A native of both Budlong Woods and Rogers Park, Vera Demchenko graduated from Lane Tech High School and became a Wentcher Scholar in 2015.
Aspiring to pursue astrochemistry in graduate school, Vera started off college as a double major in Chemistry and General Astronomy. However, after two years, she switched from General Astronomy to Astrophysics, dropped the Chemistry major, and picked up a Philosophy minor because space was her real passion. Despite the changes, she still graduated on time in 2019, receiving her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Currently, Vera is a Systems Test & Verification Engineer on Orion, a crewed spacecraft which is part of the Artemis program. The goal of the Artemis program is to land the first woman and next man on the Lunar South Pole and establish a sustainable lunar presence in preparation for sending humans to Mars. As a systems engineer working on that program, Vera works on the electrical subsystems of the spacecraft, tests them, verifies them, and makes sure they are in compliance with the customer, which in this case is NASA. When we asked Vera what she’s the most excited about, she told us about Artemis 1, an uncrewed space mission scheduled to launch around the beginning of next year.
We asked Vera how she ended up working as a systems engineer, given that she did not have an engineering background, and she had a pretty interesting story. Coming out of undergrad, Vera said she didn’t really know what to do. She knew she was interested in space policy and data analysis, but it was difficult finding jobs in the space industry without an engineering background. Vera learned that systems engineering was a good avenue for her to pursue because it’s more interdisciplinary than most forms of engineering. Systems engineering requires good communications skills because you have to be able to coordinate between different organizations. Also, systems engineering requires you to see the bigger picture and utilize critical thinking, which astrophysics studies had already prepared her to do. After a year of being aggressive at utilizing her network, she landed her role at Lockheed Martin in Colorado.
Vera brings a diverse perspective to the table, and she uses that to her advantage. She does not have an engineering degree like most of her peers. However, Vera keeps up with her work just fine! She says it has been a bit of a learning curve because not being trained to think in an engineering framework can put her at a slight disadvantage at times. However, because she wasn’t trained to think in an engineering framework, she can catch things that her engineer peers cannot.
Ultimately Vera thoroughly enjoys her work! She loves that she’s part of the human spaceflight program and loves learning about how everything works to enable human space travel. For her, the best part of her job is “being able to see a big picture, bigger than herself, bigger than this planet.” Vera hasn’t been to space yet, and she’s not sure if she’ll ever go because she’s afraid of heights. However, she does love the idea of being able to touch the Moon and Mars through spacecraft exploration missions.
In the future, Vera is looking to possibly pursue an interdisciplinary Master’s degree with an Engineering focus. Her long term career goal is to pursue a business development role in the space industry, which entails bidding on contracts for spacecrafts, writing proposals, and developing relationships with clients for business opportunities. Vera noted that although it would be more business-based, she would still need engineering knowledge to do this role well. Understanding the engineering concepts, principles, and the way things work will allow her to create new business opportunities and forge better relationships with her customers.
We asked Vera if she had any advice for people looking to pursue a job in the space industry, and she said “believe in yourself!” Vera encourages people to apply for jobs or college programs even if you feel unqualified. She suggests asking people you trust to review application materials if you have any doubts. Also, networking is important – it can open a lot of doors for you. Lastly, don’t be afraid to take time to figure things out. “Compare yourself to only your past self because your definition of success will be vastly different from the next person.”
Vera has a lot of interests outside of space! She enjoys hiking in the mountains of Colorado because of the evergreens and crisp air. She stresses the importance of prioritizing your mental health, and she makes sure to take time for herself. In college she was part of a Tango club, and these days she is trying to get back into Salsa, Swing, and Tango dance classes. She also enjoys cooking dinner with her friends, and hanging out with her adorable cat, Lili.
We at the Wentcher Foundation are extremely proud of Vera for her success, and we wish her nothing but luck as she continues pursuing her career in the space industry!