AERO Alum Reaches for the Stars

Just four years after graduating from Cal Poly, aerospace engineering alum Tracy Van Houten is living out her dreams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After serving as lead systems engineer for JPL’s Team X, Tracy has been tapped to work on two high-profile outer planet flagship missions. Yet she stays grounded, maintaining her ties with Cal Poly and the Society of Women Engineers.

Tracy began her career with JPL after graduation in 2004. “It was the only place I wanted to work,” she said. “Fortunately, after knocking on a few doors they decided to hire me.” She was married in 2005 and says friends may remember her as Tracy Leavens.

She started out as working as a systems engineer for Team X, which is JPL’s premier conceptual spacecraft design team. The team designs approximately 50 missions per year, averaging one mission each week.

“Time is very condensed with Team X,” she said, “I was required to produce in nine hours what often took nine months to design as a student at Cal Poly.”

But Tracy believes the hands-on, practical knowledge she gained from her aerospace design classes prepared her well for this challenge. She points to her experience as a project manager in one class, which forced her to take charge and communicate effectively with a team of 30 peers.

Tracy was soon promoted to lead systems engineer of Team X. In this position she supervised 15 fellow engineers, which was uncommon for someone of such a young age. She also served as a liaison between Team X and management at JPL.

Now, in recent weeks, she has signed on as a flight systems engineer for two prospective outer planet flagship missions. One mission would see a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter’s moon Europa and the other would explore Saturn’s moon Titan. NASA will decide which mission proceeds to implementation, but Tracy will be involved with the winning project regardless.

During her time at Cal Poly, Tracy served as president of the Society of Women Engineers. She continues as an active member of SWE on both the national and regional levels. She is the chair-elect of the Collegiate Interest Committee, which organizes national activities for outstanding collegiate SWE members. Tracy also visits and speaks with Cal Poly SWE. She helps them prepare for national competitions and advises the section on succession planning.

Tracy says she has helped to get several interns and colleagues hired on at JPL. “They didn’t hire many Cal Poly students in my section before I came along” she said, “but now they have reconsidered.” She advises current SWE members and Cal Poly students to take initiative and seek out technical leadership whenever possible, because she cites it as a key selling point to prospective employers.