An Interview with Valerie McKay
Meet Dawn's Project Secretary, Valerie McKay.The following interview took place at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California on May 22, 2006 between Valerie McKay Project Secretary for the Dawn Mission (JPL), and Education and Public Outreach team member John Ristvey from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
JR: Tell me a little bit about who you are and what is your role in the Dawn mission?
VM: My name is Valerie McKay and I am the Project Secretary for the Dawn project. I have been here for for almost three years. My role is to keep all of the non-technical aspects of this project in working order so that the scientists and engineers can do what they do best. Believe me, that’s a difficult job, but it works.
JR: I know that this morning when I was talking with Marc Rayman, he specifically said that you allow him to get his work done and that he appreciates the work that you do. Any comments about working with anybody in particular?
VM: If you have met Dr. Marc Rayman you’ve met a character. You need at least one in every group—I’ve been blessed with several. It’s nice to work with degreed people who are not status conscious—people, who do silly things on a whim, but are brainiacs! They make it all worthwhile.
JR: Tell me a little bit about your career path that led you to your present position.
VM: I came here from Connecticut in 1979, where I worked at Yale-New Haven Hospital. I knew that I enjoyed working with people and I loved variety. When I came to LA, I didn’t know where I wanted to work or what I wanted to do. I decided to take temporary assignments. Every time I took on an assignment, they wanted to hire me! Finally I gave up. I got tired of being offered jobs and having to turn them down. I went to the local Urban League and, after testing me, they said, ‘Go to JPL, they have openings. We think you’re a fit’. I went and, surprise, surprise, I was hired immediately! That was November 1979 and I have been here ever since. There are so many interesting and exciting people here. It’s been great!
JR: What do you like most about your work?
VM: I enjoy the variety of things I do in a given day. I’m not stuck in an office doing one thing all day long. Working with Keyur Patel, the Project Manager, has been very interesting. He’s constantly thinking, and you’d better be prepared for whatever when he sticks his head out of the door. Somehow, by the end of the day, I manage to pull it all together. I enjoy that. Thankfully, I’m an organized person. If I weren’t, I’d be in big trouble. I appreciate the fact that my staff trusts me and allows me to do my job. I’m by no means perfect, but I strive for perfection in whatever I do. Autonomy. I like that, I like that a lot.
JR: You said you do a variety of things and that could change in a second depending on Keyur popping out the door. Is there something such as a typical day? If so, can you tell me what everyday worklife is like?
VM: On a daily basis, I’m dealing with telephones, individual calendars, the scheduling of two conference rooms, mini-fires to put out, travel planning, shall I go on? I just found out that someone is traveling...tomorrow. I enjoy making things happen and that’s the important part—making it happen. Everyone assumes you work for them, and them alone and that there’s nothing else going on except for what they want/need. So, you have to make each individual believe that yes, indeed, they are the only person in your world, while quietly doing 50 other things in the background for those other people who are thinking the same thing. So, to say that there is a typical day – NO! When they are away I have typical days. But as long as they’re here, I do not have a typical day. And that’s okay.
JR: Tell me a little bit about your family life.
VM: I was born in Harlem, New York. My family moved to Passaic, NJ when I was 6 years old. I lived there until I graduated from high school. I got married in 1970 and moved to New Haven, Connecticut. We lived there until 1979, when it snowed so hard that the National Guard had to dig us out. When they dug us out, we kept moving West, and that’s how I came to California. I love it! My mother and sister live in Pasadena, I live in the San Fernando Valley, and I have been blessed with 5 grandchildren.
JR: What do you do with your leisure time?
VM: You know, I thought, as I got older, I’d have more leisure time. That’s not true. It gets worse! I keep filling my leisure time with… things! I love jazz concerts, camping, skiing, cruising, and visiting warm places. The problem is that I need more time (and money) to do these things! I guess I’ll have to wait until I retire—maybe when I’m 70, or 80 (laugh).
JR: If you could go back to your high school, what advice would you give to young people? What would you recommend?
VM: That is really hard because, when you’re young, you are influenced by your peers. There are several things I would say: there is a world after high school; don’t allow your peers to influence what direction you take unless they are excelling academically; pursue your goals—find out as much as you can about them and stay focused; believe that you can succeed; do what you enjoy doing—there is nothing worse than hating what you do and doing it every day; and last, but not least, allow successful people to mentor and guide you along the way. Adults enjoy sharing their knowledge with eager, young, minds. You never know where it might lead.
JR: Anything else you’d like to say about the mission?
VM: I am just so happy that Dawn was reinstated and that we’re going to launch in 2007. It’s going to be hard work. We have to hit the deck running. It seems like we’re skipping right now, but we’ll be in a race against the clock real soon. I am looking forward to seeing Dawn launch at KSC. It’s going to be great! It’s going to be well worth everything it took to get there.
JR: You’ve done Galileo. Were you there for the launch?
VM: The staffing was well established on Galileo when I came on board in 1979 so I wasn’t able to physically be at the launch, but I watched it. I did witness a launch at KSC in 1993 as one of the honorees of the NASA Manned Flight Awareness Program. It was a wonderful, awe-inspiring experience.
JR: Do you foresee your work intensifying in the months prior to launch? Will you ever sleep?
VM: I’m sure I’ll sleep, but I may not get to bed very early. We’re already starting to staff up and I am the only administrative support. I expect to be quite busy, and that’s okay. I have to remind myself constantly that this is what it’s going to take to get to launch and beyond. I don’t mind. It’s what I do best.