Newly graduated from Stevens with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, Mary Michelle Easter ’15 will begin her dream job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California in August.
“Space technology for me is one of the most fascinating areas for engineering because it’s limitless.”
The path Easter took to an engineering career was unconventional, and certainly not a direct one. After graduating from high school in her hometown of Highland, Maryland, she moved to Los Angeles and earned her makeup license.
“When I was growing up, I was very girly, and even to this day I’m very girly. I love fashion and I like to get manicures every other week.”
She worked in the film industry as a special effects makeup artist until she received an offer to travel to South Korea for a modeling assignment.
For Easter, who grew up on a farm and never traveled outside the country, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“When modeling became a possibility I realized I had to go do this. And it just kept going.”
Indeed, after that initial experience, Easter would go on to work as a fashion model for the next eight years, traveling to cities like Paris, London, Athens, Milan and Dubai at a moment’s notice to live and work for months at a time.
In 2009, she moved her home base from Los Angeles to New York City. It was a move that would set her on a new course, career-wise.
“In Manhattan, I was meeting people who really valued their education and their professional jobs. And I realized that after years of modeling, although it was fun, I wasn’t challenged in the right way. I never produced anything from my mind.”
To pursue a career that was intellectually stimulating, she decided to go back to school.
“I was always very mechanically inclined and loved to build things, which is why I ended up choosing engineering.”
She began by enrolling in physics and computer science courses at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY).
“I really wanted to do engineering but after an eight-year break from school, I didn’t even know how to do basic math anymore. So I did all my core math and sciences at Hunter, and specialized in quantum physics.”
During this time, Easter completed two years of internships at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico where she had the opportunity to participate in quantum optics research.
Easter’s research at the AFRL was published in three international physics journals – the Journal of Applied Physics, Applied Physics Letters and Optics Express – where she was credited as a co-author. Additionally, she had the opportunity to present her work at the biggest international physics conference in the world at the American Physical Society’s March meeting for two consecutive years.
After fulfilling her course requirements at Hunter College, Easter transferred to Stevens to pursue her engineering studies. Just minutes away from where she lived in the West Village, Easter says the small campus environment of Stevens suited her perfectly.
“The campus is so beautiful and serene. I lived in Manhattan and I loved how I could pop up above ground and be in study mode in just one subway ride.”
Going from a school of roughly 40,000 students to one that is approximately 4,000 had significant advantages, she says.
“The biggest difference is the attention and support you get from your professors. Dr. Frank Fisher, associate professor and interim department director, is absolutely amazing. As busy as he is, his door is always open and he genuinely cares about each individual student. We’re so lucky to have him as head of the department. Professor Mishah Salman is also very supportive of his students. He really takes students that he sees promise in and exposes them to research, really challenging them.”
While at Stevens, Easter was a member of the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi (TBP). As the K-12 outreach chair for TBP, Easter led an effort to establish a two-month long STEM education training session for 8th grade students in Hoboken and Jersey City last fall. It was the most extensive STEM outreach program by TBP to date.
“Fellow TPB students Michael Giglia ’15, Garrett Joyal ’15, Tatyana Fedorenko ’15, Drew Zahradka ’15 and I developed hour-long lessons about engineering topics that we’re interested in and basically taught 8th grade students college-level material.”
Response to the program was unequivocally positive from parents, teachers, principals and students alike, she says, adding that when the project culminated in a Jeopardy-style engineering trivia competition at Stevens, faculty who were in attendance – professors Frank Fisher, Mishah Salman and Distinguished Service Professor Kevin Ryan (who served as competition host) – expressed how impressed they were by the students’ performance.
“My favorite part of the competition was a live robot programming round because robotics is my main interest. So I was really motivated to try to expose kids to robotics and computer programming because it’s such an incredibly valuable tool in all disciplines of engineering. To share something I’m so passionate about was so rewarding.”
When asked about her future at JPL, Easter is still amazed at the chain of events that led to her employment at NASA. She says it began last summer when she was working at Princeton University conducting experimental physics research. Eager to incorporate engineering solutions to her physics work, Easter designed a small mechatronics system that automated a laser experiment.
Her design attracted the attention of Dr. Marlan Scully, a renowned physicist at Princeton University. Described by Easter as “one of the godfathers of laser physics in the world,” Scully approached Easter about an opportunity for graduate studies at either Texas A&M University or Princeton University.
“Dr. Scully works with Nobel Prize-winning scientists and I was just floored about the possibility of presenting to Nobel Prize-winning scientists and to be able to work with these people.”
She did not say yes to the offer, but Scully’s interest in working with her gave Easter the confidence and inspiration to explore additional opportunities. Through a friend, Easter reached out to a contact at JPL, which is formally a part of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), about the possibility of graduate studies at Caltech. But soon after Easter sent her resume, she was instead presented with the opportunity to interview for a job at JPL, something that had not crossed Easter’s mind. After a phone interview, a trip to California for a series of interviews followed.
Easter’s interdisciplinary background of physics work experience, computer programming and robotics engineering experience made Easter an attractive candidate for several different groups at JPL.
Shortly thereafter, Easter received an email from JPL that she should expect a job offer. Notified that it could take possibly a month before a final decision was made, Easter returned to campus to begin her senior year at Stevens. During this time, she met with an ExxonMobil recruiter on campus. Although her goal was to get additional funding for TBP’s STEM outreach program, the recruiter expressed a strong interest in interviewing Easter for employment at ExxonMobil.
Still waiting for an official offer letter from JPL, Easter flew to Virginia for a round of interviews with ExxonMobil, which ended in an offer of employment with a starting salary that stunned Easter.
“The starting salary was incredible, especially since I was only getting a bachelor’s.”
Despite having two lucrative job offers in hand, Easter couldn’t resist exploring yet another career opportunity. MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally-funded research and development center that Easter greatly admired, was on campus recruiting.
Impressed with Easter’s interdisciplinary background, Lincoln Lab interviewed Easter for four different groups – Advanced Technology Laser Systems, Rapid Prototyping, Systems Engineering and the Control Systems Group – resulting in each group offering her a position.
Now armed with multiple dream job offers, Easter found herself in the “best worst predicament” she could imagine.
“I was really stressed because I wanted to say ‘yes’ to everything.”
Easter ultimately chose JPL, and will soon realize a childhood dream.
“It has always been a dream of mine since I was a little girl to work for NASA. I’ll be working for the mechatronics group at JPL. Working in a research-type of environment as opposed to a corporation was really appealing to me. I really like prototyping and helping to contribute to a base of knowledge.”
Brimming with excitement about her future, Easter credits Stevens for making it possible for her to design an engineering degree that suited her broad base of interests.
“At Stevens, you have required technical electives and it’s very easy to pick up minors or concentrations. For example, I did a robotics concentration and that means that I get on top of the normal mechanical engineering curriculum a lot of exposure to things related to control systems and programming, microprocessors, things like that.”
Additionally, she says her research activities at Stevens helped to make her stand out from a competitive field of highly-qualified candidates.
“I received so much positive responses to the job experiences and research projects on my resume. At Stevens, if you prove yourself to be a good student and you show professors that you’re hardworking and that you care, you can get yourself involved in research projects.”
Easter graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Feeling gratified about everything she has been able to accomplish in her undergraduate career, Easter plans to continue her STEM outreach efforts in her new job and inspire future engineers.
“My new boss is really thrilled with my outreach activities. I think it’s really important for students, especially girls, to be exposed at a young age to role models who are successful engineers but who are also different, who break stereotypes about what an engineer looks and acts like.”