She catches flaws in systems, designs her own


January 28, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Kimberly Ennico, a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University junior, punctuates sentences with terms like "neat" and "awesome," and she ends her thoughts with a deceptively childish giggle. Her disarming manner masks a shrewd mind.

Working with a team of Hopkins scientists last spring, the aspiring astronaut discovered a small flaw in the video camera that acts as a range finder for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope. The telescope is scheduled for launch aboard a space shuttle in January 1995.

Last summer she designed a system of lenses and apertures for an infrared camera, working with a team of physics students from around the country gathered at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. "I didn't know any optics beforehand," she confided, "so I had to teach myself a lot of optics."

Recently, she persuaded astronaut Samuel T. Durrance, a Hopkins astrophysicist, to let her help him test his design for an advanced telescope mirror.

The two-term president of the Hopkins physics club, who has a 3.95 grade average, is a remarkable undergraduate on a campus with many remarkable students. But Ms. Ennico is unusual for her extensive work on advanced astrophysics projects.

"I don't claim to be the best mathematician or physicist in my class," she said. "I'm neither. I just do what I want to do. I think hard work pays off more than just brilliance."

"Her level of enthusiasm is a lot greater than your average undergraduate," said Jeffrey W. Kruk, the deputy project scientist for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope. By spending long hours at a computer last spring, Ms. Ennico discovered that the telescope's video range finder slightly distorted the positions of stars and distant galaxies. Her discovery allows astronomers to compensate for the flaw by adjusting their computations.

"It required a lot of what you might call stick-to-it-iveness," Dr. Kruk said. "It's not the kind of thing you get out in a day or an afternoon's work. It required a lot of patience on her part, to make sure she'd gotten everything right, every step of the way. It's the sort of thing that you've got to get used to doing if you're ever going to become a professional scientist."

Ms. Ennico knows what she wants and goes after it. She persuaded Dr. Durrance to let her help him test his telescope design this spring. The astronaut is designing and building a plastic telescope mirror that can subtly change shape to compensate for the distortions that occur to starlight that travels through Earth's swirling currents of air.

"She's certainly enthusiastic about the work and she's very competent," said Dr. Durrance. "I think she's going to be easy to work with. She seems excited about it. She really applies herself and gets into it."

Ms. Ennico, who wants someday to build and use her own space telescopes, said she is more comfortable in the workshop than the classroom. Designing the Wyoming Infrared Telescope lens system "was neat, she said. "It will be built, you know? It wasn't just a problem in the back of a textbook."

In science, there is a shortage of Kimberly Ennicos. There are five times more men with doctorates than women in the United States. Physics is among the most male-dominated of the sciences. Ms. Ennico started off as one of only a handful of female physics majors in the class of 1994. Now she is the only one.

While science classes are challenging, Ms. Ennico has not sacrificed her outside interests.

While in Wyoming this past summer, Ms. Ennico listened regularly to country music for the first time and decided to teach herself western swing dancing.

She wound up teaching all seven of the undergraduates working with her to dance like cowhands, too. At Hopkins, she ballroom dances, tutors other students and plays trombone in the band.

While she learned the flute in elementary schools, she taught herself to play the brass instrument one summer in high school.

"I get to do these great things with glissandos," she said. "The trombone is an awesome instrument."

Last year, she enrolled in a graduate-level course in ancient Akkadian, an extinct language of Mesopotamia that is written in cuneiform characters. She thought it might be useful someday in the study of paleoastronomy.

"I thought, 'Hey, why not?'" she said. She wound up with an A in the course. On a visit to the Walters Art Gallery with some friends, she translated a cuneiform tablet for them.

Ms. Ennico is from Bergen County, New Jersey. Her father is a pharmacist, her mother a nurse, and the family encouraged her, from the time she was little, to pursue a career in medicine.

But she resisted. She built bridges with Popsicle sticks, assembled a weather station at home and messed around with magnets. She has wanted to be an astronaut from when she was in the second grade.

"I didn't know what I wanted to accomplish in space, but I knew that it would be neat," she said.

She nurtured her interest in science with little support outside her family. Her Catholic girls school in New Jersey, "didn't promote science at all," she said. "We never had any labs. There were no advanced courses."

But "Catholic girls are supposed to be rebels," she said. "If I had been encouraged to go into science the way I was encouraged to go into medicine, it would have turned me away. You find your own niche in life."

"She has a much greater sense early in her career of what she wants to do," Dr. Kruk said. "She certainly has a better sense than I did at her age where she might end up. And the other thing is she doesn't get swamped totally by her classwork."

Ms. Ennico agreed that she has little time for more than an occasional movie or episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"Classes get in the way once in a while," she joked.

But leisure is the least of her priorities. "There are so many neat things in the world," she said. "I wish you had time to learn them all."

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