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Hey Reddit, I am Tracy Van Houten, an aerospace engineer who has designed missions to Earth orbit, the surface of Mars, and Europa. I love my job as a Rocket Scientist, but for years I've been feeling gravity pull me towards life as a public servant, I would become the first ever woman engineer in Congress. This is my first campaign, and my first AMA, so I'm just as excited as all of you about the opportunity to engage with the community.
I am running for Congress in the California 34th district, including Downtown LA, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, and other neighborhoods. The special election primary is April 4th.
Want to learn more about what being an Aerospace Engineer is like? Want to ask a question about the campaign?
Curious about what I will do in Washington?
are you related to milhouse van houten?
I love that this is currently the highest up-voted question. Where is my hubby when I need a witty Simpson's comeback?
My political advisors are frantically waving their hands and demanding I stay far away from any association with Milhouse.
How often does someone say "it's not exactly rocket science" to you?
Oh man. My family uses this against me all the time. If I do something stupid at home, I get a chorus of "it's not Rocket Science!"
Best of luck to you.
What is your stance on the education system?
Our public education system is our most valuable asset as a community and nation, and we must prove that in our policy and budgeting decisions. I am a product of our California public schools and am proud that my children attend a wonderfully diverse public school with dedicated teachers and staff. We need to ensure that all children in this nation have access to quality public education. My mother was a public school teacher, and my husband has worked in public schools for 14 years, currently teaching at a community college. I have been an advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in our public schools and have volunteered at many public schools for the past 17 years. As a side note, I usually add an "A" in for Arts to make STEAM education.
From the classroom to student support services to free lunch programs and after-school opportunities, we need to invest in pre-K, K-12, and higher education to continue growing this nation as a global leader. Here in Los Angeles, the high school graduation rate is barely above 60%. This is unacceptable. Our children deserve a shot at a successful future and we are not setting them up for it. And following high school, we need affordable higher education. I would bring forward policy to significantly reduce college tuition. Additionally, college doesn't need to be the path for everyone. I would work with our local labor organizations to connect high school graduates and veterans to their apprenticeship programs. Instilling work ethic, a skillful trade and almost immediate compensation and benefits for them and their families.
What's the weirdest advice you've gotten from other people running (or have run) for Congress?
Favorite comment / advice so far was "How are you going to do this? As an engineer, you're trained to tell the truth, if you go to Washington, you'll need to learn how to lie!" For the record, this campaign relies on facts and reason in this world of alternative facts, no plans to learn the art of lying!
And not so sure this is weird, as much as annoying, but as a woman running for political office, I knew I might get feedback on my appearance and demeanor more than male colleagues would. I just wasn't expecting it to happen so quickly. In one of the first candidate forums I participated in, I got a ton of great feedback, and was then told by 2 different guests at the event that I both smiled too much during my speech and that I should smile more while speaking. From the very same speech! Can't please everyone!
I have 2 questions. 1: I am also an engineer (electrical) that has been having thoughts of running for Congress as well but feel like I need to earn more experience before I even try running. What steps did you take to get where you are now?
2: how would you generally describe your political beliefs? Progressive, liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc...
Hi Kyoto_Wolf, it's excellent to hear about more STEM workers looking to get involved! You should check out 314 Action PAC if you haven't already - a group dedicated to getting more members of the STEM fields into public office. You should be keeping track of the good engineering work you're doing now to demonstrate how the skills you've built in your field translate to being an effective contributor in government.
I have been contemplating a career leap to public office for several years. One of the many things I did to get my job at JPL was to become an expert networker. As such, when I started to think about running, I also began to build a network of politically active folks, and when I decided to run, I activated this network and formed a campaign team quickly. Reach out to local political groups, get to know local leaders and how your community is affected by decisions made in Washington, and keep working to understand your own unique vision, and how that can benefit your community and the whole country. Participate in other campaigns by phone banking or volunteering in other ways. I had participated in several other campaigns at a low to medium level of involvement. Ultimately, you will have no true idea of what a campaign is like until you are a candidate yourself. Experience can come during the campaign, and with training from staff who have been through the trenches before. Finally, I found inspiration by reading the autobiographies of many politicians I respect to get their first hand accounts of campaigning and serving in office. Their "lessons learned" have come back to my thought many times over the course of the campaign.
I am in the midst of a fast special election primary campaign, raising funds at the grassroots level, knocking doors, and attending neighborhood events to get to know my constituents. I am a staunch progressive who nevertheless knows a great deal about the need to build a shared vision with all constituents where everyone has a stake, and compromise to achieve that shared vision.
Best of luck to you. Open the floodgates on this...Just tell us...are aliens real?
If I told you, I'd have to...nevermind.
I'm sure all of us in aerospace would love to come face to face with the little green guys running around Mars, but the reality is that any life found is likely to be microbial in nature. But the search for life is what drives most of us in this field to do what we do!
The district is
So, my question is, do you speak Spanish? Mandarin? Does your life experience bring you to understand the daily lives of those different from you? If so, how?
KingOfTheMultiverse: Thanks for the great question.
I love the diversity of this district – I believe that is what makes CA-34 so strong. I also know that it is impossible to truly comprehend what it is like to view the world from another’s perspective – I would have to walk 1,000 miles in their shoes. However, my empathy for others and desire to understand all people, especially those in my district, enable me to reach out and listen; I’ve made a concerted effort to seek out first-hand accounts from those in marginalized groups to more fully connect with them.
Though I generally understand and can read some Spanish, I do not speak it well. My husband is fluent in Spanish and my kids speak it too since they attend a bilingual public school. I've surrounded myself with a core group of Spanish speakers on my campaign team because language should not be a barrier to sharing our stories nor to bringing important issues to the table. (Side note, with communities such as Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Little Bangladesh, Mandarin is not the only Asian language spoken in the district. No, I don't speak any of these languages).
My grandmother was a civil rights champion in San Diego in the 50s and 60s. She teamed up with other woman-owned business members to combat the racism and disproportionate representation that addressed socio-economic inequality. She was known for bringing opposing sides together at the table to get results and she has long been an inspiration to me. If she were still with us I know that she would be alongside me. My life experiences demonstrate consistently standing up for equality. Being a straight cisgender woman hasn’t kept me from continuously advocating for my friends and colleagues in the LGBTQ community. Being white hasn’t kept me from mentoring hundreds of young women of color in STEM and helping them to advance their careers through work and leadership experiences. Being a woman who's never faced the decision to terminate a pregnancy doesn't keep me from being adamantly pro-choice. And being a natural-born citizen doesn’t keep me from raising immigrant rights as one of the primary pillars of this campaign. My life experiences have provided me perspective and have taught me the simple act of listening, something our current elected officials often fail to do. We all bring something different to the table and all those different qualities are what I look for when building teams to solve the seemingly impossible challenges of space exploration. I would apply the same method in D.C. My experiences are my own, as your experiences are yours - but collectively we can bring them together to find solutions that can have an immediate positive impact to all those that live in Los Angeles. As your congresswoman, it would be my job to do just that.
Beyond issues of science which you have tons of expertise in, how do you plan on learning about, and deciding on issues which you are less knowledgeable about?
Hi peipeipei, thanks for the insightful question. I know that I have a lot to learn about fields other than my own -- and as a life-long learner, I am eager for the challenge. As such, I have been and will continue to attend briefings from local leaders and commissions on every issue we can find, be it homelessness, hate crimes, affordable housing, employment, foreign policy, or anything else. Beyond my career, I have been highly involved in public education advocacy, leadership development of young women around the country, and active in the issues of my community. My staff and I are daily putting several hours into policy research, analysis, and reports. From listening to voice memos prepared by staff while I drive to and from meetings with local groups and constituents, to staying up late catching up on the news of the day, I am committed to broadening my subject matter expertise each and every day. The efforts have paid off, I've performed well in the candidate forums and have been able to speak in depth on the actions I would take in Washington on a wide range of topics. I am no stranger to intense learning, as a systems engineer, it's been my job to jump into a situation where I know very little, learn as quickly as possible and then lead the engineering team to successful, balanced solutions. There's no substitute for the engineering work ethic and willingness to learn, but I couldn't do it without the fabulous team supporting this campaign, shoving as much knowledge into my head as possible!
I should also note I get my information from a wealth of credible sources, on all sides of the political spectrum, and I have been reaching out to friends and family members whose political views are different from my own to make sure I truly understand the complexities and nuance of the complicated problems facing our communities.
As a voter in the 34th I'm curious what distinguishes your political views from the large set of other candidates?
What policies or issues would you be willing to cross the aisle for and support in a bipartisan manner? Surely there are certain issues that you could see working across party lines for.
I see a lot of the candidates provide a platform of simply "resist" but what are the proactive things you will strive for?
Hi greenglobus, thank you for the great question! I would be happy to work with members across the aisle to keep our environment safe, to keep small businesses growing and successful, to invest in green jobs in manufacturing, distribution, recycling, and promoting responsible infrastructure development and repairs. The 34th district would benefit greatly from responsible, environmentally friendly developments in transportation and affordable housing, which would furthermore create local jobs and stimulate local spending, and I would work with any group to get things done. I am not a career politician, my particular discipline within aerospace is called systems engineering, and in this role it's been my job for more than a decade to bring differing engineering and science disciplines together at the table to yield a negotiated, successful process and product. I had to build consensus among a variety of viewpoints and biases to get spacecraft off the ground. I will use this experience in collaboration and consensus-building, while safeguarding progressive values on the environment, equality, and civil rights everyday in Washington.
I'd welcome any follow up questions you have specific to your concerns for the district!
Do you really think you're qualified to be in government?
I mean, have you ever even been on reality TV?
Hahahahahahahahaha! One of my team members, Connor, just read this one out loud and I nearly spit green tea all over my keyboard.
Need any help with campaigning? I was in DC this past summer for an internship and after coming back home to LA I almost took an internship offer in Congresswoman Judy Chu's DO but decided to pursue a paying job instead. However I do miss working so closely in politics and hope to make a comeback.
Thanks for that question…“Who knew campaigns would be hard?”! (Sorry, bad Trump joke). Every person who has supported my campaign has made a tangible difference in getting us to where we are today; given the short period we have to spread the word about this Special Election (there’s a lot of confusion regarding the many varied elections happening in Los Angeles now), the answer is yes! My team can use help in several areas. Please reach out to #TeamTracy directly, you can contact us on Facebook or Twitter @Tracy4Congress, and all our contact info is also available on the campaign website tracyvh.com. I encourage you to come by our campaign office in Eagle Rock— always open to the public; and/or join us at local Neighborhood Council Meetings around the district. We'd love to have you!
Hey Tracy, sounds impressive -- and I think it's important that science gets a voice on Capitol Hill. Why do you think it's so important?
Specifically, it is imperative that science get a seat at the table in standing up to Trump and Pruitt, to hold the line in response to their climate change denial. And science is based on fact, truth, and reason -- three things that are essential in battling this administration's "alternative facts."
Do you support term limits on the US house and Senate?
Copying my response to a different term limits question from Scottrix:
Term limits are a complicated topic and I don't have a fully fleshed out policy here. So I'll give you some thoughts and would love to hear more from those interested on this particular thread.
I support term limits. The 2016 election is a prime example of how complacent voters have become and how much money and incumbency play a factor in who our representatives are: while a Gallup poll one month prior to the election showed approval of Congress below 20%, we had an incumbency rate in the election of well over 90%. I want our government to be more representative. Term limits would keep voters more engaged with elections, and provide the opportunity for new, underrepresented people to have a shot at representing their communities. “Career Politician” should not be a thing. While maintaining institutional knowledge by having veteran representatives is obviously helpful, there needs to be a stronger connection between the citizenry and its government – a combination of new and experienced members would create a much stronger government of the people.
I would like to see the duration of the House of Representatives term increase to 4 years. With elections every two years, politicians are constantly campaigning and fundraising. It's not hard to see why our lawmakers should be spending more time working for the people instead of out on the campaign trail. An appropriate limit would be something like 3 4-year terms. This would provide the correct balance of experience and fresh ideas.
How long did it take for you to put a gravity pun in this ama?
Ha! Actually the gravity pun is a new one we've just started rolling out this week. It originally appeared in a post I did on Pantsuit Nation for International Women's Day. (https://www.facebook.com/Tracy4Congress/) We have been using things like "help Tracy blast off to Washington" and the like up until now.
Hi Tracy, thanks for doing this! Can you tell us about what lessons you've learned in mission management at JPL that you'll take to Congress?
Hi robot_science- So many applicable lessons. A note about what we do at JPL:
Every mission we do at JPL is unique; every job we take on is a first-time challenge to which we don’t know the answer yet, and the missions we formulate are as complex as they are ingenious.
Working on missions of this nature, I’ve learned that management is not only about (1) thoroughly understanding the task at hand, (2) planning efforts and resources accordingly, or (3) assessing and responding to risk; but it’s fundamentally about (1) problem-solving, (2) informed decision-making, and (3) building diverse, effective teams. All these lessons are universal to "the practice of technical management" regardless of what arena they're applied to. Political Science, Social Science, or Rocket Science.
As a woman who’s held many leadership roles in a male-dominated field, I’ve learned a few other lessons that transcend professional boundaries. These lessons include (1) speaking truth to power is imperative when major consequences are at stake, (2) that when women take on management positions, it sets a precedent for other women to do the same (ie. leading by example is the most effective way to cultivate change), and (3) when women have a seat at the table, the process becomes more responsive and equitable for all.
Please be patient! This engagement is fantastic and I'm working my way through. Thank you for all the great questions!
A special election primary with 17 other candidates, that's a tough race. Especially since you're going against an established politician (Jimmy Gomez) who probably already has an established group of donors, not to mention friends in the local county party heads. Please tell me you are spending every second you can knocking on doors and getting your name, face, and story in the constituent's minds?
Yes, it is true that I am new in the political arena, and there are others that have built a base of support over several years. Several of my competitors are quite productive in their current jobs at the local and state level, and our city and state will be greatly served by them continuing their work in those positions. I know that we must elect strong, committed citizens who bring a wide array of backgrounds and abilities into Congress, which sets me far apart from the established politicians in the field.
Our amazing team and I have been out knocking on doors, making phone calls, attending neighborhood council meetings, and just reaching out to as many voters as possible in our short time frame. It's been wonderful talking to so many residents of California's 34th and I am honored that many have shared their stories, notes of concern about issues that impact them every day, congratulations, and support. Our team continues to grow with amazing volunteers who are helping get the word out about the Special Election -- only 25 days away!
For me, running for Congress is not about catering to special interests and the establishment. Democrats have been saying that we need to change who runs and how they run and I'm here to focus on our residents of the 34th. I'm not a career politician, so I'm not beholden to special interests or the establishment, I'm running for congress to give every resident of the 34th a voice and a seat at the table. Thank you for your question and I hope I can count on your vote on April 4th! Check out my campaign website at tracyvh.com!
Are you surprised by the amount of sexist comments in this ama?
Not surprised in the slightest.
Thank you for doing this AMA ma'am!
I noticed that Measure H passed and this is an extraordinary thing! My question is in two parts: A) what programs are in place as of today to make sure this measure is successful? B) Are there going to be future programs in place to improve upon the current ones?
Great question! With over 47,000 homeless in Los Angeles alone, Measure H sets us up to work with local organizations who have experience working with our homeless populations and helping them get back on their feet. Measure H was drafted by the LA County Homeless Initiative (a coalition of government, faith communities, neighborhoods, individuals and nonprofit stakeholders who work on this cause) and approved by the County board of supervisors last year. LACHI works across our county and this small county sales tax increase will fund the work that many organizations already do, including mental health, substance abuse treatment, healthcare, job training, housing subsidies, case management, battered women, transportation and more.
The C3 Outreach Team is doing tremendous work in doing direct outreach to our homeless populations. They are out there talking to folks sharing medical care, resources and providing options to those who perhaps just don't know how to take the first step.
We need to make sure our residents have access to education and tools they need to find their own path to success and I believe that Measure H helps us get there.
But for real-Who do you think will win the race to put a man/woman on mars, private industry or a government?
I'm likely considered biased here, but I believe it will be government. Landing on Mars is tremendously difficult, I was a part of the Curiosity rover team and am now the test program lead for the Mars 2020 rover at JPL. The challenge with Mars is the atmosphere -- there's not enough atmosphere to slow you down significantly enough upon entry like at Earth, but there's just enough that you have to deal with it so you don't burn up. Point is, landing on Mars is nothing like landing on the moon and at this point NASA has had the only successes - 7 times, all projects from JPL.
I should give a shout out to ESA here for a successful Beagle 2 landing too, though the vehicle failed to deploy it's solar arrays so is considered unsuccessful.
How do you think your experience as a rocket scientist would be beneficial in politics?
PS I'm an aerospace engineer too and it would be cool to have one of us in congress.
Hi gmwdim- I love this type of question! I have reflected on this frequently while preparing to run. I know that my experience as a rocket scientist will be extremely valuable in politics because the same problem-solving skills I use to deliver ‘flight-worthy’ systems to space for the taxpayers can be applied to delivering ‘policy-worthy’ solutions to the people I represent.
Just as I leverage facts and numbers to substantiate my technical positions at work, I will base my political positions on truth and objective analysis. I also plan to draw consensus using communication and negotiation approaches that have proven effective in my engineering work to represent issues and information in a clear and meaningful way. Aerospace work calls for relentless willingness to take on challenges, even those considered impossible, and depends on unwavering work ethic— I embraced this early on in my Aerospace career, before I accepted my job at JPL, as early as my days at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where we all “Learned by Doing” (shutout to my fellow Mustangs and Rocket Scientists!)
Lastly, I have to say that aerospace systems typically come with a hefty price tag (surprise!) and themselves represent irreplaceable assets for all of humanity, so I expect my experience carrying this big responsibility on my shoulders to come in handy in Washington.
I like your shirt. You're not in my district, but I have friends who are.
What are your opinions on the future of our energy production? Does nuclear power have a role? Do you support (the currently legally tied up) Clean Power Plan?
Hi Kakesh, I believe the current administration is attacking science and reason and with that our environmental protections are at stake. Our country has been a leader in creating clean energy solutions and been the leader on innovative design and technologies that incorporate green energy into our daily lives. Our energy dependence must shift from non-renewable sources like coal and oil to wind and solar. California has been a hotbed for innovation in developing these technologies that allow us to capture energy from renewable resources.
Nuclear power does play a role in achieving our goals. According to the Plan, Nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of the power produced in the U.S. and is a reliable, carbon free generation source. What the Plan does is provide states leverage in achieving their clean energy goals and creates incentives for clean energy technologies (including nuclear power) so our country can remain on the forefront of innovation.
As an engineer I operate within a world where science, reason and facts drive decisions. We all know that our country's reliance on energy sources cannot be flipped overnight and that's why I support the Clean Power Plan. It is a solid tool that can help guide our country toward a cleaner and less-polluting member of our planet. The plan offers achievable standards for power plants for smooth transition away from oil & gas and it also allows states to "customize" their goals in reducing their own carbon footprints.
What would you like for lunch?
Egg Salad sandwich please!
Did your designs actually fly to these places? How large were your teams? What components did you design? Are these designs in space now?
Do you see politics as something that a common person could have an active role in? Do you feel it's more who you know or what you know and are these the same? How far back can you trace your family lineage?
edit: Also, how do you feel about every US president being descendant from King John of England? Is that strange or normal to you?
My proudest professional moment was celebrating with thousands of my colleagues when Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) successfully landed on Mars and started streaming images and data to us. So many amazing scientists and engineers committed years of their life to making that project happen. I spent 2 years of my life on Curiosity, including many a late night. Specifically I was a verification and validation engineer and was responsible for making sure the spacecraft had been tested appropriately prior to it being shipped to Florida for launch. Most of us consider Curiosity to be one of our "children" and she is still going strong on Mars, sending amazing pictures back to our science teams every day.
After Curiosity, I worked on the SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) mission, which has been orbiting earth for the last two years bringing us data on soil moisture density. This information is vital to us; it can help us predict potential flooding and drought, as well as improving agricultural production. Of course, all of the data collected by SMAP is fully available to public and is used by scientists all over the world. My specific role on SMAP was as the lead of the system test campaign.
I am currently the test program lead on the Mars 2020 rover project and have 8 engineers who work on my team directly and several hundred additional engineers that follow the processes and policies generated by my team and me. This mission is planned to launch in 2020.
I've worked on several other projects and mission proposals, but running out of time to respond more in depth!
Regarding your question on common people in politics, the very foundation of democracy demands citizen involvement. For too long, people have seen politicians as "someone else", as evidenced by your question. Our government is for the people, by the people, and we need more "common people" to bring this message to Washington.
She's a NASA engineer, homegirls got money and a brain. I'm down to give her a shot
This made me smile! :-)
What is your campaign strategy?
Thank you for running, best wishes!
We've built a strong team of experienced and local campaign staff from all different backgrounds. Our team's campaign strategy is to put the voter first. Because I'm not a career politician, I entered this race with no special interest or establishment money. This helps our team stay focused on what's most important. The residents. The voters. The people who we see everyday at the coffee shop, at the park, in our schools. It is important that we reach out into our neighborhoods face to face, have real conversations about the issues they face on a daily basis and then turn those into solutions. As an engineer, it is literally my job to identify where the problems could arise and then build a team that can find a solution. Our strategy is to lift up the voices of the 34th, to bring the amazing stories to the forefront and then find solutions so all Angelenos benefit.
Because I have a different background than any other candidate, we have been receiving great support from all over the country. Putting the first woman engineer into Congress instead of playing politics as usual is the perfect remedy to the alternate fact universe we are currently living in. This is creating a movement that we hope will inspire the next wave of women and STEM leaders to run in 2018.