Volgenau School of Engineering professor Gerald Cook was channel surfing one night when the National Geographic special Five Years on Mars captured his attention. Then he realized he recognized someone: his former graduate student Ashley Stroupe, MS Electrical Engineering ’98, who was featured in the special. We caught up with Stroupe, now a staff engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to ask about her work.
You were the first woman to drive on Mars. How have things changed, and what would you say to young women who are interested in robotics?
Things have changed. With my current projects, Opportunity and Curiosity, there isn’t a job that isn’t being done by a woman. The teams are about 50 percent female. I think it’s important for women to be in STEM fields. It is even more important for everyone to freely pursue his or her own dreams. I certainly tell young women not to be discouraged if robotics is what they are passionate about. Passion is what matters most.
What projects are you working on now at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?
I still spend one day a week driving the Mars rover, Opportunity. The other four days I am the lead science planner on the newest rover, Curiosity. This job is more of a systems engineering job. I manage the team, set policies. We are putting things in place and doing the modeling that will make the project successful.
What is the best part of your job?
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I’m excited to go to work every day. I feel honored to work with so many dedicated, enthusiastic, and capable people. Of course, driving a car on another planet and making discoveries is pretty awesome work. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It seems like a dream.
What was the best part about being a student at Mason?
The support from faculty was really amazing. My bachelor’s degree was in physics, but I found out I was really interested in robotics. I had great professors who were willing to take the extra steps, work with me, and help me shift gears.
How did your time at Mason prepare you for the work you are doing now?
I knew the engineering school had a good robotics program. My Mason degree prepared me to continue my education and earn my PhD from Carnegie Mellon University and then land the job with NASA.