It reads like a worst-case scenario: you’re slicing through rough air to check on an offshore oil rig when the unfathomable happens—the chopper goes down. Would you survive?
Your fate, it turns out, could be written in the stars.
Stationed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, analysts, like MPA alum Michelle Curtis, are helping outside organizations partner with the agency to explore new frontiers in technology and science. In this case, the team executed a Space Act Agreement and cleared the way for a full-size helicopter cab to be submerged in the center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab—a 6.2 million-gallon tank typically used by astronauts to simulate a weightless environment. The results? Helicopter pilots learned lifesaving maneuvers, and NASA had another opportunity to benefit the American taxpayer.
To be clear, Curtis is not a rocket scientist, which is usually the first thing people ask when they see NASA on her résumé. She’s an engineering integration analyst and an invaluable part of the agency. “NASA couldn’t do what they do without a budget person,” Curtis explains. “When Avionics Systems needs an HD camera to test in space, I’m the one who starts the process.”
In her five years with the agency, Curtis has successfully climbed the ranks, wrangled massive budgets, and balanced the sometimes conflicting demands of Congress and scientists. Amid frequent policy changes and big developments in her personal life, Curtis has kept everyone grounded. Meanwhile, her career has soared.
Although Curtis grew up in the lights of the nation’s capital, with a father employed by the State Department, she never planned on a career in government. “I was surrounded by public service; it’s hard not to be in Washington, DC,” she says.
Both her father and her mother, a finance manager, put a high priority on education for Curtis and her three siblings. “I always knew, even when I was just starting my undergrad, that I would pursue a higher degree,” she says.
That goal dovetailed well with Curtis’s naturally studious nature. From the time she was little, she loved reading and was fascinated with science and history—an interest nurtured by her father’s love of touring Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields in Virginia.
But when the time came to choose a university, Curtis wasn’t interested in sticking to the historic colleges along the Eastern seaboard. “I chose BYU because I wanted to go out of state and get outside of myself,” she explains. The opportunity to be surrounded by people with similar standards was also a big draw.
Curtis started her studies in Provo in fall 2003 but was unsure about a major. Professor Gary Booth’s Biology 101 course changed that. “I loved learning how the universe worked!” Curtis remembers. “The catch was that I didn’t know what I would do with it.”
Even though the practical application wasn’t clear—she knew she wasn’t interested in becoming a doctor or working in a lab—Curtis followed her passion, earning her BS in biology in 2007.
In a chance encounter at Curtis’s annual summer job at a district court, she met a woman with a biology degree who was pursuing an MPA. “She felt the same way I did. She was interested in science but didn’t want to be in the lab,” Curtis explains. “She got me excited about the idea of applying my technical knowledge in a government setting.” And that’s exactly how it worked out.
Axis of Rotation
In 2009 Curtis joined the Johnson Space Center team as a policy analyst, working to ensure laws and budget procedures were followed correctly. For example, Congress was concerned with the amount of money being spent on travel to tech and science conferences, so it passed restrictions. It was Curtis’s job to ensure NASA’s scientists were in compliance with the new guidelines. She also contributed to NASA’s Economic Impact Study, a love letter to Houston documenting the money NASA brings to the region.
Her next role, division analyst, was her most difficult to date. Working with the engineering department, Curtis oversaw fifty-five projects with a $25 million budget. “I had so many masters,” Curtis explains. “I worked for the CFO’s office but was also supporting the division and fifty-five project managers. I had to learn how to prioritize and keep what little time I had sacred.”
One of the ways she did that was by eliminating drop-in meetings. Instead, she scheduled a reoccurring gathering with project managers so there was an official time to address concerns. She also educated managers on the budget schedule and how it benefited them.
“I had to learn how to speak budget in engineer,” Curtis says. “For instance, if they need one hundred lightbulbs, that’s an off-the-shelf purchase. But if they need a radiation-proof lightbulb, I’d encourage them to work with a contractor early on so the purchase will hit the books at the right time.”
Last year Curtis transitioned into her current position: engineering integration analyst. She’s now involved in higher-level policy and mentoring junior analysts. “But I’m still close to the work,” she adds. “I get regular updates on Robonaut—they just added legs!—and I love mentoring. It’s nice to use my skills to help others.”
The variety of projects keeps each day interesting. Curtis helps analysts solve problems as they arise, which has given her plenty of time to hone leadership skills by looking to her own supervisor for inspiration.
“My current manager balances being involved and letting us make decisions,” she says. “I believe a great leader is someone who supports their team. They’re knowledgeable with a strong technical background, and they’re not afraid to let their people shine.”
For the record, locking up a position like Curtis’s isn’t easy.
Securing the job took two phone calls and six in-person interviews, and that doesn’t take into account the lengthy online application process. For Curtis, landing a desk at NASA came down to a combination of real-world experience, an ally in the Marriott School’s Business Career Center, and a robust network of MPA alumni.
She got her experience between her first and second year in the MPA program, interning with the California Department of Finance. Her biology background was an asset when she was asked to research fiscal solutions for the San Joaquin River Delta—a major source of freshwater in the region.
She returned to the Marriott School to finish her last year and hit it off with a visiting NASA manager, who wasn’t able to recruit because of a hiring freeze. After graduation in April 2009, Curtis moved back to DC and kept looking for a job.
Then one day an email from Tanya Harmon in the Business Career Center popped into Curtis’s inbox. A new opportunity at NASA had opened up. Curtis immediately emailed the manager she’d interviewed with to let him know she was still very interested. He helped direct her to the right channels.
Finally, she cashed in on the network she’d built in the program and while working as a student in the Romney Institute’s alumni relations office. Ben Hewitt, who was a year ahead of Curtis in the program, was already employed at NASA when Curtis began the interview process. Curtis reached out, and Hewitt helped her run through mock interviews. “It’s so important to maintain your network,” Curtis says. “Staying in touch can open up opportunities.”
But her BYU ties didn’t just get her foot in the door. The practical nature of the MPA program has helped Curtis continue to advance.
“When you’re working you’ll be asked to learn new software or a new process, and you’ve got to be able to learn it thoroughly and quickly,” she says. “The Marriott School taught me how to learn and understand problems from a business perspective.”
In Curtis’s personal life there has been a learning curve as well. In 2010 she married her husband, Trevor, whom she met in a Houston singles ward. “It is possible to leave BYU, move out of Utah, and get married,” Curtis says, smiling.
And in December the pair welcomed their first baby. “We’ve wanted to meet him for a while,” Curtis says of the new addition. “It’s exciting to take this next step.” Instead of rocket ships on the nursery walls, Curtis went with a nautical theme. “I’m sure science and NASA will be a big part of his life,” Curtis says. “I work there. How could it not be?”
While she’s currently on maternity leave, Curtis is excited to continue her career with NASA. The flex schedule—nine-hour workdays that give employees one Friday off every two weeks—and the organization’s culture are big pluses.
“NASA encourages both boys and girls to get involved in science and tech,” Curtis explains. “While that initiative has to do with kids, even at the professional level NASA doesn’t feel like an old boys’ club. The agency really believes in inclusion in innovation.”
In 2012 the agency was named the best place to work in the government by the Partnership for Public Service. That reputation has led to many lifelong employees. Curtis herself eventually hopes to advance to a team-lead position, managing five to ten analysts. It will allow her to continue doing what she loves most—mentoring—by assisting analysts with identifying opportunities for growth and promotion.
Whatever Curtis does next, she’ll take a cue from NASA’s mission statement. After all, the opportunity to “pioneer the future” never ends.