Engineer Michelle Easter has made it her mission to expand STEM’s reach to the community at large.
BY: Sara Smola
Mind Makers Founder and CEO Michelle Easter defies all stereotypes as a former international model turned engineer, who balances her STEM-focused educational organization Mind Makers with her day job at JPL. But despite how unlikely the transition from modeling to engineering may seem, Easter credits her modeling background as providing a valuable skill set for her current role. “It prepared me pretty darn well,” she explains. “I got used to working with extremely creative personality types in fashion and in engineering you have to work in a really big team of extremely creative critical thinkers. I love working in teams, which is fundamental to engineering. For big projects, you have to be able to function well in a big team [such as JPL].”
After modeling, Easter decided to enroll in college on the east coast at the age of 26. Due to her age, she admits she initially felt out of place though she quickly discovered she also stood out for another reason— her stellar math and engineering abilities. “I started taking math and science classes and I never turned back after that,” notes Easter. “I’d been out of school for like eight years and I hadn’t done any math for my entire adult life so it was a little challenging, but once I got a tutor, everything just clicked in my mind. Math is logical, and math to me has always been very visual. Also, it was really rewarding to dive into it.”
Easer’s mathematical aptitude earned her the attention of a professor who took an interest in her studies. Under his mentorship, Easter was encouraged to participate in various internships and studies that Easter never imagined herself doing, building her skills (and resume) in the process.
After graduating, Easter wasn’t sure what she was going to do next and toyed with the idea of attending grad school. When speaking with a friend’s husband, an established engineer at JPL, about her future possibilities, he recommended that Easter send him her resume for him to pass on. Much to Easter’s surprise, later that day she received an email from Shawn Goodman (who would later become her deputy division manager) who showed an interest in hiring her. “I got that email and I jumped straight out of my chair. It was unbelievable,” she recalls. Easter started working at JPL in the summer 2015 and continues to consider it a dream job.
But despite Easter’s current success in the engineering field, she acknowledges that she wished she had been exposed to more tech learning opportunities while growing up. “I didn’t have the tech background that everybody else had,” says Easter. “I feel like nowadays so many students are really lucky to get their hands on experience in tech young and go into engineering school, already with experience and I didn’t have any of that. What I did have though is probably the strongest work ethic out of everybody.”
It was Easter’s own lack of STEM background growing up that inspired her to create Mind Makers, an organization whose mission is “to increase STEM accessibility for underserved adults and children through education, outreach and awesome displays of tech teamwork.” According to the Mind Makers website, the organization provides educational workshops with curriculum that touches on from neuroscience, robotics, anatomy, data visualization, system networking and philosophy.
Despite the focus on math and science, Easter is adamant that you don’t need to be a full-fledged rocket scientist in order to participate in the workshops. According to Easter, anyone from stay at home moms looking for a new hobby or a working woman looking for a new career. Easter also feels passionate about exposing children to “atypical role models with technical and unconventional backgrounds.”
Easter explains, “Mind Makers was very much inspired by my own experience and I really often say and truly think that engineering gave me a future. It wasn’t until I stepped through that doorway and started discovering all these things and getting my education and discovering my own potential in the tech world that I realized how much more I could do and be. When I was in high school, there was no Google. It’s like a really simple thing but for people who didn’t grow up in the “Google era” it doesn’t seem as easy [to use] as it really is.”
By providing the support and tools to help its students develop valuable insight on tech, the Mind Makers educational workshops help unlock the potential of many students who then go on to apply their newfound knowledge to their lives. As Easter points out, “Getting through that door and having a little encouragement, a good environment and especially the hands-on experience, so many other people are going to discover this new future for themselves—be it that they want to change their career, start building things at home, fixing their own appliances. It’s totally a possibility. Mind Makers works to make it possible.”