Lessons from Mars for Heriot-Watt students



Jennifer Trosper
Picture of Jennifer Trosper. Credit: Christopher Michael

What business management lessons can be learnt from landing on Mars? The answer….a lot!

Students at Heriot-Watt University recently welcomed a senior figure from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who discussed the importance of teamwork in overcoming challenges.

For 30 years, Jennifer Trosper has had a critical role as part of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. From Sojourner to Perseverance, Jennifer has worked on every rover that has ever driven on the Martian surface and has encountered more than her fair share of mission problems along the way. But it has been working in these highly pressurised situations where billions of dollars is at stake that Jennifer and her team excel.

The ability to think clearly and objectively when problems arise is what Jennifer does best, and understanding how a team pulls together to reach the next objective is a valuable lesson that can be applied closer to home.  

Jennifer is Project Manager for NASA's current Mars mission, the Perseverance rover. She was invited by Dr David Steinberg, Director of the Edinburgh Business School's Graduate Apprenticeship Programmes, to talk about her experience to a group of Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) students and external organisations involved in the GA programme, as well as members belonging to the Heriot-Watt Women in Stem and Women in Engineering societies.

In the one hour online talk, Jennifer delivered a masterclass on team dynamics and problem-solving within the context of the Perseverance Mars mission. She discussed the human side of the mission, including the stress related to her team having to deal with a “fault tone” early in the landing sequence, which meant making last-minute adjustments to the landing site to avoid unfavourable terrain, and the first soil sample attempt malfunctioning.

Afterwards, Dr David Steinberg, spoke about the talk and how it came about, saying: “I had never met Jennifer before and wrote a proposal to the NASA JPL Speaker's Bureau inviting her to talk about NASA's approach to teamwork and problem-solving, two topics covered in my graduate apprenticeship course called Business Skills for the Second Machine Age. It was a huge thrill when she accepted this invitation and for our students to have the chance to learn from her is a rare opportunity that most don't get to experience.

“My thanks to Jennifer for delivering a fascinating talk and insight into the incredible team effort needed to land on Mars.”

During her presentation, Jennifer said: “What I'm going to do today is tell you about our mission, our team, and our vehicles. The talk is about the teams but in order to understand our teams you really have to understand our missions. It really is an honour to be here.”

The GA programme allows students to combine their full-time employment in the public, private, and third-sectors in Scotland with their studies in order to earn a degree-level qualification. What makes the GA programme different to a traditional degree is that students split their time between lectures, tutorials and their day job allowing employers the opportunity to upskill their workforce.

Professor Heather McGregor, Executive Dean at the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, said: “At Heriot-Watt University, we look to give our students a unique learning experience and to hear directly from those who work in industry. We are proud to be able to give these opportunities to our University community and believe such experiences help shape our students to become exceptional assets when they enter the workplace.”

A recording of Jennifer Trosper's presentation can be viewed online.


Craig McManamon

Job title
Communications officer