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Cool places to work

May 5, 2023

Alumni share how they landed their dream jobs and provide career tips

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

What makes a job great? It’s not the money or the prestige — though they don’t hurt. 

It’s about a job fitting for your passions and personality. About being able to do more work you love than work you don’t. 

These alums have positions that make people sit up and take notice. But more impressive than their roles is how well-suited they are to them. From a solar engineer to a NASA leader, these alumni explain how they reached their dream jobs — and share advice for your journey. 

When you’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, there are no boring days at the office

Woman speaking at lectern

Laurie Leshin has had a strong career in science, including serving as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and as an advisor to President George W. Bush on space policy. Photo by Bob Paz courtesy of NASA/JPL

Laurie Leshin, ’87 BS in chemistry, is director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the world’s leading center for robotic space exploration. Its motto: “Dare mighty things together.” 

“It’s pretty much hair on fire every single day,” Leshin says. “It’s sort of the highest highs and the lowest lows.” 

For instance, last December, the Mars lander InSight wasn’t able to charge its battery because of dust on its solar arrays and went silent. (NASA sent out a heart-wrenching tweet of its last image.) And on the same day, the Perseverance Mars rover deposited its first sample tube on the planet’s surface for when humanity can muster a round-trip mission to the planet. 

Leshin is the first woman to lead JPL, which has some 6,000 staffers and a 168-acre campus in Pasadena. It’s the latest step in her groundbreaking career in science, academia and government. 

She has served as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and dean at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, advised President George W. Bush on space policy, and serves on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum advisory board. 

“I had always been interested in space,” says Leshin, who was a chemistry major at ASU. 

Sophomore year at ASU, Leshin spotted a flyer for a summer internship at NASA in Houston. Knowing that most positions were aimed at college seniors, she reached out to Susan Wyckoff, one of the few female full professors in the physical sciences at that time. 

“I cold-called her, basically, and she helped me,” Leshin says. 

Working at NASA was a “lightning bolt,” Leshin says. She returned to ASU to graduate, received her PhD from Caltech for graduate school, then came back to ASU to teach before continuing on to NASA and other posts.   

A responsibility she takes seriously: being the first woman in many of her positions. 

“I feel like I’m holding the space for the people who come after me, to make sure that other people can see themselves in leadership roles,” Leshin says. “I just think it’s incredibly important.” 

Antony Aguilar does something new every day — new for him and new for the world

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Antony Aguilar, ’16 BS, ’22 PhD in electrical engineering, is a research and development engineer at Solestial. Photo by Jeff Newton

He is head of tooling and design at Solestial, a startup that aims to make durable, cost-effective solar cells for use in space. Because the technology is so novel, the machinery for making it doesn’t exist.  

On a given day, Aguilar, ’16 BS in electrical engineering and ’22 PhD in electrical engineering, and his team might be designing a tool in CAD, sourcing standard parts, making their parts or assembling machinery. They’ll be in laser processing rooms or conference rooms or donning booties and gowns to enter a clean room. Rarely is he sitting in his cubicle. 

When there is a problem to solve, the team starts from scratch, Aguilar says. 

“What we do is what I got into engineering for,” he says. “Designing something from the ground up, testing it, reprogramming or building certain aspects or redesigning the tool as a whole.” 

Aguilar got there through a combination of persistence and luck. 

He moved around a lot for his undergraduate studies, taking electrical engineering classes at Scottsdale Community College, Mesa Community College, and Chandler-Gilbert Community College before landing at ASU. 

A friend he met at Mesa had an internship at what was then ASU’s Solar Power Lab at MacroTechnology Works. Intrigued, Aguilar applied for a summer position and was accepted. He loved the work and continued there as an undergraduate. 

“The longer I worked in the Solar Power Lab, the more and more it appealed to me,” he says. 

He met Stan Herasimenka, ’13 PhD, at MTW. Herasimenka became a mentor and collaborator and went on to found Solestial.  

Aguilar tries to end each day by designing something. 

“I feel like that’s the ideal,” he says. “I want to be an engineer because I want to build.” 

On his best days at work, Mario Liddell feels like a musician who has a chance to perform in front  of a big crowd

Man sitting on bench outside Bank of America office

Mario Liddell sits outside his Bank of America office. Photo by Ghassan Albalushi/ASU

“It’s that chance to show off the hard work that you’ve done,” Liddell says. “To share the insights you’ve gathered.” 

Liddell, ’17 BS in business data analytics and ’22 MS in business analytics, is the bassist for ’90s tribute band Vanilla Spice. But the work he’s referring to is different: his job as a vice president in Bank of America’s customer experience organization. His team focuses on finding ways to improve customers’ digital experiences with the company — through an app, a website, a social media platform or other channels. In that role, he gets to apply his passion for data, researching and finding solutions. It requires a balance of technical knowledge and emotional intelligence. 

A typical project involves meeting with business leaders to understand their questions and needs, then finding the data to examine the problem, then cleaning it up and building models for a solution. Finally, he and his team package it into a presentation. 

“You can’t speak technical language in a business meeting. You have to listen for what the hidden context is, the question behind the question,” Liddell says.  

Liddell earned his degrees at ASU while working full time and says he often refers back to his class notes and files. In his work, it’s not technical ability that matters most; it’s flexibility and a good attitude, he says. 

4 pieces of insider advice: Seek out multiple mentors; Don’t fear change; Put yourself out there; Take risks while the stakes are low.

Go to for videos, tips and networking opportunities.

Story by Sara Clemence, a reporter and writer and former travel editor for The Wall Street Journal, news director for Travel + Leisure and deputy business editor for the New York Post.

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Evidence-based tips for greener living

May 5, 2023

Ideas from climate scientists for making your life more sustainable and meaningful

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

By now, you know many basics when it comes to environmental-friendly tips: Use less water, recycle, turn off the lights. But you also know that those alone won’t solve the environmental problems we face, like a warming planet, drought and biodiversity loss. 

How do you balance the recognition that we must help usher in systemic solutions while still making impactful changes? 

In part, it’s about seeing the limits and possibilities of both. Personal habits collectively add up. Meanwhile, policies, organizations and governments only change when enough people do something about it. 

“Sustainability is actually trying to address climate problems. It’s not just describing the problem, it’s figuring out what we should do,” says Diane Pataki, Foundation Professor and director of the School of Sustainability, a program within the College of Global Futures. 

“You need to understand the science,” Pataki says, “but it’s now moving past describing the way the world is and figuring out: What should we do? What should the future look like?”

To begin, start with a list: What are you doing in terms of sustainability in your own home, at work, in your community? 

Then, consider the advice below from scientists in the School of Sustainability, and build from there.

At home  

What makes a true difference is figuring out what you can do as a regular practice, and commit to it. 

Try to walk or bike more and drive less. Buy locally grown food when possible. Avoid fast fashion and overall buy fewer things. 

Consider making household changes, like an energy audit of your house that can be provided for free by your utility company, or updating old appliances with energy-efficient ones. 

For water-saving tips, add aerators to your faucets and use low-flow showerheads. 

These tips also help lower your bills, and while there’s a bigger upfront cost for some of them, federal and state tax credits for solar panels and heat pumps for your house can help. 

These smaller actions across society matter and help create “sustainability,” as well as happiness and self-care, something Scott Cloutier, assistant professor in the School of Sustainability, says often gets overlooked.

How happiness relates to sustainability

Cloutier studies the connections between happiness and sustainability. Research has shown that buying more things does not lead to long-term happiness, instead leading to overconsumption.

“For me, sustainability is an internal process of understanding how we relate to the world, how we see the world outside ourselves, and then asking ourselves how those relationships we develop contribute to an equitable, just, sustainable, regenerative future,” Cloutier says. “The happiness angle is that you can find synergistic ways of living that do make you happy and regenerate the environment, rebuild soil health and reestablish community connections.”

A good example of how to do that is a straightforward one: Grow a garden of any size, maybe in a community garden or in place of a water-thirsty lawn, Cloutier says. 

Gardening has been shown to boost mental health and overall well-being, along with the ecosystem benefits it provides to native insects, pollinators and birds. Added up around the world, backyard gardens provide 15% to 20% of the world’s food.

Cloutier’s research has also found gardening to be a meaningful way to connect to the community and ecosystem outside your household. 

“That is when you see the power of how growing food can move through and inspire community, in the way that it brings people together and reconnects us to nature,” Cloutier says.

Gardening also connects to composting, either at home or at the municipal level. When organic materials like food waste or yard trimmings get into landfills they emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In 2018, food waste accounted for 21% of municipal solid waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Worldwide, food waste accounts for 8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, which makes preventing food waste and diverting it from landfills a critical piece of addressing climate change.

At work

Another place to think about sustainability changes is at work, school, your HOA or while volunteering. 

Increasingly, organizations are establishing goals and programs toward sustainability like emissions reduction, net zero waste, or renewable energy that you could be a part of. Or, they may not have a program yet, but would be willing to support one, or have goals but no concrete plan with how to achieve them. Finding out more about your own workplace, school or HOA provides a first step to impact the sustainability footprint of something bigger than your own household.

While career pathways around sustainability used to be limited, people with sustainability skills are in high demand right now, Pataki says. Over the past five years in the energy sector alone, jobs growth has increased 237%. But you don’t have to work in a sustainability-focused job to make a difference or to help guide your community in taking science-based actions, Pataki adds.

In the community

To better understand your environment, start with learning about whose ancestral lands you’re living on and what tribal nations are connected to them. Follow that up by getting familiar with what issues nearby tribal nations face. ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute holds talks and events on these types of topics and welcomes all.

Indigenous man from Arizona wearing tribal regalia standing in front of a man

Learn about tribal nations connected to the ancestral lands you are living on.

Understand the systems around sustainability and how they impact your community and others. Because while it’s simple to support renewable energy over coal, Lydia Jennings, who is Wixárika and Yoeme and a postdoctoral research scholar in the School of Sustainability, says it’s important to ask “sustainable for whom?” 

As a soil microbiologist and environmental scientist, Jennings studies the impact of mining on soil and how mines like the Rosemont Mine in southern Arizona affect tribes. Renewable energy relies on extractive industries like mining for lithium and copper, which means one region’s ability to use wind or solar is reliant on the use of land and minerals from another. Understanding the trade-offs and who might be impacted is a key part of environmental justice that makes up sustainability, Jennings says. 

Still, the science is clear that society must move to decarbonize. Learning about the nuances and how to make this equitable matters, and scientists across the university study climate-social justice. Public events like film screenings, sustainability walking tours and book talks offer opportunities to meet other, like-minded people while you get informed.

You can then put that and other science-based learning about sustainability to use by becoming involved in local decision-making. Lots of questions around housing, transportation and environmental justice get decided locally, Pataki says. 

“People often don’t recognize the power a small group of individuals can have in that process at the local level by just showing up,” she says. “Even showing up while still continuing to learn is critical.”

Start by figuring out what local issues matter to you, and what city council members and initiatives support them, and what politicians listen to and collaborate with scientists, Pataki says.

One evidence-based finding to come out of Pataki’s Urban Greening Lab is that reducing air pollution, “a matter of life or death,” Pataki says, requires more public transportation and electric vehicles, to start. This is the surest way to improve human health in cities: by eliminating pollution at its source. 

Houses under construction

Stay up to date on local issues, including housing.

Envision the future

Lastly, envision the future that you want, and then talk about it, Pataki says. Make space for conversations with family and friends, in community spaces or church groups, and get into the specifics: What does a sustainable society look like to you, as an individual, based on your values and your experience? How does that society work? What does it look like for your specific community? 

Talking about the future is a hopeful act, since there is room to impact it through your decisions, big and small. 

“Most people are overwhelmed by the fact that they feel we’re very far from sustainability, which is true, but we have to have a lot more conversation about the alternative,” Pataki says. “This is how humanity makes progress: We envision a future that’s different than what we have today.”  

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Story by Anna V. Smith, an associate editor for the High Country News Indigenous affairs desk; her work has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, Audubon and Mother Jones. Photos by Sabira Madady, a student photographer from Afghanistan pursuing medical studies.