Navigating the Cosmos: A Chemistry Graduate's Journey to NASA

By Carly Graverson. Carly interviews David Solti, a recent Rice graduate, about his job as a flight controller at NASA.

David Solti in NASA

As graduate students, we often face uncertainties about where our academic journey will take us. In this blog, I’ll share the story of a recent alumnus, David Solti, who was in our shoes – a graduate student – not too long ago. Now, he's working at NASA, exemplifying the real-world benefits that can result from education, passion, and perseverance in graduate studies. David was gracious enough to sit down with me to discuss the experiences that led him from academic chemical research to a career as a flight controller at NASA, demonstrating that with determination, reaching for the stars is more than just a symbolic aspiration.

Note: The views expressed herein are solely from David Solti and not on behalf of NASA.

Please tell me a little about yourself–your name, graduation year from Rice, program, advisor, research interests, etc.

I'm David Solti, and I graduated in January 2023 from Rice's Chemistry PhD program. I worked in Prof. Naomi Halas' lab on the synthetic development and subsequent application of aluminum nanocrystals, generally concerning how to harness the nanocrystals' interactions with light to drive chemical reactions. I am wrapping up my first year as a SPARTAN Flight Controller (in training) at NASA's Johnson Space Center in the Flight Operations Directorate. As a SPARTAN, we are in charge of the entire International Space Station (ISS) electrical system, the external thermal control systems, and the rotating joints that allow for power generation and cooling to happen on the ISS. When I am not at work, I enjoy watching rally racing and Formula 1 and geeking out over the happenings in the aerospace industry.

Could you share your experiences transitioning from a graduate student at Rice to your early career at NASA? What key factors helped you land your first role in the space industry?

Three key factors helped me transition from chemistry to aerospace. The first two were a ton of patience and stubbornness. It took me almost a year of applying before I finally landed a position that was a good match, and remember that when you are looking for jobs, you aren't the only one being interviewed. The place you are looking at should also be evaluated as where you want to be. The third factor, and possibly one of the most important, was networking. Switching fields can always be challenging, and aerospace is notoriously difficult to break into. However, we have this incredible network of former Rice grads who are willing to at least open the proverbial door for you, as long as it is clear that you are putting the work in to be a good candidate. It's amazing how often I would reach out to people, and they would take the time to give me some tips or point me toward open job applications that fit my interests. I am thankful to them.

As a recent graduate from Rice, what initial projects or tasks did you work on at NASA, and how did they contribute to your professional development?

My initial job/task was to learn the job of a Flight Controller, and I am still doing this as a trainee. Being a flight controller means taking a crash course in systems engineering on a 25-year-old space station. For example, I have to know:

How does this box interact with this software? What happens if the box breaks? Does the software recover it? Can I retrieve it from the ground? What are the impacts if the box is not recovered? Do the crew try recovering it? Is it even possible for the crew to recover it? Is it possible for the crew to retrieve it, but unlikely due to some poor design choices made many years prior? Can we develop workarounds to ensure that the various pieces of our systems will perform how we want them to?

These are the types of questions that I am being trained to answer. Sometimes, we need to be able to answer them within minutes rapidly; other times, we are given weeks or even months to troubleshoot a good workaround. Regarding professional development, we are being trained to make tough decisions while considering all of the surrounding details of a problem. This translates into many soft skills and boils down to solving problems while maintaining a big picture of what is happening. Then, being able to effectively communicate the potential solutions to those problems, all while prioritizing crew safety, vehicle safety, and mission success (in that order–crew safety is always the most important!).

In what ways did the education and training you received at Rice prove beneficial in the early stages of your career at NASA? Are there specific skills or knowledge areas that were particularly valuable?

My technical knowledge of how plasmonic nanomaterials are made and applied isn’t particularly transferrable to flying a space station. Still, the other skills I picked up along my journey at Rice have been crucial. These include deadline management, managing expectations, fostering and maintaining collaborations, creating new research projects from scratch that were both attainable and relevant, and maintaining a level head under adversity. These are softer skills that aren't formally taught to students but are things almost every grad student is forced to learn to be successful. These transferred exceptionally well to my current position. I also want to highlight something that is often not talked about, especially in academia. When we publish a chemistry paper, we report a few ways to make some new compound successfully, but what about the other 50 failed experiments that it took to get those few functioning compounds? You rarely see publications detailing the protocols that didn’t work. But in industry, especially aerospace, we care greatly about those 50 failed "experiments." They can teach you how to avoid running something in the future. That matters a lot more when facing an entirely new failure mode, and seven or more living, breathing humans rely on you to keep their home safe. So please don't be ashamed or aggravated by your failed experiments; take them as an opportunity to learn how to approach a problem better or avoid pitfalls when solving a similar situation. Resilience and toughness are great traits no matter what job you end up in.

Many aspiring aerospace professionals want to know about the day-to-day work at NASA. Can you provide insights into your daily responsibilities and the types of projects you're currently involved in?

My honest answer is that the day-to-day varies. Most of the time, when I am not training, I work on tasks to improve various branch products or discuss those tasks in meetings.  Last week, I was taught a class on performing basic on-orbit maintenance from an astronaut's perspective. The week prior, I sat alongside an experienced flight controller in FCR-1 (the real-time ISS flight control room) for a standard shift. I saw firsthand how my mentor communicated with various other team members in several different situations. We don't often think about it while in academia, but how would you explain your research to a middle schooler? Sometimes, that is how much you need to simplify your technical details in flight control, all the while ensuring that no critical information is lost. Of course, I have a lot of experiences that are unique to NASA. For example, today, I was headed to lunch with my coworkers, and we ran into two of the astronauts on the upcoming Crew-8 mission. Other times, we will be in FCR-1 discussing our upcoming plans, to turn around and see a crowd of 20+ strangers staring at you through the viewing glass with their phones out. It can be a bit surreal!

Given your recent entry into the workforce, what advice do you have for current graduate students or early career professionals looking to pursue a career at NASA?

One, feel free to reach out to someone; two, feel free to take a leap even if it's not exactly what you had always planned. I always thought I would be trying to do some space-related research, but here I am learning how to fly spacecraft and how to teach other people to fly spacecraft, and it's one of the coolest jobs in the world. If it seems exciting and fulfilling, and the team is good, apply for the position! The worst they can say is no; the best they can do is offer you a job.

Can you share any specific achievements or milestones from your early career (at NASA and/or at Rice) that you are particularly proud of?

In my first week of training, Norm Knight, the head of the Flight Operations Directorate, came in front of the entire training class and told us, "We are giving you the keys to the $100+ billion station. Nowhere else in the world will you be able to experience something like that." So, in the coming months, as I wrap up my first set of training to become a certified flight controller, it is exciting, scary, and humbling to think about his words.


Special thanks to David for his insight and time spent answering my questions. His experience transitioning from a chemistry graduate student at Rice to a NASA flight controller encapsulates the transformative power of determination and adaptability. It is an excellent reminder that graduate school is about learning the soft skills integral to growth, not just technical knowledge.