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Alumni Speaker Series - Dr Deborah L. Grubbe

last modified Jan 28, 2014 04:38 PM
Alumni Speaker Series - Dr Deborah L. Grubbe

Dr Deborah Grubbe and Prof John Davidson

On Thursday, 26 January 2012, Dr Deborah L. Grubbe gave a talk on "Looking at Safety in NASA; Lessons to Learn".

She was introduced by Prof John Davidson, who remembered an early link between NASA and this department, the fuel cells used in Apollo spacecraft.

Dr Grubbe was a student here 1977-78, after completing a degree in chemical engineering at Purdue. She has held safety positions with the DuPont Co. and British Petroleum and she currently serves on the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

In her talk she described how the safety principles in chemical engineering are equally applicable in NASA. She compared chemical engineering incidents such as the Texas City refinery explosion of March 2005 and the Piper Alpha oil production platform fire of July 1988 with the space program's incidents, the Apollo 1 fire of January 1967, and the two Space Shuttle disasters, Challenger in January 1986 and Columbia in February 2003. She wondered why these incidents were all in late January and early February.

There are lessons to be learned from all these incidents. The Challenger explosion has been traced to the failure of an O ring on the solid fuel rocket booster due to the unusually low temperatures prior to lift off. A junior engineer spotted the potential problem and tried to stop the launch, but was overruled by more senior managers. In NASA, Dr Grubbe pointed out a "Go fever" where if all your colleagues are saying "Go", no-one wants to be the one who says "No", but from a safety point of view it is vitally important that if something is not safe, you should say so.

Dr Grubbe pointed out three factors in connection with the Columbia that are equally applicable to safety issues in the aerospace and chemical industries:

  1. The technical voice was not heard
  2. The organisation was over confident
  3. The management overlooked weak signals

There was then a lively question and answer session involving the alumni and current staff and students present.


After the talk there was a CEB Careers Event, organised in association with CUCES.


Dr Grubbe and her husband joined an expert panel of Chemical Engineering alumni taking part in a careers discussion and advising undergraduates on how best to enter relevant career fields.

careers event

Elena Gonzalez, who helped CUCES organise the event, commented, "We were very pleased with the turn-up, interaction and participation level. It was a bit of a test for us: Although we have previously hosted career events organised by Department academics we thought we could offer added-value by inviting our alumni to take part in a discussion panel.  We felt students would nicely relate to them, having previously gone through a very similar experience in the same environment. This keen group of professional alumni gave students great tips to help them with job-hunting. I would like to thank all our panel members and students who came along as well as Kyra Sedransk, one of our PhD students, who did a fantastic job moderating the panel discussion and keeping all in order, as well as encouraging student participation and making sure student questions got answered."
Dr Peter Harding (Cambridge University Careers Service), who also attended the event, added, "I am pleased that they emphasised the fact that depending upon circumstances and one's character careers are seldom planned (‘happenstance’ being the norm), that enjoying what you do is important and that professional accreditation is, for many, important."

All in all, students were very pleased with the event and found alumni first-hand advice extremely useful. In view of the recent success there are already plans under way to host another similar career event with alumni's help towards the end of the academic year. If you would like to get involved please contact Elena Gonzalez on