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UI employee helps put projects into space

BY JORDAN MONTGOMERY | SEPTEMBER 16, 2011 7:20 AM

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Sharon Kutcher has worked on countless projects over the years that have helped researchers across the country put their projects into space.

Kutcher has been employed at the University of Iowa since the 1970s, and she is a longtime member of the electronics-assembly shop in Van Allen Hall.

The shop is located at the end of one the many long corridors in Van Allen, and it is a room unlike many others on the UI campus. One of the first things people encounter as they step into the room is that their feet stick to a large adhesive mat meant to prevent static electricity. Visitors of the shop are not only confined to the mat, they must enter through a separate doorway.

Because any electric shock could interfere with her work, Kutcher wears a special jacket and a bracelet that's plugged into her desk to keep her body grounded.

Her official title is engineering coordinator.

"But I do a little bit of everything," she said.

Though Kutcher doesn't have a college degree, she is the manager of operations in the assemblies shop, is certified by NASA to assemble and solder parts, and, because she often has students assisting her in the shop, she is certified to provide quality control.

Mary Hall Reno, the head of the Physics/Astronomy Department, said the UI has one of the few university departments in the country that builds spaceflight hardware.

"I love what I do," Kutcher said. "It's just so interesting. Sometimes I am trained to read the data from a project, so I am able to see the other end of what we do, which makes it even more fun. That's why I like it, there is so much variety, it is very exciting."

The majority of her work consists of piecing together electronic assemblies — the green circuit boards you can find in pretty much every electronic device.

These assemblies eventually make their way onto satellites that either orbit the Earth and send back information about the planet, or they head out into the cosmos.

Kutcher has worked on projects that studied Saturn, Mars, and the radiation belts around the earth.

She worked on her most recent project, the Juno Waves Project, for over two years. Known as "Juno" for short, the satellite was successfully launched in August, and it is headed to Jupiter to measure naturally occurring waves in the plasmas around Jupiter.

The waves are radio emissions generated by the same process that generates auroras on Jupiter, explained Kutcher's colleague, Bill Kurth, the lead co-investigator of the Juno Waves Project.

He said projects such as this are important because if we can't understand the origin of Jupiter, we can't understand the origin of Earth.

"[Sharon's] been through a number of projects," Kurth said. "She's seen a lot of problems come up and learned how to solve them. She's got a wealth of experience."

Last year, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences recognized Kutcher's work. She received the Mary Louise Kelly Staff Excellence Award, an award that recognizes only 10 staff members a year who have brought honor to their departments, their college, and the university.

"It's a way of recognizing her excellence and dedication to the job that we rely on her to do," Kurth said.


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