Lesa Roe hopscotched across the country working her way up the ranks at NASA. And when you spend more than three decades working on projects that push the boundaries of space exploration, it’s hard to pick the coolest moment of your career.
"Oh my gosh, that’s really hard to nail down because there’s just too many exciting things to talk about," she says.
Roe managed the research program at the International Space Station and helped launch missions that have discovered new worlds. As an engineer by training, Roe even helped build the space shuttle Endeavor. She installed its communications systems.
But she says the most thrilling moment came in the middle of the night a little more than five years ago.
Roe was in Pasadena California, in the control room as the Curiosity rover was landing on Mars. She says the tension in the room was palpable, with dozens of blue-shirted scientists and engineers anxiously watching their screens.
"There’s what they call seven minutes of terror when you have no communications as the vehicle is going through the atmosphere of Mars," she says.
Most of them had spent their entire careers working on getting a robot the size of a MINI Cooper to the surface of the red planet. So when it landed safely, "everybody just exploded in excitement. And so that’s just something that sticks with you forever."
So how do you go from being the No. 2 at NASA – an organization with more than 17,000 employees and a $19 billion budget — to running university system in Texas? Roe says there is a connection.
"We really need a well-trained, well-educated workforce coming in to make those tremendous scientific discoveries, to do all of the incredible systems, the design, everything that we do at NASA. And so the University of North Texas system’s role is to develop those students that can do that kind of work," she says.
Roe will inherit a growing university system. There’s new law school in Dallas, and a new medical school in the works in Fort Worth. Roe says she wants to make sure graduates are attractive to top employers.
"Every time I talk to students I talk about doing internships and really getting that hands-on experience and seeing what it’s like and learning and being part of a team even while you’re a student in a university," she says.
Roe wants UNT to be inclusive and accessible for people of all economic backgrounds. And personally, she’s on a mission to get more women into STEM fields.
"I have a huge passion for young girls seeing yeah, I can do this, I can be a part of it. I was one of those young girls, I was the first to go to college in my family, and so I want to help be that encourager to say you can do this."
And if they need a little inspiration along the way, she’s always got that whole Mars landing story to tell them.