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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Engineering Alum Trades Space Missions for Foster Child Advocacy

By Sherry DiBari

Audra Bullock never intended to leave her engineering position at NASA.

She had, after all, earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from Old Dominion University, spent six years as a faculty member at the University of Hawaii and worked her way up to mission manager at NASA Langley Research Center.

But a small boy changed everything.

"I never intended to start a nonprofit, she said. "I never intended to quit my job at NASA and do this for free, all day long. But that's where we are."

"Where we are" is the small downtown Norfolk office of Tidewater Friends of Foster Care, an organization Bullock founded in 2016 to improve the lives of foster-care children in Hampton Roads.

Bullock - a three-time graduate of ODU in 1996, 1997 and 2000 - was first and foremost an engineer.

In her junior year - while earning the first of her three electrical engineering degrees - Bullock was offered a chance to work on an undergraduate research project with Professor Amin Dharamsi in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The project, focused on spectroscopy of oxygen molecules, led to an accelerated master's degree and continuation of her education.

"I loved the ODU experience and ended up staying all the way through my Ph.D.," Bullock said.

She spent six years as a faculty member at the University of Hawaii, then transitioned to NASA Langley Research Center in 2009.

As a NASA engineer and mission manager, Bullock worked with low-orbit, airborne, satellite-borne and International Space Station missions.

Bullock also worked on one of the space shuttle missions.

"It was amazing," she said. "It was like a highlight of my life to have seen that shuttle launch, sit at mission control and watch the data come in."

Then one little boy changed her whole trajectory.

Bullock and her husband, Richard Litton, had decided to become foster parents.

Their house felt empty - Litton's three grown children from a previous marriage were heading to college. The couple wanted to still have young children in their lives but not necessarily their own.

Foster care was a natural choice.

It was, however, an eye-opening experience.

"There were things we just didn't understand," Bullock said. "We just assumed that these kids were taken care of, or that there were enough foster parents. It was so much more than that, and the need was so great."

They became licensed for foster care and within days were placed with a boy one month shy of his third birthday.

"He changed everything," Bullock said.

The boy, now 9, was fostered then permanently adopted by the couple. Soon after, they added a 5-year-old girl to the family.

However, the more Bullock learned about the foster-care system, the more it troubled her.

"I was unsettled by how easy it is to obtain government resources for spaceborne missions and how hard it is to obtain resources for these humans, these little people that are in peril," she said.

She knew she could help to make a bigger impact.

"I decided that I needed to take some time and do something in this realm, that these little people were really, really important," she said.

Bullock was already skilled in grant writing, project management and data analysis - skills that can make an organization successful and efficient.

So, in 2016 she founded Tidewater Friends of Foster Care, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and resources for foster children.

The organization provides outreach to recruit foster families and offers academic tutoring and extracurricular activities for the children.

The regional need was so great that the nonprofit - which originally served only Norfolk - has expanded to Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

In addition to running the day-to-day work at the nonprofit, Bullock serves as the parent representative on the Norfolk Community Policy Management Team and on the board of the Old Dominion Athletics Foundation and the ODU Fundraising Initiative Leadership Committee.

In October 2021, Bullock was honored with the Jack Frost Alumni Service Award from the ODU Alumni Association.

"It's incredibly humbling," she said. "The work I do now is much different than what I graduated from in at ODU. But it's really meaningful work and to be acknowledged for that work is deeply moving to me."

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