Dare Mighty Things: Planets align for mechanical engineer Amanda Gates

From sunny San Diego to the windswept Martian landscape, Amanda Gates ’16 (BS/BA) is charting her own path. A nuclear research engineer with the United States Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Gates has literally seen her career soar.

As the world watched the launch and landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars in the summer of 2020, Gates held her breath as the rover generator she helped build touched down on the planet.

A native of North Bend, Washington, Gates’ quest for warmer weather and beaches led her to San Diego for college, where she immediately discovered a home away from home at the University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. 

As a work-study undergraduate student for the engineering school, Gates quickly immersed herself in the program, taking advantage of the access to professors, the small class sizes and the ability to pursue hands-on learning opportunities in the school’s machine shop.

“Just having hands-on experience on how things are machined really makes us better engineers,” says Gates. “Knowing how the process works — since I’ve done it first-hand — helps me design something that is practical.”

An excitement for the unknown and a desire to learn continued to define Gates’ focus as she contemplated the next phase of her life. In the winter of 2015, Gates began working in Colorado during Intersession so she could pursue another passion — skiing. It was there that a random conversation opened up an unexpected opportunity.

“One day, a guy came in and asked what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m applying for all these internships.’ He asked me what my major was and I said ‘mechanical engineering.’ His dad used to work at INL and he told me they have a lot of internship opportunities, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll look into it.’” 

It was that chance encounter with a stranger that prompted Gates to apply for an internship with the laboratory, a position she ultimately received due to her machining education.

“What really got me in the door at INL was having machining experience, because a lot of engineers don't have that opportunity within their undergraduate education,” she says. 

For Gates, it’s clear “the stars aligned,” but little did she know that the internship would eventually lead her to post-graduate employment and the surface of Mars. 

After graduating from USD in 2016, Gates joined the INL team. For the past five years, she’s been part of the group responsible for assembling, testing and delivering the rover generator.

“Specifically on Perseverance, it’s a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator,” says Gates. “It’s the generator that fuels the rover. The rover has lithium ion batteries to power it, and those are all charged by our nuclear power generator.”

Gates sees each day at work as a unique experience in the field she loves. “This might be the coolest job I’ll ever have,” she admits. “One of the reasons I really love this job is that no day is the same. We have to go through and make sure everything is going to work as planned because we don’t have a back-up generator. This is all or nothing, so the margin of error needs to be zero because the planets literally aligned for us to make the launch window.”

For Gates, being a part of space exploration is an awe-inspiring and worthwhile mission, one made even more essential by her role as a female engineer in a male-dominated field. In her work at INL, Gates has been actively involved in outreach to young girls, showing them they too can pursue a path in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

“I think the biggest reason there aren’t very many women in engineering is that not many women are seen in it. It’s a very male-dominated field,” says Gates. “I’ve taken that on as my own responsibility to try to do outreach to younger girls.”

As one of two women engineers who worked on the generator, Gates is proud of the opportunity, but sees areas for growth in the field. “This is just a step for people to know if they see it, they can do it. You can do whatever you put your mind to.”

So, as Gates watched the rover land on the red planet, the importance of the moment was not lost on her. “I was taking pictures of the video I was watching, circling the rover, and sending it to my friends saying, ‘I did that. I’ve touched something that’s in that, that’s on another planet.’”

And while Gates may be earthbound, it’s clear her work is paving the way for current and future generations to see themselves in her shoes, exploring frontiers that might just be beyond our sight. 

“Dare mighty things,” she says. “You’re only limited by what you think you can do.”

Allyson Meyer ’16 (BA), ’21 (MBA)

This article is a sneak peek from the Summer 2021 issue of USD Magazine. Find more stories on our website.

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