City Paper Features Board Chair Nzinga Tull

Teaching for Change board chair Nzinga Tull was featured in the Washington City Paper‘s “People Issue” on November 18, 2021.

Nzinga Tull: The Engineer

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Nzinga Tull is an engineer working on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope from the agency’s Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. She helped bring the telescope back online this summer after an essential computer failed. Tull, 46, grew up in Ward 7, and also teaches and performs with KanKouran West African Dance Company and chairs the board of the education nonprofit Teaching for Change. — Mitch Ryals

You started dancing at age 3?

Yes! You know, D.C. was Chocolate City in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was coming of age, and my parents had very strong cultural Black nationalist sensibilities, and it was important for them that we were in touch with our African heritage.

What does dance mean for you? How has that changed since you were younger?

Dance both grounds me in my cultural identity and makes me feel the freest. And that grounding has sustained me. Even when I wasn’t actively taking classes and performing in junior high and high school, there were still performances here. I would come to the show, and there’s kind of a resonance, a heart tug that says, “This is your community. These are your people. You’re a part of this continuum.”

You’ve worked on the Hubble telescope for several years. Can you describe that work?

I’m a systems engineer. There are various systems on the telescope: the thermal control that keeps everything hot when it’s supposed to be hot and cold when it’s supposed to be cold; the power system makes sure everything’s got enough juice. There’s pointing control because you’ve gotta make sure the aperture is pointed in the right place in the sky. So mission operations are separated into all these different subsystems. Systems engineers support the coordination of everything.

The telescope ran into a problem this past summer. What was your role in fixing it?

Oh, Lord have mercy! There are several computers on the telescope, but this summer the payload computer, which is responsible for controlling the science instruments, stopped working. If we can’t command them, we can’t collect data from them.

Many of the different critical components have a primary and redundant side. So we switched to an alternative side. But because of the design of the telescope, we couldn’t just switch the component that we thought was suspect. We also had to switch to alternative components for data management and other spacecraft functions.

We were down for five weeks this summer. It is a reminder that as the telescope gets older and older, the problems will become more and more complex, and so we have to practice grace with both the telescope and with ourselves.

You’re working for NASA through a contract with your family’s firm, Jackson and Tull. How did the firm get started?

My dad is a civil and structural engineer, and the firm started out doing civil and structural engineering. He and the company started out designing a lot of churches, did a lot of infrastructure stuff, bridges. The Franklin Street Bridge was the very first pedestrian walkway in D.C. We did the structural engineering for that. Dad drives through the city making notes on structural integrity to this day. And he’s always been that way.

So you saw your dad doing this cool work and wanted to join?

Yeah! He started the business. He’s a Black man from Virginia and wasn’t getting a fair shake in the business space in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so his mentor and partner said, “Well, let’s start our own thing,” and so they did.

That work feels like it exercises a different muscle than dancing.

At the core, you’re driven by creativity to solve a problem or tell a story. Engineering and the arts are not terribly different in that regard. Maintaining this creative practice through dance compels me to stay in touch with my innate creativity in all things, which is particularly helpful in engineering.

You grew up in Hillcrest, went to Spelman College in Atlanta, and came back. Why?

One of the beautiful things about growing up in D.C., especially as a Black kid, that I appreciated more and more as I got older, is that there are all kinds of Black people living in D.C. The full expanse of Black humanity was normalized in my upbringing, which is how we all deserve to exist on this planet — that our existence is just normal, and we have access to everything. Our existence doesn’t limit us. And I felt very fortunate that that was my upbringing here.