Gugu Rutherford’s Great Journey
September 17, 2021
Gugu Rutherford,'12, didn't see how her chemistry and material science background could be applicable to NASA. NASA, after all, was about rockets and astronauts.
But, during an interview for a NASA Pathways internship - one she almost didn't apply for - it all fell into place.
Rutherford was asked how she would perform sampling on the planet Mars. "I literally gave the example of sampling in the ocean with Dr. Cutter on my last expedition with him," she said.
Greg Cutter, professor and eminent scholar in ODU's Department of Ocean and Earth Sciences, was a mentor to Rutherford, first as a student and later as a research associate.
Rutherford also impressed the interviewers with her business acumen - gleaned from managing the cosmetics department at Nordstrom for seven years.
"There were metrics that had to be measured to manage a profitable business," she said. "When it comes to making sure that we are being responsible for taxpayers' dollars, they knew I was committed."
"That's when it all came full circle," she said.
She was awarded the yearlong internship in the Systems Integration & Test Branch, a position that transitioned into her current job.
As a contamination control and planetary protection engineer, Rutherford focuses on microscopic subjects. Even the slightest smudge or speck of dust can distort information on instruments used to gather scientific information.
"If you have nothing but molecular deposition from outgassing on the surface of a lens and you cannot receive or transmit any light through that, it can be devasting for the mission," she said.
She also monitors and reduces biological and particulate contamination on space payloads.
"If we are going to look for life on Mars, we need to know that life is coming from Mars, and that we didn't bring it with us," she said.
These days, Rutherford, who has a new additional title - assistant branch head for Systems Integration & Test Branch - spends less time in the lab.
Much of her time is spent collaborating with scientists and engineers at NASA facilities and with industry partners across the country, particularly at sites where space flight hardware is being assembled, integrated and tested in cleanroom facilities.
Rutherford, who spent her formative years in Virginia Beach, didn't take the direct route to a STEM career.
She spent a few years working retail in Michigan and came back to Hampton Roads to manage the cosmetics department at Nordstrom.
Retail management helped Rutherford connect with people. "To give your customers the best experience, you need to really listen to their needs," she said.
In the same week that she started at Nordstrom, she also joined the U.S. Navy Reserve.
"We were raised with the idea of community service, and just being connected to someone other than yourself," she said. "And being very empathetic about the fact that others might really need your help."
After seven years at Nordstrom and in the reserve, Rutherford enrolled at Old Dominion University to double major in chemistry and biochemistry.
Rutherford wasn't the typical chemistry student - a 30-year-old single mother, working full-time, and a woman of color.
However, she found a welcoming community within the department.
"Our department was really small and I was able to really connect to my peers," she said. "Even though we all had different backgrounds, we had a deep connection to each other."
At ODU, Cutter introduced Rutherford to the hands-on applications and practical uses of chemistry.
"I started to see that there's so much chemistry that's directly applicable to the field of chemical oceanography and environmental chemistry as a whole," she said. "And I really fell in love with it."
After graduation, Rutherford spent three years working with Cutter as a research associate.
Rutherford expanded on that love of hands-on science with a masters, and later a doctorate, in materials science at Norfolk State University.
Still focused on giving back, Rutherford mentors high school and college students participating in programs at NASA.
Her advice for young people interested in STEM: "Be fearless; you have to step out on faith and be fearless."
Read about Gugu Rutherford and other Monarchs who have made a mark at NASA in the winter issue of Monarch magazine.