Emily Klonicki, Elizabethtown High School class of 2014, has a job title
that, in her own words, is “a bit eccentric”: Planetary Protection Engineer
at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Most people assume I stop
asteroids from hitting the planet, but that is not the case,” says Klonicki.
Rather, Planetary Protection is a multifaceted discipline concerned
with preventing forward and backward contamination.
On a day-to-day basis, Klonicki works with subassemblies (such as the Europa Clipper Mechanical team) and individual component teams to develop their Planetary Protection protocols. “For the Europa Lander mission concept, I am part of a research study that is investigating short-duration, high-temperature microbial sterilization,” she explains.
Currently, Klonicki is also working on a JPL melt probe concept, a device designed to melt and cut through ice on ocean worlds in our solar system. She says, “For example, Europa has an ice shell and an interior ocean. I am part of the project’s science and systems teams, working on developing technology that will descend beneath the surface of ocean worlds using what is essentially a heat source and cutting head [drill] to search for life.”
In high school, Klonicki was always drawn to STEM subjects. “The catalyst for me was my on-level science classes. I was confiding in my science teachers, asking if I should push myself harder, as I was considering this field for a potential career path.” With their consultation, she ended up taking all honors and AP classes for science. “What really triggered it further was Competition Science. It allowed me to have some independence in creating a project with guidance from Dr. Swenson. It gave me an opportunity for a more design-thinking approach to the sciences. I just enjoyed being in the lab.”
When she went to college, Klonicki said she “dove headfirst into research opportunities and fell in love with the research process.” She received funding to continue her high school microbial fuel cell project (power your cell phone with cow poop!) and went on to win second place in a campus-wide innovation contest. She also worked on “more fundamental microbial research” in an epigenetics lab and a phage lab.
“I just kind of found my home in applied microbiology, such as microbial fuel cells or biosensors, and I realized then pre-med was not for me. I was just drawn to research. From there I applied to a California Institute of Technology (CalTech) scholarship fully expecting no response.” She ended up getting a position, allowing her to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managed by CalTech. She had already been accepted into an environmental engineering program and was hoping to pursue a Ph.D., but at the end of her second internship with JPL, she was offered a full-time position. “It’s really hard to turn down your dream job, so I ended up not going to graduate school right away and taking the position, so I’m still at JPL, and hoping to finish my Ph.D. in the near future.” Klonicki said, “I’m kind of taking the scenic path to a doctorate.”
As she reflected on her career trajectory, Klonicki said, “Things don't always work out how you envision. Even though it was tough to leave the graduate program I worked so hard to get into, I was able to get so much experience in these past two years at JPL and build a network that I wouldn’t have been able to build if I had gone to graduate school right away.”
To the Elizabethtown student body, Klonicki says, “Be open to new opportunities. It is very common to want to stick to a predetermined career path that you or others have made for your future. If you are like me and have your ideal career path mapped out, do not be afraid to pivot. Make sure that, in whatever you do, you are following your passions. You will grow a lot in the next several years and new interests will develop as you gain experience. If you take anything from me, know that even the sky isn’t the limit.”