Enabling dreams to take flight
Alumnus Joe Connolly dreamed of working at NASA ever since he watched a shuttle launch on TV as a young child.
Originally from Niagara Falls, New York, Connolly excelled in math and physics in high school. After a recruiter from Ohio State’s College of Engineering suggested he study aerospace engineering to prepare for his ideal job, Connolly became a Buckeye.
That decision, he said, turned out to be an impactful one.
“I didn't necessarily realize it at the time, but I wouldn't have been successful at other institutions the way that I was at Ohio State, particularly because of Dean Minnie McGee,” Connolly explained, referring to the former assistant dean who led the college’s Minority Engineering Program until her retirement in 2015. “I was good at taking tests, but not good at studying or figuring out how you needed to prepare for an engineering curriculum.”
He struggled with his first few exams. A required “line-by-line” review of those exams and brainstorming improvement strategies with McGee provided all the motivation needed to achieve his academic goals.
“That commitment to making sure everyone succeeds and has an opportunity through that program was pretty special and made Ohio State special,” said Connolly, who earned bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering and sociology from Ohio State in 2004, and a PhD in aerospace engineering in 2018.
During his early days at the university, Connolly—who is Onondaga and belongs to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—also discovered the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) from a web search.
“When I started at Ohio State, there were a number of different organizations that my friends were a part of, like the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or Society of Women Engineers, but at the time there wasn't anything for Native American students,” he recalled. “I had no idea whether or not there were many people like me that were interested in science, mathematics and engineering disciplines.”
Connolly and some friends launched an AISES chapter at the university, which later led to meeting John Herrington, the first Native astronaut, and learning about pioneers like A.T. Anderson, one of the first Native nuclear engineers and the society’s founding director.
At an AISES career fair during his senior year, Connolly accomplished his original mission—he was hired on the spot to work at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
“The first year was not my best academic performance, so the first few times I applied to NASA, I got rejected,” he said. “It was pretty exciting and gratifying to finally get the goal achieved right at the end there, my senior year.”
Nearly two decades later, Connolly remains just as passionate about working for NASA. He has also received numerous professional recognitions, including AISES’ Technical Excellence Award and Crain’s Cleveland Business 40 under 40 award.
“NASA has lived up to the hype of youthful dreams,” he shared. “It's a really cool place to work. You get to work on some really fun problems and overcome challenges.”
Now deputy for electrified aircraft propulsion technology integration at NASA Glenn, Connolly is part of the team working to make hybrid electric airplanes a reality as part of a comprehensive effort to reach net zero emissions in aviation by 2050.
As technology integration lead for the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration project, Connolly’s team is collaborating with industry toward conducting a flight demonstration of an aircraft with a megawatt electric powertrain in the mid-2020s.
He is also the technical lead for part of the Hybrid Thermally Efficient Core project, which aims to integrate hybrid electric technologies into a turbofan engine to perform ground and simulated altitude testing.
“Our goal is to try to get all of this technology advanced to a readiness level of six, which usually is where NASA hands off technologies to industry partners,” Connolly explained. “And with that goal of [demonstrations in] the mid-2020s, then we would look at trying to see that technology be integrated into commercial products in the mid-2030s.”
Never forgetting the support and inspiration he found through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Connolly remains active in the organization and is currently chair of the Lake Erie Chapter. He is also dedicated to STEM outreach, participating in activities like the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Young Astronauts Day, rocket launch competitions, and mentoring Indigenous students and interns.
“One of the things that I find rewarding in my career is being able to provide some mentorship and help to younger engineers,” Connolly said. “I’m trying to make sure that more people find the joy that I've been able to find within the field.”
And he has some uplifting advice for the next generation.
“When you're doing something that's hard or that you're not sure that you're going to be successful at, it's okay to ask for help,” Connolly said. “It's okay to fail and not quite achieve everything all at once. It usually takes a few steps and a few iterations, and there are a lot of people out there that are rooting for you and are willing to give a hand.”
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org