13:29 PM

Conover wins NASA's highest honor, reflects on UHCL's impact on her career

Sharon Conover

Sharon Conover looks back on her 48-year career at NASA and knows that much of what she's learned along the way came from excellent professors who taught her everything she needed to know to achieve success.

Recently recognized with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for her career longevity and leadership in Program, Acquisition and Partnership Management for every NASA human spaceflight program since Apollo-Soyuz, Conover reflected on how her studies at University of Houston-Clear Lake impacted her career.

The Distinguished Service Medal is the highest honor NASA can bestow upon any member of the federal government, both civilian and military.

She received her Master of Science in Engineering Management in 2010.

"I consider my master's to be sort of an MBA for engineers," she said. "I owe quite a lot to my master's program. As an engineer, you don't really take business classes. I learned analytical techniques to studying problems and I was able to make pretty dramatic improvements on the International Space Station by analyzing problems and processes and figuring out the reason for mission delays. I took it upon myself to use what I learned to improve projects, which helped us plan and execute missions."

She said in 1976, she had begun a master's program in computer engineering at UH-Clear Lake, but life threw her a curve ball. "I became pregnant with triplets," she said. "I only got about halfway through the program before I had to stop. But even then, UHCL was out in front in technology. They were doing interesting things with coding and that helped me so much with my job at the time."

Even though she didn't finish the degree, she said the courses she'd completed had been extremely useful. "A lot of my success earlier in life was attributed to that graduate program," she said. "It helped me advance in computer fields. It was leading edge."

Between raising three sons and her career, Conover said it took quite a while for her to have the time to return to her graduate studies. "I came back to UHCL because after they graduated from Baylor, all three of my sons came to UHCL for their graduate programs, and all of them have graduated," she said. "That's when I thought, why have I waited all these years? A lot of people at NASA go to UHCL for their graduate degrees. So, I went back."

What helped her the most in her role, in which she was required to merge her skills in space flight and procurement, were classes taught by (Professor of Engineering Management) Ki-Young Jeong. "I took a great engineering economics class, and I had a class in negotiations that was great as well," she remembered."

She said she uses what she learned from Jeong's classes every day. "He was quite influential for me," she said. "I think back to him and what he taught all the time. I attribute a lot of my success to Dr. Jeong; he probably doesn't even realize how much he influenced me. I owe a lot to my master's program. It changed my understanding of a lot of things."

She said often, a person takes engineering classes and gets placed in management positions. "But when you get to those management positions, you don't know much about the business side," she said. "You have to evaluate proposals, select vendors, and manage very large procurements. You're analyzing business and engineering data, so my courses at UHCL helped me in the mission environment, but also in procurement- sometimes billion-dollar procurements. That's an area in which I specialize. The Engineering Management program made me much more successful at that."

Currently enrolled in a doctoral engineering program at Texas A&M University, Conover said she was still keeping her ties to UHCL. "Even though I'm at A&M, I'm allowed to transfer 12 credit hours from another university, and I'm taking them at UHCL," she said. "I just took an accounting class and an economics class, which I really enjoyed."

So, what's left to accomplish in her career plan, after almost 50 years at NASA and a doctorate in engineering? Top of the list- staying closely connected to her alma mater.

"I want to come back to UHCL and teach," she said.

For more information about undergraduate and graduate degree options in the College of Science and Engineering at UHCL, go online.