Rebecca Holleb is, in her own words, “a mechanical engineer with a passion for space and solving problems.” A month after graduating from Northeastern University with a B.S. in engineering, she began working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Mars Sample Return campaign, which aims to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. While at Northeastern, she worked as a Mechanical Engineering Co-ops (similar to a six-month internship) at NASA, Coravin Inc. and SharkNinja. She also participated in Northeastern’s chapters of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

Clearly, you’ve had  an interest in mechanical engineering for some time. What led to your desire to seek a career in that area?
The interesting thing is that I didn’t know I wanted to be a mechanical engineer when I decided on it as a major. When I was in the Upper School, I knew I liked math and physics, but I didn’t think they were what I wanted to do long-term. Going into college, I picked mechanical engineering because it seemed like the best fit for what I had enjoyed in school so far. It was only after I started taking classes and participating in student groups involving engineering that I knew it was the right career for me.

What activities did you engage in while attending Northeastern that developed your skills and interests?
At Northeastern, I was in a program that let me spread four years of school over five years, with six months of my second, third and fourth years working full-time as an engineer. My involvement in student groups and this program are largely how I discovered the areas of engineering that interested me and grew my skills outside of classes. 

As a freshman, I joined an aerospace and rocketry club on campus and ended up participating in NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative (USLI), a competition in which university teams build and fly rockets while trying to complete a specific payload challenge. During the summer after my freshman year, I worked on an R&D rocket project before becoming one of the leaders for the NASA USLI team the following fall. During the second half of my sophomore year, I took on the role of vice president of the aerospace club and completed a six-month internship at a product development company.

Having learned about various roles and industries during my sophomore year, I realized I wanted to try something different in my third year, but wasn’t sure what. I knew someone starting a student group to participate in the University Rover Challenge, a competition building a mock Mars rover run by the Mars Society. When they asked if I was interested in being on the team, I thought it sounded fun and figured it was a good way to try a new facet of engineering. We joined a new club on campus, a chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), and worked to identify what we needed to do to create a viable rover. We started with a team of eight and quickly recruited friends and classmates with the necessary skills in everything from mechanical engineering to computer science to biochemistry. I became the lead of the team’s science and life detection system, responsible for a team of scientists as well as engineers. It was a role that pushed me as an engineer and as a communicator to understand and facilitate the science needs of the system, something I found incredibly rewarding.

In my fourth and fifth years, I continued to work at the intersection of various disciplines as a member of SEDS but also by rejoining the aerospace and rocketry club. My fourth year, as part of the latest NASA USLI team, I concentrated on the integration of the payload with both the rocket and the recovery system. The following year, I took on the role of a mechanical systems engineer for a project focused on the development of a liquid propellant rocket, working on the integration of various aspects of the rocket, including the recovery, propellant and avionics systems.

Throughout college, through each of my projects and all of my roles, I grew as an engineer and gained a better understanding of the types of engineering  that interested me.

Did you start working with NASA before graduating? What did you work on?
As a junior, I spent eight months working at JPL, a NASA center just outside LA that focuses on robotic science missions learning about space and Earth. Among its scientific missions, JPL has been responsible for all the U.S. Mars exploration missions, including the Perseverance Rover, which launched in 2020 and landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. Perseverance’s goals on Mars include looking for signs of life, as well as collecting rock samples to return to Earth for further study. I spent my co-op supporting Perseverance’s Sample Handling Assembly (SHA), a small robotic arm in the Sample Caching System that moves the samples between various measurement and sealing stations. In my role, I created test plans and inspection procedures for critical mechanism life tests, closed out flight hardware documentation and supported the final shipment of the SHA to Kennedy Space Center for launch. It was a great experience and the first time I saw people doing the types of jobs that I wanted to aim for in my career.

Tell us about  your work with NASA now.
After graduating, I came back to JPL and now work on Mars Sample Return, a proposed mission to bring the rock samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth. Within the larger campaign, my work focuses on the sample tubes themselves. To bring the tubes back, we have to load them into a container, launch them off the surface of Mars, capture them in orbit around Mars, send them back to Earth and collect them once they’re back on the ground safely. My work includes defining, validating and communicating how to handle the sample tubes during all the robotic operations on Mars, as well as during the return to Earth.

Were there people or activities at Parker that influenced your choices after graduating?
Yes—some in obvious ways and some more subtly. I was a student at Parker for 14 years, and the teachers, classes and activities all had an impact on me.

Throughout my time at Parker, I was lucky enough to have teachers like Greenie in the Lower School and Mr. Carlsson and Mr. Mahany in the Upper School, who taught me a lot in the classroom but also had an impact on me as a person.

I was also able to take electives like Advanced Math Topics class and science classes focused on Astronomy, Cosmology, Metaphysics and Epistemology (ACME), which definitely had a direct impact on things I continued to study in college. In fact, in my freshman year I joined the rocketry group because I came to the realization in the ACME elective that I was interested in the physics of space, and rockets are how you get there.

Outside of classes, activities like Morning Exercise and Cookies also had a lasting impact, though not as obvious. Growing up at Parker, we were encouraged to learn more, dig into things that interested us and share what we learned, all things that these activities exemplified. Though I didn’t think about it consciously, being encouraged to be curious and use my voice was influential in me pursuing my interests and taking on leadership roles after graduating from Parker.

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?
I tend to spend my free time with friends, reading or trying new hobbies—since what used to be my hobby is now my day job. Recently, I’ve taken up photography and hiking, both of which have been fun. I still figure skate a bit, though it’s more sporadic than when I was competing growing up.  Mostly I’ve been enjoying trying new things, picking up new skills and learning along the way.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.