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NASA software engineer to deliver Baskin Engineering 2023 commencement address

Alexandra Holloway, a thrice UC Santa Cruz Baskin Engineering alumna (B.S. ‘03, M.S. ‘10, Ph.D. ‘15) and software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), will deliver the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering 2023 commencement address

Coming from a family of engineers, Holloway always had a knack for problem solving and an interest in technology. In high school, she built her own computers and even restored a 1972 Chevy Nova.

Alexandra Holloway, Baskin Engineering alumna and NASA software engineer

At UCSC, she followed her passion for computing, eventually completing three computer science and engineering undergraduate and graduate degrees. During her graduate studies, as she balanced work and raising a child on her own, Holloway landed her first opportunity with NASA. 

She started as a human interfaces intern and then, shortly after completing her Ph.D. degree, began her dream role as the software engineer leading the Flight Software team for the Mars Science Laboratory. Specializing in ethnographic design research into operability, Holloway writes and programs software for space missions on the Mars Curiosity rover.

“This isn’t just regular programming. Writing code for a space robot means you’re writing in a real-time embedded environment with tons of constraints,” said Holloway in a personal reflections Q&A hosted on the NASA MARS Exploration site.

One of her focus areas is on data management, assessing file system data coming from the spacecraft and writing uplink products to keep the hard drives tidy. Holloway’s work played a key role in the April 2023 Mars Curiosity Rover software update

“The most extraordinary experience I’ve had so far working at NASA has got to be seeing software my team and I had written working on Mars for the first time,” Holloway said. “My software—on another planet!”

While on a recent visit to Baskin Engineering, she brought a wheel from the Mars Science Laboratory rover testing yard and spoke with students and faculty about the work she does at JPL, touching on the importance of letting curiosity and a passion for finding new answers guide the development of new impactful technologies. Coated in red dirt from the testing grounds, the wheel was a convincing example of her team’s work on Mars.

“Alexandra’s leadership in software development for JPL’s Mars rover units is exciting and critical, bringing the skills she learned at Baskin Engineering to one of the most challenging computing environments imaginable: an autonomous mobile platform some 34 million miles away,” said Alexander Wolf, dean of the Baskin School of Engineering. “The passion and skill she brings to her work embody what it means to be a Baskin Engineer, and we are honored that she accepted our invitation to deliver the 2023 commencement address to our 25th graduating class.”

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