NASA analyst shares advice with students

By: Anna Carmichael,  A&S Communications
November 8, 2016

When Ellen Gertsen ’02 thinks about the way her career has progressed, a common phrase comes to mind: “That sounds like a cool opportunity. I want to try that out.”

Gertsen ’02, who works in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer at NASA, visited with students Sept. 29 as part of a Career Conversation event hosted by the College of Arts & Sciences Career Development Center.

Gertsen, a science of earth systems major, said she believed she wanted to major in chemistry when she entered Cornell, but decided to change her major sophomore year after taking a geology class and a class about space exploration.

“A lot of my friends wanted to go the PhD track, but I wanted to study something that was more applied,” Gertsen said.

After taking the space exploration class, Gertsen began working as a research assistant to Steven Squyres, the James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences in the Department of Astronomy.

After graduation, she decided to attend Columbia University to get her master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in earth systems science, policy, and management. During a job fair at Columbia, she went to the NASA booth, and was eventually offered a job at NASA, where she has been for more than 13 years.

For her first 10 years at NASA, she worked as a policy analyst, for the Science Mission Directorate, where a large part of her job was to translate the science and engineering work that was going on for non-technical audiences.

“I did a lot of work for Congress, a lot of work for the public and spent over a year working on Capitol Hill doing climate legislation,” Gertsen explained.

Three years ago, Gertsen began working in the Office of the Chief Financial officer, where she is responsible for writing NASA’s new strategic plan and acts as an intermediary between engineers and non-technical experts conducting assessments of NASA’s largest spaceflight projects.

“I get to use all the different parts of my background on a day-to-day basis,” Gertsen said.

Gertsen explained that her career path has continuously built upon the skills she learned at Cornell. She said that some of her favorite, most memorable classes were those she took outside of her major.

During the September meeting with students, Gertsen said that her career path hasn’t always been straight, but each time she has had an interesting opportunity arise, she has taken it.

“[My career path] has been this accumulation of experiences and testing out what I like and what I don’t like,” Gertsen said.

Gertsen advised students to ultimately, “have fun with every opportunity that arises.”

Anna Carmichael is a communications assistant for The College of Arts and Sciences.

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