Claudia Alexander: Project Manager and Project Scientist

Claudia Alexander - Project Manager and Project Scientist of the U.S. Rosetta Project - Spring 2010

Claudia AlexanderIn the world of space science, Claudia Alexander (AOSS PhD '93) is a household name. In addition to her position with the U.S. Rosetta Project, she was the last project manager of NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter and, early on, was a member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As a researcher Alexander's studies have included the evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, magnetospheres, plate tectonics, space plasma, the solar wind and the planet Venus. She has written or co-authored 14 papers.

In 1993, the University of Michigan named her its Woman of the Year. A decade later, she received the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering from Career Communications Group, publisher of Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine, and she was featured in a 2007 article in Black Enterprise Magazine.

Claudia Alexander, a space scientist, didn't always have stars in her eyes. There was a time she wanted to be a journalist. "But my parents were convinced engineering was the answer! I found it was a lot more fun to think about the flow of water in a river than water in the city sewer, so I went into earth-science and got a bachelor's in geophysics at UC-Berkeley." Alexander moved on for a master's in geophysics and space physics at UCLA, and a Michigan Engineering PhD in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, specializing in space plasma. It turned out to be a good path. "I love working in the space program on one-of-a-kind engineering applications, like flying spacecraft, which is really a team effort. There are so many aspects of keeping a piece of engineering working and operating when it's thousands of kilometers away from you. The ingenuity required is amazing."

Alexander has become a leader in the space program, managing major long-range projects and a sizable staff of highly proficient professionals, each an authority in a complex field. "To be an effective leader you have to be a good listener -- listening even to those who disagree with you -- and a good communicator; you have to be persuasive. You have to have the vision and be able to make others see the vision. You have to be able to motivate -- not just by taking people out to dinner -- and bring people's strengths out of them. You set the tone for the whole project. So, if people hate getting up and going to the office every day, then you might have set the stage for a stressful work environment. It's good to make your project a joy for everyone involved. These are things that are important to me. I'm a consensus-builder. But for some, a good leader gives orders, manages and controls all aspects of a project, including having lots of meetings and organizing everybody's time. These personalities tend to like top-down leadership; they enjoy being the focus of attention."

Alexander formed her professional approach and leadership style from a couple of mentors who took her under their wings. "I wouldn't be the person I am without them," she said. "They made me aware of things that I might not have otherwise noticed."

One thing her mentors couldn't teach her was how to balance family and career. "I was never able to find the right mix of work and family -- women carry more of the burden of the family in our society -- and I found that I couldn't do both. But many of my male colleagues have wives who do a lot of the family work for them. I used to say if I had known better I would have chosen to be a lawyer because for the same hours I would at least earn vastly more money, and then been able to afford support for some of the household and mothering tasks -- a nanny and daycare, for instance. Some of my female colleagues also say that finding the right partner in life is essential to making that balance work."

If there's one thing that Alexander wants people to know about her it's that she's "pretty much a normal person who's doing science. I'm not a brilliant white-coated Jimmy Neutron trapped in a lab." Normal, maybe, but far from average. She's a space scientist who reads romance novels. ("Don't tell anyone," she said. OK... we won't tell a soul.) She likes the traveling part of her job, which has taken her to England, Montreal and Vancouver, as well as other places in the U.S. and Europe. And as a huge tennis fan, she's been to center court at Wimbledon to see Roger Federer, and the Indian Wells tournament to see Rafael Nadal. She started writing and has become a member of Romance Writers of America. "I'm looking for a publisher -- I've written a suite of children's books," she said. "I'm writing a novel and getting better at the process. I also write for the 'Bleacher Report,' an online tennis blog."

Alexander's writing is an extension of her outgoing personality. But she wasn't always that way. "I was a pretty lonely girl. I was the only black girl in pretty much an all-white school and spent a lot of time by myself -- with my imagination. It got better as I got older, and I was just determined to make friends. I think I came out of that experience confident in my ability to have friends wherever I go."

She had plenty of friends in college. "When I was an undergrad at UC-Berkeley, I loved to hang out at coffee houses -- I still enjoy working in coffee houses; I've learned that the brain likes to work in an environment where it feels connected to humanity, as opposed to a library that, for example, has the silence of a tomb. When I was in graduate school, I went horseback riding every Sunday in the winter, and I got so I lived for that. We were fox hunting but we never caught the fox... very inefficient! I also would get in the car on the spur of the moment and go camping -- just to be near nature and the sights and smells of the forest! My best memory at Michigan Engineering was staying up all night with friends arguing about which one of us was going to do the 'most for mankind' with the research we were doing! It was a great time in my life -- the College is a big reason why I'm still having a great time."

- Courtesy Michigan Engineer magazine