After 33 years watching rockets blast off for NASA, Lesa Roe is presiding over a different kind of launch this week. It's her first commencement weekend as chancellor of the University of North Texas system.
Her career has been full of firsts, from being the first college graduate in her family to becoming the first woman to manage NASA's International Space Station Research Program at the Johnson Space Center and running the Langley Research Center.
In our Friday Conversation, Roe told KERA's Rick Holter it's been pretty seamless transitioning her skills as an engineer to running a university system.
"The things that you do for NASA missions — breaking down problems, solving them, enabling the success of your team — works pretty well in higher ed," she said.
On being a first-generation college student:
I think [my mom] was more worried that I wouldn't make it, and I wouldn't be able to handle it but my dad wanted me to do something greater than he had done and pushed hard for me to do it.
I always enjoyed how things worked and so I think that's what fundamentally led me to engineering. Higher ed is the basis of my success. I was able to get into the University of Florida. I went to the career center there and they had an opportunity at NASA so I became a co-op student and that's where I discovered, "hHey, I can do this engineering thing."
On the NASA mission that stands out:
What you remember most is the people and the excitement of things happening. Some of that falls around the Curiosity mission to Mars when I was heading the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Our team worked the entry, descent and landing part. What happens is that you get signal after you enter the "seven minutes of terror" where you have nothing. And that's a really critical time, so everyone was pretty thrilled when everything was good.
On what being a pioneer at NASA means to her:
I was always a member of the team. I never felt like I was "the first of something." Everyone was rolling up their sleeves, getting things done. What I realized is that it was really important for women to see that you could rise to that level ...and I've seen that here at the University of North Texas system as well. I was out at our health science center and I had multiple women come up to me, saying, "I'm so glad you're here."
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.