College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

NASA engineer Lee Graham credits Iowa State for diverse skills

Lee Graham

Lee GrahamFor some, having a full-time job and a family along with studying for a master’s degree would probably be enough to keep busy. Lee Graham, on the other hand, does all that while working at NASA, mentoring at three local high schools and helping with STEM education efforts in various ways—among other things.

Graham, a 1985 industrial engineering alumnus, had a unique undergraduate experience. He originally intended to graduate in 1979, but he went home to Dunkerton, Iowa, after his junior year in aerospace engineering to help his family.

Returning to Iowa State in 1982, Graham thanks one of the counselors, Jan Putnam, for assisting him in his transition. “She was incredibly helpful to me in reintegrating into the university,” he says.

When he came back, Graham changed his major to industrial engineering because he had an interest in robotics. Deciding it wasn’t the best fit, he says he was fortunate that the head of the department allowed him to essentially create his own curriculum.

As a senior, he was asked to be a teaching assistant for the engineering law class and later for a microcomputer-based control theory class in the mechanical engineering department. Graham gave a lecture and ran a lab every Friday while working on 19 credits of his own.

Taking classes in aerospace, industrial and mechanical engineering—and now finishing his master’s in systems engineering—gave Graham a well-rounded education and skillset. “I realized I like being a generalist,” he says. “I don’t like being a world-class expert in a narrow field—that’s just not for me. I like to be one or two questions deep across all disciplines.”

Graham is still developing his varied background, finishing his master’s now and hoping to obtain a Ph.D. after his kids graduate. He wanted to continue his education after his undergraduate program, but says he couldn’t find the right program for the “broader engineering approach” he wanted.

A friend of his, Dr. Wiley Larson, encouraged Graham to join his master’s program at Stevens Institute of Technology after seeing the range of knowledge he already possessed. The program had the technical content he wanted and allowed him to continue working, so he enrolled.

Graham has worked at NASA for nearly 26 years, in which time he says he’s held about 20 different jobs. He is currently a senior research engineer leading a project on robotic exploration, which includes mission plans for exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars.

He says he has been able to do a wide range of interesting things with NASA, including working at the Naval Research Lab in D.C., giving ‘go’ and ‘no-go’ calls for the first ten launches after Challenger, and meeting Neil Armstrong. He adds that he’s happy to be surrounded by “really great, superb people,” even some pretty high-profile names in the industry. Though some people might call him lucky, Graham simply says, “You know, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

His job already keeps him busy, putting in long hours and even some weekends, but somehow Graham manages to dedicate time to help high school juniors and seniors design and build different school projects—including 23-foot tall Mach 3 suborbital rockets. “Most of these kids don’t know that they shouldn’t be able to do this complicated stuff,” says Graham. “They don’t understand all the technical details in some cases so you have to explain it, but they do very well.”

As a mentor, Graham can’t give students the answers, which he likes because he says that’s when they really start to learn. If the students have questions, he can guide them in the right direction, but they’re forced to figure it out on their own. “These kids are really pushing it,” he says. “They are really trying, and they’re making a difference.”

With such a full calendar, it’s understandable that sometimes Graham needs a break. He explains that he and his family usually take a couple vacations each year to get away from everything. “We try to give the kids different experiences so they understand the world around them and what’s going on,” he says. With a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, Graham says most of their free time involves “kid stuff” and their vacations involve going to new and different places.

From rock climbing and hiking to visiting volcanoes and getting certified in scuba diving, there’s always something new to try. One thing Graham hasn’t done much since his kids were born is recreational flying. “I’m a pilot,” he says. “We used to own a couple planes, but we just haven’t had time since the kids came along, so when I get the chance I like to go flying.”

A love for flying was only part of the reason for his aerospace background. Graham says he grew up sitting in the backyard looking at stars, adding, “Space was the only thing I wanted to do.” He was so sure engineering was the right career for him that once he heard about Iowa State’s program, he didn’t bother applying anywhere else.

Now, after working with several other universities around the country, Graham says he still believes Iowa State prepares its students as well as (and in some cases better than) the biggest universities. In a study he worked on for one of his classes, he said Iowa State came out in the top 10 percent of those offering “the best bang for the buck.”

Graham says Iowa State’s project-oriented curriculum and emphasis on teamwork were some of the best opportunities he experienced as a student, and he’s happy to see the college continue this high standard. “Kids get equipped with the right skillset and tools from the beginning, as opposed to learning from someone who may or may not have the right background,” he says. “I think Iowa State really gave me a big boost.”