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From CSB to satellites: Fahey’s work is universal in scope

As she came to the end of her first year at the College of Saint Benedict, Molly Fahey ’05 was reconsidering her decision to major in physics.

The courses had proven more challenging than she expected, and she wasn’t sure it was still the right path forward.

Enter Amy Hendrickson, her high school science teacher at Eveleth-Gilbert on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. She happened to run into Fahey’s mother in town and asked for an update.

“My Mom told her I was thinking about changing majors,” Fahey recalls. “She asked for my number and called me up right away. She told me to give it just one more semester. Then, if I still wanted to change my major, I should. But she wanted me to stick it out just a little bit longer.”

It had been Hendrickson who inspired Fahey to pursue the sciences in the first place, and she took her mentor’s advice. It proved a wise decision as it started her down a road that led to her current job as an engineer in the Laser and Electro-Optics Branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland near Washington, D.C.

“What I do is develop space flight laser technology,” Fahey said. “The lasers have all kinds of different science applications. There are lasers for Earth science. One of the projects I worked on, ICESat-2, developed a laser instrument to orbit the earth and measure changes in ice mass.

“Recently I’ve been working on developing ultraviolet lasers for future astrobiology planetary science missions to search for extraterrestrial life and potentially habitable environments beyond Earth. Additionally, I work on laser developments for heliophysics, astrophysics, and laser communications programs. We cover a wide variety of areas.”

The physics department at CSB and SJU recently announced the addition of an engineering concentration beginning with the start of the 2022-23 school year. Fahey was herself a physics major at CSB, which she said provided her a solid academic foundation for what was to come.

“I felt like when I did go to engineering school, having a solid physics background prepared me so well,” said Fahey, who got her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology. “In fact, that background actually helped me get this job. I remember my boss here at NASA saying they really liked that I had physics in my background. I deal with physics every day in engineering so that really was a solid base for my continued education.”

Beyond that, though, Fahey said the experiences she had at CSB and SJU could not have been duplicated at other, bigger schools she considered attending.

“When I was looking at schools I knew I wanted to pursue a career in engineering, but I didn’t know which engineering discipline,” she said. “I liked so many of the other aspects about CSB and SJU. So I decided to go there, start in physics and figure everything else out later. And that was a good decision.

“Attending a liberal arts school provided a well-rounded education. The class sizes were smaller which was beneficial because physics and math can be challenging. Having direct access to my professors made a big difference. I think it was my junior year that I took an optics-focused class, taught by Dr. (Dean) Langley. That was when I first decided I really liked lasers and optics. I ended up getting an internship with him during the summer between my junior and senior year where I was able to study lasers and work on research.

“Beyond that, I was able to play tennis and get involved in modern dance. These were all experiences I might not have had at a larger school. It all started me on the path I’m on today.”

A path that has led her to NASA, a place she long wanted to work.

“I always had an interest in space, even as a kid,” she said. “But growing up in a small town in northern Minnesota, I didn’t let myself think about this as an option. It would have been hard for me to comprehend that working at NASA and living in Washington, D.C. was even in my realm of possibility. So I’d certainly tell anybody to pursue whatever it is you’re interested in.

“Don’t hesitate. Stick with your dreams and go for it.”

Molly at work

Molly Fahey ’05

Molly and instruments