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For Prieur, NASA scholars program piques 'curiosity'

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Stacey Prieur

Stacey Prieur
Southeast Technical graduate Stacey Prieur and NASA scholars program teammates discuss details of their Mars rover project.

While NASA’s Curiosity rover was sailing through space on its way to Mars, Southeast Technical student Stacey Prieur was making her way to California for the learning experience of a lifetime: an opportunity to study with NASA engineers and gain hands-on experience with a prestigious organization. Like Curiosity’s journey to the red planet, Stacey’s path to NASA was at times bumpy, uncertain and arduous, but the destination was worth the wait.

Finding the right path

Stacey came to Southeast Technical after trying her hand at simultaneously attending a four-year college and working full-time. At that point in her life, the workload was too much, and since she found her job helping developmentally disabled children to be personally rewarding, she put school on hold.

When it was time to revisit her education, choosing Southeast Technical was an easy decision. “I knew that if I attended Southeast Tech, I could transfer to a Minnesota school with no problems. I knew I was going to build some amazing relationships with people who are going to be networking possibilities in the future.”

Making connections, getting involved

For Stacey, who chose to major in Individualized Studies and focus on math-intensive classes, math instructor Alice Zimmer was an instant connection. When Stacey was selected to be president of the college’s Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society chapter, she also developed a positive relationship with PTK advisor and history instructor Chris Stout and credits him for helping her find direction.

Those relationships came into play for Stacey in an unexpected way this past winter. While browsing the PTK website for programming ideas to pass along to other members, something else caught Stacey’s attention.

“‘NASA opportunities’ is what the headline said, and I was like ‘Okay!’” Stacey recalls when she first learned about NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars program. “I saw that the deadline for the program was in six days. I emailed Alice for a recommendation letter and she was like, ‘Sure, no problem. It’s already done!’”

A mission to Mars

After being accepted into the program, Stacey joined community college students from across the country at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena this May. In a team competition format, students embarked on a mission not unlike the one NASA engineers recently tackled: send an unmanned vehicle—just like the Curiosity rover—to Mars. After several rounds of trial and error and helpful encouragement from their cooperating NASA engineer, Stacey’s team took top honors for their well-planned mission.

As project manager, Stacey’s math expertise made a big impact on her team’s success. “I was in charge of the budget and keeping track of our deadlines. It was a three-day experience, but for NASA, the same project would take three years,” Stacey explains. “I had to learn everything, not just about Mars, but everything. I had to learn how to budget $12 million. I also had to find funding because there’s not enough in our budget to do something like that in two years, three years or even five years.”

What’s next?

Stacey is excited to stay in touch with her teammates via Facebook, and having graduated with her Individualized Studies degree this May, she now has her sights set on transferring to either Winona State University or Columbia to earn her four-year degree.

As she plots out the next chapter in her life, Stacey has a pretty specific goal in mind: returning to NASA. “NASA has been my first choice since May, since I stepped foot onto their facility. I’m sending them my resume in hopes of getting an internship, fellowship, anything to stay in touch.”