Astro-Naia: Georgia Tech Ph.D. Student Aims for the Stars

Naia Butler-Craig, a Ph.D. student in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, works in the High-Power Electric Propulsion Lab — while balancing academics with membership in the NASA Pathways Program.

Naia Butler-Craig has always had a passion for science and engineering. At the age of 7, she remembers drawing the undercarriage of a car that she was convinced could run on oxygen.  That was Naia then, but it still encapsulates who she is today: driven, passionate, creative, and deliberate.

In the eighth grade, after taking an earth and space science class, she had to complete a career test that measured students’ interests and personalities to help shape their future career choices. Naia was not happy with her results. So she Googled “careers in science, technology, and space” and discovered all things aerospace. It sparked a fire and sent her on a path of space exploration.

Now a Ph.D. student in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, Naia works in the High-Power Electric Propulsion Lab. She balances academics with membership in the NASA Pathways Program, where she has worked during the last four summers in the electric propulsion and system engineering departments.

The Pathways Program provides students with paid work experience and recent graduates with a career development program at the beginning of their careers. Both offer the chance for permanent employment at NASA.

“I think that’s one of the best privileges – to work with NASA and be a student,” Naia says. “I get to take a class and then go work there and see the things I’m learning in class in real life.”

On campus, Naia focuses her research on increasing the performance and efficiency of electric propulsion devices — which use less energy, allow for longer sustained flight, and can provide a small thrust for an extended period, which is perfect for deep space exploration.

But working on devices that will one day launch into space isn’t enough for Naia. Her dream is to become a NASA astronaut and travel to space herself. She also wants to inspire younger generations to pursue their interests, especially in STEM fields. This is the dream that drew her to Tech.

“Getting a Ph.D. would be inspiring because I don’t see many people who look like me who have a doctorate,” Naia says. “I think it would be a great thing to show young girls who are interested in STEM that the sky is not even the limit.”                                                               

As the current head of student chapters for the Society of Women in Space Exploration, she does more than inspire. She helps connect young women to the space industry and leadership opportunities. She believes in the power of harnessing the untapped passion in undergraduates interested in STEM. 

The passion and the dream continue to drive Naia, day in and day out, as she reaches beyond the limits of the sky and aims instead for the stars.