How should we coach the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists?

This week an undergrad from the University of Florida (my alma mater) reached out to me for some advice on getting into MIT for grad school and working for NASA. In writing the response it got me thinking about how we should be coaching the next generation of scientists, engineers and technologists to be preparing for their careers. I’ve copied and pasted the advice I gave to the young student below, based on my personal experience and path. Photo Credit: Vanderbilt

I’m curious what others think though. How would you give a freshman in college advice for prepping for a career at NASA or in any other science and technology job? Do you agree with me? Disagree? What other tactical pieces of advice did I miss? Is this advice universal or are there pieces of advice that should differ depending on geography, background, gender or other considerations?

Freshman Physics Student at UF: "What are some crucial steps to take now if I want to get into a school like MIT or get a job at NASA?"

My Response: “For MIT, keep your grades up and get a sense of what you want to study in grad school. A compelling research proposal is KEY to getting into a grad program at MIT. The dirty little secret though is that you can change your direction once you get in. You just have to write a good one to get in. Use your time in undergrad to explore many different topics and classes. Get to know your professors so you have good recommendations. Don't just rely on grades--actually develop relationships with professors you have classes with or do research with. If you get along with one well, ask them to be your mentor. You are really smart for starting to think about these things as a freshman. You have plenty of time to figure out what intrigues you and develop relationships. Your recommendations, grades, and research statement are critical to getting into MIT based on my experience. Furthermore, once you think you know what topics you want to pursue for grad school, start researching the professors at MIT and their research groups that are involved in those topic areas. Reach out to some of the students in their labs to understand their work better. During your junior year make a trip up to MIT and schedule appointments with the faculty who's work you like and who you might want to do research under in graduate school. Have them know you before you even apply.

On top of grades, recommendations, and research topic, stay well rounded. Take some politics classes or a foreign language class. Stay well rounded outside the classroom. I joined a sorority to keep me social and was involved in student government. I hung out with more than just scientists and engineers. Also, travel if you can. Do a study abroad program and see a different part of the world and experience different cultures. I was never abel to do a study abroad but I did backpack Europe on the cheap for a few months right after graduation. One of the most shaping experiences of my life. Travel, friends outside of your academic area, and making sure to schedule in social activities is key to developing your emotional intelligence and ability to work with many types of people. That will be a critical skill for your future career. It's important to have PEOPLE skills and not just smarts.

And while all this stuff is swimming in your head remember that college is about having fun as much as it is for prepping for your career. Sometimes careers are a combination of hard work, luck and seizing opportunities when they come. Despite your most well laid out plans, the path might look different than you thought. Resiliency, adaptability and curiosity are really critical skills nowadays. College should prepare you to be adaptable, curious, good with people, and intelligent (emotionally and mentally). So don't put too much pressure on yourself. Do your best to study topics you find interesting and learn how to learn. Too often we just study for the test and don't really learn. Learn how to learn. You'll do it for the rest of your career. That's a skill employers and graduate programs will look for.

Also for space specific stuff, you should try to get involved in the NASA Social activities (follow them on twitter) and also if you're not already find the people the participate locally in things like Yuri's Night. Those fellow space nerds are a great network to have and great people to help you get connected to what’s going on in space). Apply to a summer internship or co-op program at one of the centers. Email NASA engineers and researchers at centers and see if they’d be willing to grab coffee with you and talk about their work. And never be afraid to reach out to people doing a job you think you might want to do (like you did with me). Building your network through those types of informational interviews is really smart.

To me, the key really is learning how to learn and growing your network. Experts in particular know what they don’t know and know when to ask someone a question. You shouldn’t strive to be perfectly qualified from the beginning. You can’t possibly be. You should strive to develop the tools you’ll need to be able to grow and effectively implement projects throughout your career. The intangibles are just as important as the tangibles (grades, test scores, etc) but they will be infinitely more critical as a foundation for the rest of your career. And you only live once, so you should make sure to enjoy the ride :)

Good luck, and Go Gators!”

Featured in Popular Mechanics: How to Make NASA Cool Again

  Photo Courtesy of Philip Friedman

I am honored to be featured in the the August 2014 issue of Popular Mechanics. This issue has a series about "How to Make Anything". NASA's work in prizes, challenges and crowdsourcing is featured in a piece entitled: "How to Make NASA Cool Again".

Here's the text:

"At some point between the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the end of the manned shuttle program in 2011, NASA became uncool. Once regarded as the wild geniuses leading us bravely into the future, the agency earned a reputation as insular, wasteful, and out of touch.

Naturally, they're looking to change that perception. The agency recently expanded its use of challenges and crowdsourcing to include more opportunities for regular Joes (citizen scientists, if you can bear the term) to submit their ideas. In 2012, it also hired Jenn Gustetic, a vivacious woman with an aerospace engineering degree and a master's in technology policy from MIT, to engage the public as the first-ever Challenges and Prizes program executive.

In this role, Gustetic, 32, uses her brains, charm, and wicked networking skills to increase grassroots participation in NASA's far-ranging mission. In the process, she's breaking down the wall that once separated a massive bureaucracy from the people it was supposed to serve. "It's my role to engage the public and put together nontraditional alliances to solve tough technology problems," she says. "NASA is opening itself up. We're inviting the public to be a meaningful participant in our business, our projects. This wasn't the way things were done, but it's the norm now."

One little problem Gustetic is helping to solve is the threat of an asteroid impact, which NASA has deemed worthy of intensive study as part of a larger initiative that includes not only redirecting space rocks but also sending humans to study them. The Asteroid Data Hunter contest, which wrapped in August, offered awards of up to $35,000 to individuals who advance the development of algorithms to identify asteroids in imagery from ground-based telescopes.

Another of Gustetic's responsibilities is to rally teams for NASA's International Space Apps Challenge. This year, more than 8,000 people in 95 cities took part in the third annual two-day hackathon to develop tech related to deep-space exploration, manned missions, rovers and more. "It was a historic collaboration between a government and the public," says Mike Caprio, cofounder of Space Apps NYC, the main stage of this year's event. Teams of technologists of every stripe, from computer programmers to physicists, arrived at universities and labs all over the world to compete. After a long weekend, a few left with impressive CV fodder. The rest left impressed with their host."

Crowdsourcing at NASA: Talk at Crowdsourcing Week

My talk in Singapore at Crowdsourcing Week in 2014 was just posted on Youtube. I run through a bunch of examples of NASA prizes and crowdsourcing efforts and how the outcomes of those challenges are creating results for NASA.

SXSWi on Science, Crowdsourcing, Space and Good Music


So I arrived in Austin, Texas for SXSWi late last night and I’m up early to get prepared for what looks like a very long, very awesome day. I’ll be sharing my notes from the sessions I attend like I did last year, so stay tuned for some virtual sharing. You can access the notes I'm adding to in real time during the sessions in this google doc. I've attended (or will attend) the following panels thus far:

Stay tuned for my schedule for the other days... I'll post throughout the conference. Also, feel free to follow me on twitter (@jenngustetic) if you want to see the sessions live tweeted and tweet me questions to ask the panelists.


Government as a Catalyst: Prizes for Tech Innovation


At this year’s South by South West Interactive (SXSWi) conference, I’m pleased to be moderating a panel on the role of government and prizes in stimulating technology innovation and providing public services. Federal agencies have recently been given the authority by Congress to sponsor competitions for individuals, groups, and companies to develop new ideas and technology innovations for a chance to win potentially lucrative prizes. These competitions can range from new mobile outreach technologies to web-based data analytics tools to even vehicle-to-vehicle communications; the government is looking for breakthrough technologies from the minds of the most creative and forward thinking Americans.

The panel will highlight some of the coolest prizes for technology development that the government has been involved in to date, including the DOT’s Connected Vehicle Challenge, the VA’s industry competition and blue button projects, and NASA’s centennial challenges. Additionally we will explore what role the government should be playing in these activities moving forward by looking at some prizes where the government did not have a role.

Here’s a sneak preview about what you’ll hear if you come spend an hour with us. We believe prizes matter for many reasons, but we’ll focus on four during the session:

  1. They work. How can we be so sure? You’ll hear about a series of prizes from NASA, VA, and DOT that demonstrate the value of government sponsored prizes.
  2. They complement other innovation methods. There are many ways to stimulate technology development and many actors are involved in doing so. It doesn’t happen very often however that government gets a BRAND NEW way to stimulate innovation—and prizes are just that. Prizes are a new way for government to stimulate technology development that compliments other, traditional methods for innovation. We’ll give some interesting examples of where prizes work with other innovation methods in government to create some really cool results.
  3. They're becoming a way of doing business. If government is spending money and doing business this way, entrepreneurs and industry alike should be paying attention. Imagine a world where as much money flows through an organization through prizes as it does through contracts. Now that’s big business.
  4. They're exposing different roles for Government. Government does not always need to have a role for prizes to work however. The question no longer is CAN government have a role, but SHOULD they. The private sector is increasingly involved in activities that affect the public good and people WANT to get engaged in the public good. We believe this may create room for the public sector to disengage or interesting public-private partnerships to form. We’ll talk about some instances where this is happening.

Our impressive lineup of panelists includes Chris Gerty from NASA (@gerty), Mari Kuraishi from Global Giving (@mashenka), Michael O'Neill from the U.S. Veteran's Administration (@mdoneill), James Pol from the US Department of Transportation (@polgmu), and me as your humble moderator (@jenngustetic). The panel is on Tuesday March 13 at 11AM at the AT&T Conference Hotel—if you can join us, let us know through Plancast. Alternatively, we’ll also be tweeting and you can follow our session at #SXTechPrize live during the session.

Have questions for the panelists? Let me know and I’ll make sure to ask them for you if you send in advance.

Hope to see you there!


(Note: Originally posted on the Phase One Consulting Group, Government Transformation Blog for a special featured Govloop series when I was an employee there.


Focusing on WHY to Drive Adoption: iPad is Current, Learning and Productive. What is Government?

These past two weeks have been a whirlwind of travel and conferences. I’ve enjoyed several typical byproducts of those types of events (networking, learning, etc…) but also a few things that are much rarer: inspiration and re-energized passion. This is largely thanks to my most recent stop: NASA’s Education Innovation Summit, held in Orlando, FL from October 30-November 1. This event focused on how partnerships and student inspiration can act as catalysts for change, specifically: (1) discussing strategies to inspire students who are capable of academic success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) but lacking in motivation, and (2) contributing to ideas to help strengthen collaboration among industry, non-profit organizations, academia, and government agencies. [1] Steve Ressler from Govloop and Alex Howard from O’Reilly Media attended a different event surrounding the STS-133 shuttle launch held at the same time, the #NASATweetup, but I think I can easily say we all walked about having a paradigm shifting experience. This posting focuses on my major take-aways from this immersive experience at NASA. In Washington, many recent conversations on blogs and in the halls of the federal government have revolved around about how to further open government/ gov 2.0 and whether or not it’s “dead”, how to drive IT innovation, how to improve performance and mission delivery through technology, and how to best leverage partnerships and innovative financing to maximize public value. These are all important questions with complicated answers, but as I sat with educators, NASA scientists and private sector executives in Orlando this week, it hit me that we are largely focusing on the wrong questions. We are focused on WHAT we’re doing as a government and HOW we deliver those services and not WHY we’re doing it. I attribute this synapse fire to the keynote speaker, Simon Sinek, the creator of “the golden circle”.

Simon highlighted Apple as an example of how to properly use the golden circle (“why” first, “how” second and “what” third) to drive adoption. Why is Apple successful as a company and why do they have such phenomenal brand loyalty? According to Simon it’s simple: Apple sells a value system (the WHY) not a product (the WHAT). If you like Apple, you believe in challenging the status quo. You’re hip, different, and innovative. You’re current, educated and playful. You are an early adopter. You’ve got an appetite for risk and like people to know that. They base their whole sales pitch on the notion that there are enough people who share that value system that they’ll be profitable. When you buy an Apple product you’re buying a value system, not necessarily the best product for that purpose. Furthermore, Apple can charge a premium to those folks that have unbalanced loyalty to them as a company because of this value proposition.

But how does this apply to the Open Gov/Gov 2.0 community? Our WHY is NOT transparency, participation and collaboration. If we strive to be open for openness sake alone we’re not driving anything that matters. Open Gov supports the mission. But WHY is the mission important and WHY is open government essential to further it? We’ve been largely focusing on the HOW without a clear WHY. Even Jeffrey Levy’s spot-on “Mission, Tools, Metrics, Teach” approachmisses step one based on this logic. It assumes that the mission is clear and that it will resonate with our customers and the general public. But that’s not always the case. How many of us in government have a hard time communicating to the general public WHY they should care about what we do for them? If we can’t do that, then all the HOWs and WHATs in the world will have a fraction of the impact we desire.

Enter NASA. Here’s a government agency that has no problem being perceived as one of the coolest places in government. They do cool stuff. But it’s not about WHAT they do (shuttle launches, etc..) it’s about WHY they do it that captivates our minds. After this week in Florida, I am more convinced than ever that one of NASA’s greatest roles is to inspire. NASA is about exploration, about pushing the boundaries of the human mind, about driving towards breakthrough discoveries, about looking into the great unknown and humbling us all. NASA scientists and engineers have been instrumental to the communications revolution that we in the gov 2.0 and open gov community have to thank for the tools we now have to drive innovation. In fact, NASA research has lead to thousands of spinoff technologies that drive entire industries unrelated to space. Some of the more interesting and surprising ones include:

  • Communications satellites
  • CAT scans and MRIs
  • Portable x-ray technology for neonatal offices and 3rd world countries
  • ATM technology
  • Pay at the Pump satellite technology
  • Cordless tools
  • Aerial reconnaissance and Earth resources mapping
  • Hazardous gas sensors
  • Precision navigation
  • Secure communications
  • Lightweight breathing system used by firefighters
  • FDA-adopted food safety program that has reduced salmonella cases by a factor of 2
  • Multispectral imaging methods used to read ancient Roman manuscripts buried by Mt. Vesuvius [2]

Lane Wallace describes how NASA consistently stretches the boundaries of technology to drive scientific exploration and inspire breakthroughs. If this following quote from her blog doesn’t inspire us all to go and do some pretty amazing things with the state of technology today, I don’t know what will….

“In the early days, communication systems were also limited and unreliable, requiring cumbersome back-up strategies and an extraordinary level of innovative thinking. On a test flight of the Saturn V vehicle that would launch the Apollo spacecraft, for example, the phone lines to the remote western Australia tracking station of Carnarvon went down. (NASA set up a worldwide network to keep track of the launches and keep in touch with the astronauts at all times.) Undeterred, the Australians sent launch times and data back and forth to the station over more than 1,000 miles of the Outback–using the top wire of cattle ranchers’ fences as a makeshift telegraph wire. As for the high-tech systems that allowed the Apollo astronauts to operate their spacecraft and navigate to the moon and back … the Apollo computer was digital, but it had a whopping 36KB of memory. Think about that. We went to the moon on 36K…Consider the obstacles. Consider the lack of knowledge and technology. Consider all that went wrong along the way. And then listen to the recording, in light of those reference points. And perhaps, if the stars line up just right, you might find yourself feeling the true wonder of it all—either for the first time, or all over again.” [3]

But despite all of these incredible reasons WHY NASA is important, its future is threatened. It’s not a secret that the government is facing significant budget cuts and space launches seem to be, in the scheme of things, one of the programs that could be cut. But NASA is not just about space launches—the WHAT. They are uniquely positioned in government to inspire a whole new generation a STEM leaders that are not only required for scientific advancement in general but to keep the US internationally competitive. They are one of the few government agencies whose basic research has spawned countless industries and jobs in the private sector over the years. They are the American spirit. They keep us dreaming and striving to challenge ourselves. I am convinced that the future of our country will be significantly hindered if we don’t continue to prioritize the work NASA does in annual budgets and presidential priorities.

Thus I ask the open gov/gov 2.0 community, do you think that one role of government at the federal, state and local levels in partnership with the private and non-profit sectors is not only to engage, but also to inspire and to make the mission real for the general public? Who’s responsibility is this important piece? Inspiration does not need to be expensive; it’s largely messaging.

Even Apple calls space “magical” through their “iPad is…” commercials. So where are the “NASA is…” messages? Where are the “Government is…” messages? How do we communicate WHY we do what we do in a way that is meaningful to the public and our congressional appropriators? Who’s responsibility it this in your opinion? I strongly believe that only when the WHY resonates with the public at large will we realize the open gov and gov 2.0 adoption we are all working towards so diligently. I encourage us all to focus much more on a WHY that resonates with a larger audience than the tech community alone in our conversations and less on the WHAT and HOW.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me on twitter at @jenngustetic at any time during this series to continue to conversation.


Originally posted on the Govloop’s Featured Jennovation Blog Series.


[2] Read more at Suite101: Practical Applications of Space Technology: Discoveries and Developments by NASA and Their Benefit to Society


(Note: Originally posted on the Phase One Consulting Group, Government Transformation Blog for a special featured Govloop series when I was an employee there.