To the ends of the earth

Chemical engineering senior finds passion for research at NMSU by Tiffany Acosta

During an advising session as a freshman at New Mexico State University, Norann Calhoun received a flyer for the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. She started attending meetings for the program in fall 2014, and she will graduate in May with not only a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering but also with four years of experience as a student researcher. 

“I love going into the lab, putting on my gloves and creating successful experiments,” Calhoun said. “I really enjoy it. I’m able to apply concepts that I learn in the classroom, and so it keeps me inspired. One day I will be taught a concept in the classroom and the next day I can apply it in my research. I can adapt and change.”

As a member of NMSU’s NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project team under the direction of Paulo Oemig, senior research scientist with the NM Space Grant Consortium, Calhoun traveled to Beatrice, Nebraska, in August 2017 to launch high-altitude balloons during the total solar eclipse. One of the goals of the experiment was to reach 100,000 feet to see the earth’s curvature and the eclipse. The team camped in a chicken coop for a week and launched two balloons on two separate days. 

“I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about the team I was with. It was wonderful and so much fun,” said Calhoun, a Tularosa, New Mexico, native. “It was a phenomenal feeling being the person to perform the countdown and sharing the experience with such an amazing team. It was such an empowering moment that I began to tear up. I’ve been working on my project for three years.”

“Norann is an extraordinary researcher. A researcher is fundamentally curious. She is also unwilling to let barriers stop her from answering a question one way or another,” said Patricia Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium.

“Norann demonstrated such creativity and ingenuity in developing and testing her technologies for the flights we supported, it was inspiring to support her,” Hynes added.  

While her project had technical difficulties from the beginning, Calhoun is encouraged for the future because she is starting a team in spring 2018 to solve the design problems.  

One of the challenges Calhoun faced with her experiment was establishing a reliable method for implementing a delayed parachute deployment. 

“She found a skydiving firm to help her, they had the reliability she was looking for,” Hynes said. “And it worked. There are many ways to fail as a researcher, only a few paths to success. She found hers. She has what we need to say for certainty, we are developing researchers qualified to build, test and launch space hardware.”

Calhoun said she was thrilled with the result of the skydiving company collaboration, which created a device that delayed the parachute from opening.  

“It was so amazing that I learned I can do unorthodox things in engineering, and it still works.”

Calhoun admits juggling the demands of classes and research can be challenging. “It takes a lot of time management because you have tests, class, study time and you have to make time for your research. If you have 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, you have to take advantage of that and go into the lab and do as much as you can and try to stay focused on each individual task.”

After graduation, Calhoun said she hopes to join the workforce and gain hands-on experience before possibly pursuing advanced degrees in the future. 

“I’m trying not to sell myself short and reach for the stars,” she said. “I have such a wonderful backing, my parents, my family, my community, and they are pushing me to go forward and farther.”

Paulo Oemig (center), New Mexico Space Grant Consortium research scientist, holds a high-altitude balloon during a test in June at the New Mexico State University Horseshoe while Krishna Kota (left), mechanical engineering assistant professor, and Norann Calhoun, chemical engineering senior, assist. A high-altitude balloon launch was part of the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project, which was held during the total solar eclipse in August 2017.