David Lehner, PhD
In which areas would you recommend this mentor as a mentor?
Jessica Gersh-Range, postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, introduces David Lehner:
I first met Dave while I was a graduate student working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center as part of a fellowship. I was designing a challenging experiment, and he generously volunteered his time and expertise to help make my research project a success. One of the very first things that struck me was just how much he knew, though he often understated his abilities. His “limited skill set” (to use his words) encompassed precision engineering, welding, machining, optical glass working, car repair, home improvement, and even how to build an ultralight aircraft in the basement! He had two labs filled with odds and ends from past experiments, and he could explain the history behind them all. He was everyone’s Mr. Fix-it, with a list of projects at least a mile long and at least one drawer in his office filled with broken gadgets he had volunteered to repair. He could even identify the various military aircraft flying in the area or on display.
Just as impressive as all this knowledge were Dave’s eagerness and ability to share it. He accumulated this broad range of skills by actively learning from the people around him, and he encouraged me to do the same. He welcomed questions, and he provided me with many opportunities to gain practical, hands-on experience with whatever piece of equipment he was using at the time. He praised skills that I did not even know I had, and he taught me many new ones. As a result, I discovered a love of glass working, a hobby that I have continued to pursue. Dave would also explain the history behind a piece of equipment or a manufacturing technique, and these memorable stories provided context and a deeper understanding. When it came to experiment design, he listened to my ideas, praised what I did well, and offered constructive feedback about improvements rather than simply telling me what to do or doing it himself with little explanation. He was also a proponent of learning through experimentation—I will never forget standing just outside the blast zone watching insulation rain down as we determined that a can of GREAT STUFF spray foam insulation truly is single-use only! My time with Dave was extremely educational and entertaining, and “Big fun!” became one of our themes.
On a personal note, my time with Dave was also part of a much-appreciated counterpoint to a graduate school experience where I was at times belittled and criticized for asking questions or (correctly) solving problems using a different approach than what someone’s idea of a proper engineer would do. Dave is very big-hearted, and he cares about the entire individual. I have seen him always ready to help a friend, whether that meant something as big as testifying in court or as small as gifting a personalized set of earplugs for hearing protection. He has so much knowledge that he wants to share, and I hope that others will have the opportunity to learn from him as I have. It is my great privilege to call him my mentor and my friend.
Jessica Gersh-Range is a postdoctoral research associate in the High Contrast Imaging Laboratory at Princeton University, having completed a PhD in mechanical engineering at Cornell University in 2014. The recipient of a NASA Graduate Student Researcher’s Program fellowship at Marshall Space Flight Center, she also worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute as a graduate student. She received a BA in physics from Swarthmore College in 2006, with a minor in mathematics. Her research interests include space optical systems, combining her physics and engineering backgrounds.
Relax, It’s Just a Satellite! A Mentor Engine Interview with David Lehner, Retired NASA Engineer
By Stephanie Baum, Mentor Engine
During David Lehner’s 19-year tenure as an engineer with NASA, he was known for his determination and problem-solving skills, and also his sense of humor. Within his immediate organization and others, managers and colleagues frequently tasked David with leading teams to complete crucial, tight-deadline projects of tremendous scientific complexity. His unique management style yielded much success, and during this time, he was also happy to serve as a role model and mentor. Now retired from NASA, David remains committed to guiding and inspiring others, professionally and personally. In this interview, David discusses how he has helped and continues to guide and inspire others.
David, thanks for speaking to us. Your career accomplishments are formidable, and most impressive are your efforts as a team leader and mentor. In your role at NASA, you were responsible for hiring people. Were there any specific questions you liked to ask in job interviews to get an idea of whether a candidate was a good fit?
I didn’t have any specific questions, but always tried to get a feel for the attitudes of those I interviewed. Could they laugh and relax, and still be serious when the situation required it? We were working on extremely complex issues, and the ability to relax and generally proceed without worry was very important.
What was one of the toughest problems you had to solve in your role at NASA?
At one point, another group was building a satellite, and it had to be done quickly and affordably. Seven scientists were working on optical instruments for the project, but no provision had been made for the alignment of these instruments. When I joined the project, I learned that the technical specifications required alignment within one tenth of a thousandth of an inch, and we would have to develop and apply a different alignment method for each of the seven instruments. That project took three or four months, and we got it done. As I did throughout my career at NASA, I kept a positive attitude and a sense of humor and never allowed worry to get in my way.
That is amazing! You’re retired now and still very active. What are you doing these days?
I’ve been very fortunate, and now want to give back. I do a lot to provide emotional support for those who need it. Right now I’m in close touch with a family member who is going through a rough patch, and I’ve helped a homeless acquaintance get back on his feet. I’ve also befriended the teenage son of one of my close friends. He is an exceptionally bright young man on the autism spectrum. We go out to lunch every week and spend a few hours discussing all kinds of fascinating topics.
What are your goals for him?
I’m giving him tools for education so that he can get through college; I plan to mentor him through college so that he doesn’t fall through the cracks, but can finish and pursue meaningful work.
Inherent in this are your core values; what would others say they are?
I think they would list honesty, being good to my word, and—again—determination. There’s no dishonor in attempting to do something and missing the mark, but there is dishonor in giving up.
Is there one piece of advice you like to give to people you lead or mentor?
Don’t take things too seriously! I’ve worked with people who worry too much. It wastes time and results in people losing a lot from their own lives. Don’t worry about things over which you have no control, and don’t give energy to things that you don’t want to happen.