Source: Johnson City Press | Nathan Baker | May 28, 2015
When Teresa Vanhooser took the podium in the auditorium of East Tennessee State University’s D.P. Culp Center Wednesday, back in her native Johnson City and delivering a speech to her daughter, father and hundreds of her peers in the science and business fields, she admitted to having some butterflies in her stomach.
“Coming back to my hometown is exciting, but it’s kind of scary, too,” the University School graduate said. “You don’t know what people are going to think about what you’ve done.”
But what Vanhooser accomplished after leaving the Johnson City’s nest is nothing that should be causing embarrassment.
After receiving an engineering degree from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, she was hired by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in which she eventually rose to the position of deputy director.
She now leads projects dedicated to, among other endeavors, creating a space vehicle to replace the retired space shuttle that aims to be capable of propelling astronauts to distant asteroids and planets.
Speaking at the Tennessee Valley Corridor’s National Summit, an annual convention dedicated to strengthening the relationships between federal projects, private business and education within 10 congressional districts in East and Middle Tennessee, North Alabama, Western North Carolina, Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia, Vanhooser outlined the Huntsville center’s missions.
“Through our partnerships, we’re helping to grow economies all through the Tennessee Valley Corridor,” she said, noting that the Space Flight Center holds $306 million worth of contracts with small businesses. “We’re helping to realize our children’s dreams for a better world.”
Through educational outreach programs, the center held a contest among hundreds of public school students, one of which designed a multi-tool that was manufactured using a 3-D printer on the International Space Station and used by the astronauts occupying it.
The winning Alabama student, who Vanhooser said came from an average, non-technical home, was encouraged to follow creative and engineering aspirations and helped NASA solve a problem, she said.
Dr. Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, likewise said his federal facility works with students — these at the post-graduate level — to further research and direct technology to the private sector.
“There has been growth after a long time of concern in the manufacturing sector,” Mason said. “Things have started to shift, and decisions are not just driven by the lowest wages, because, let’s be honest, the race to the lowest wages is something nobody wants to win.”
By working with universities in the corridor, Oak Ridge is attempting to develop advanced manufacturing processes that allow normally time-consuming and expensive process to be conducted cheaper and easier, he said. So too does the laboratory’s work with advanced computing allow for more accurate simulations that help manufacturers test products and processes.
“We’re changing the equation in terms of manufacturing,” Mason said. “We’re working with private businesses to solve R&D problems.”
The summit continues today with presentations titled “Workforce in Advanced Manufacturing” and “Growing the Tennessee Valley Economy” and a leadership luncheon.