Women in STEM: Shannon Towey

Last Updated: May 11, 2021 9:57 am
Women in STEM: Shannon Towey

For the last four years, Shannon Towey has been a Systems Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, where she works on web applications and data processing tools for the Mars 2020 rover mission. Did someone mention a mission to Mars? Wow! This makes Shannon an exciting choice to be featured in Tynker’s Women in STEM series.

Shannon talked about her job in a YouTube video, Spotlight on CERN Alumni: 

“Mission systems encompasses everything from operating a spacecraft and developing new software tools to help monitor the spacecraft and control them.”


Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in our Solar System. The Mars 2020 Mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program that includes the rover Perseverance and the small robotic helicopter Ingenuity.

On February 18, 2021, the NASA rover Perseverance touched down on Mars seven months after taking off from Earth. The goal is to find signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars.

It takes about eleven minutes for information from Mars to get to Earth, and the satellites aren’t always on the same side of the planets as the rover, or even facing Earth. Shannon explained:

“It takes us a full day to plan the next day in Rover’s life based on information that we got down from the previous day in its life. And it operates on Martian time…and the Mars day is around 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.”

Shannon said in a recent interview with Matador Network that a favorite part of her job was developing a downlink tool for which she wrote the majority of the code. And, on her Twitter account, she occasionally reposts some amazing videos from Mars courtesy of NASA.


A self-described, science, stats, and space nerd, Shannon earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Physics from the University of Chicago.

While in school, she was a research assistant in the department of Astronomy & Astrophysics where she used an infrared camera and polarimeter to analyze astronomical images and data.

And, as if that wasn’t amazing enough, she was also a research assistant in the department of Medical Physics. Here, she developed a program for analyzing MRI images of human tumors to determine drug efficacy in clinical trials.

She also found time in the summer before her senior year to be a MURF Undergraduate Research Fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Her role was to analyze polarimeter scans to characterize performance.

In addition, she designed and built Helmholtz coil to test magnetic shielding of HAWC+, infrared camera, and polarimeter for SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7-meter (106-inch) reflecting telescope.

Professional Career

After college, Shannon became the first woman ever sent by the University of Chicago to CERN (European Organization of Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. As a Detector Technologist, her job was to develop tools to analyze test data as well as monitor a sub-detector to characterize its response and diagnose issues. 

And, today, she’s back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with NASA working on the Mars Mission, paving the way for future human expeditions to Mars and demonstrating technologies that could be used in those endeavors.

NASA is testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

Going Forward

Shannon is a great example of the kind of determination and leadership that Tynker loves and a true inspiration to the next generation of girls who are thinking about a career in STEM-related fields. As for what Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Shannon said:

“I think JPL has done a really good job, especially more recently in hiring more women into the technical roles.”

We can’t wait to see what Shannon does next!


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