dr. Boas. I loved that class and that book. It was really the first class that helped me understand how the higher-level math I had taken could be used to describe the real world.
Another shout out -- I was fortunate to have a great work-study job in the Physics Department cleaning the machine shop down in the basement. Not that much cleaning was required, because John Daffron, the machinist who ran the place, kept it spotless. He taught me one of the most important things I ever learned – never pick up something heavy without knowing where you are going to put it down. Eventually, I convinced him to teach me how to operate all the machines, and I still have my custom-machined, aluminum stock paperweight on my desk at work.
Today, I work for Davidson Technologies, a small defense contractor in Huntsville, AL. The majority of my career has been on the Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. I'm currently working as a project manager / test engineer in the GMD program's hardware-in-the-loop test lab – where we integrate and test hardware and software updates with an inert interceptor and the flight representative ground test equipment. The GMD system is part of the United States' antiballistic missile defense, and is the only system to counter the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles. During a recent flight test, I was privileged to sit on the communication network at the launch site at Vandenburg AFB during the test. I took my son and husband out for the test. They were watching from the hill and got to see both interceptors come out of the ground, as can see in this video. More information about the GMD program is available here.
I also serve as the Program Manager over Davidson's GMD and Space Launch System (SLS) contracts. SLS is the NASA rocket in development to return mankind to the moon (more information here). The picture below was taken in front of a friction-stir welding fixture used to construct the dome ends on the LOX (liquid oxygen) and LH2 (liquid hydrogen) fuel tanks for the Artemis core stage at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.