Claudia Alexander

Claudia Alexander
Year of Birth: 
Institutions or Organizations: 
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA
Project Scientist; Manager, US Rosetta Project
It’s not just the technical skills that will allow you to get the cool jobs.
Year Quoted: 

“Not many people can say they fly spacecraft for a living!” exclaims Claudia Alexander when asked why she chooses to remain with a career in the science field. Alexander is a Project Scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the “lead US center for robotic exploration of the solar system, and is managed by the California Institute of Technology. Alexander has been employed by NASA since she was in high school.

Alexander was raised in California’s Santa Clara Valley—now known to most as “Silicon Valley”—during its period of transition from a rural agricultural area into a center for high technology. “I was an eyewitness to the changes and excitement of the time,” Alexander remembers. “My parents were big on engineering. I think growing up there had something to do with my being more receptive to doing something technology-based.”

During high school, Alexander was invited to participate in an internship at NASA Ames Research Center. Though she was there to study engineering, she found herself continuously wandering into the planetary science department. Her boss noticed her interest and sent her to work there. NASA Ames was Alexander’s first employer, and she worked there from 1977 until she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with an engineering degree in 1983. Following college, Alexander got her master’s degree in Plasma Physics at UCLA and her PhD in the same subject at the University of Michigan (UM) in 1993.

Today, Alexander is a project manager and scientist for the US Rosetta Project, the States’ component of the international mission. Alexander points out that her grades in school were not that great, but she advanced in her career in large part due to help from her mentors. Her high school internship also proved invaluable. Alexander explains, “My internship showed I was capable of doing the job at NASA, and that was important as a minority. I showed that I could do the job very well, and I had good success doing what was technically required.”

Alexander explains that although there is a unique set of requirements for her position, she quickly discovered that she had the skills necessary to become a project manager at NASA. “The job has a technical component, so you need to know the science,” she explains, “but you must have interpersonal skills—a special concern for people. Don’t neglect those skills. The ability to argue, to think on your feet all help downstream. It’s not just the technical skills that will allow you to get the cool jobs.”

Alexander believes that people pick their own mentors—people who resonate with you, who think like you. Roberta Johnson, whom she met at UCLA, is one of Alexander’s great friends and mentors. “When we were in school together, there weren’t many women in the field, and we had to discover what sort of woman scientists we were going to be. Roberta was incredibly inspiring.” Alexander also mentions John Matiney, the manger of the Mars Polar Lander Climate Orbiter, from whom she learned a lot about how to manage a project; Jim Erickson from the Galileo Project; and Chris Jones, the director of the Plan Flight Mission as well as her current boss, who she says is fantastic and always accessible. “It’s essential in order to have a successful career to have people give you insider’s clues on how to move forward,” Alexander says.

Though Alexander has the opportunity to mentor others, she has not yet mentored anyone in the same capacity as she has been mentored. Alexander has a group of female students at UM with whom she is in contact, and has been involved in high school tutoring and educational programs through NASA.

One of the highlights of Alexander’s career was when she and her Galileo project team (purposely) crashed the Galileo spacecraft into Jupiter in 2003 in order to avoid hitting one of Jupiter’s moons. Another highlight is her position as project scientist on the Rosetta project, because she is responsible for representing both NASA and the United States on a European mission. “If I’m ungracious it reflects badly on both NASA and the United States,” Alexander says. “I enjoy being the representative in that role.” In addition, Alexander participates on an advisory committee that is part of the National Research Council; she feels incredibly privileged to be able to influence policy.

Alexander serves as chairman of the diversity subcommittee of the American Geophysical Union. The AGU is currently working on a special issue on education in relation to diversity in the earth and space sciences. Alexander explains, “There are many institutions in the US that have never graduated minorities in this area—to the point where you can see yourself in the statistics! The numbers are so small and haven’t moved in decades, which suggests that it is an institutional problem.” The AGU has put out a call for papers, and plans to send the issue to all heads and chairs of relevant departments and funding agencies in 2007. “We want to alert the departments,” Alexander continues. “The pipeline is not empty—kids are coming in but are being driven away. It will be a triumph if we are able to make an impact on how these programs are taught and how minority students are received.”

As mentioned previously, Alexander has remained in the field because of the unique and exciting nature of her job. “I was really influenced by the Cosmos series with Carl Sagan in the ‘70s. It seemed like such a cool thing to be a space explorer,” Alexander comments. “I never thought that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I never looked into anything else.”

Alexander has a lot of advice for minorities who are considering a career in the science field. “My career is tremendously rewarding,” she says. “I feel like a modern-day explorer; the last frontier is space. It’s also a demanding kind of job, where you are absorbed in your work. It is challenging to relationships—be prepared for that. It often doesn’t pay much money, but can also play enormous amounts as well. There are some stuffy individuals in the field and it can be tough, but just stick it out because it is ultimately rewarding.”

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