In anticipation of the Nov. 2 Soles for Catholic Education walk to celebrate Catholic education, your Catholic Herald is running a series of articles on Catholic education in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Following is the second in the series.

After Katie Weiss spoke at her alma mater, Divine Savior Holy Angels, last fall, she lingered on stage for a bit talking with faculty members. A girl with eyeglasses and braces on her teeth came up to her.

Katie Weiss is a 1997 graduate of Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee. (Submitted photo courtesy Katie Weiss)

Katie Weiss is a 1997 graduate of Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee. (Submitted photo courtesy Katie Weiss)

“Excuse me,” she said.

Katie turned around, “Yes?”

The young girl hesitated for a moment, then said, “I’m on the school robotics team and I think what you’re doing is very cool.”

Katie smiled. “Thank you.”

The girl smiled back, turned around and joined her classmates leaving the auditorium.

Katie is a senior flight software engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and was part of the Mars Curiosity Rover Mission, which landed on the planet in August 2012.

A member of the engineering team that designed and implemented the flight software used on the rover and the code that runs on board, Katie wrote its Fault Protection software.

“When I was her age, I didn’t know anyone that was an engineer and I certainly didn’t know anyone who was a female engineer,” Katie said.

In fall 2012, after Curiosity landed, Katie was named the recipient of DSHA’s Young Alumna of the Year Award and came back to DSHA to talk to the students about her career and what it’s like to be a woman in a male dominated field.

On “landing night” Katie said she was in a room talking to various celebrities, including hip-hop star, when she was asked by someone, “Are you the make-up girl?”

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“Of course, he didn’t mean that in any disrespectful way,” Katie said. “You basically learn how to navigate through being a female and you realize if you got the right stuff and you’re doing a good job, you’re doing good work, it doesn’t matter.”

Katie, 34, graduated from DSHA in 1997 and went on to Marquette University where she earned a bachelor’s of science degree in computer engineering and mathematics. She also earned a master’s and doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A Pasadena, Calif., resident, her job as senior flight software engineer entails software architecture, design and implementation for spacecraft.

Her time at DSHA shaped her career, she said.

“For four years you’re surrounded by the other girls who are excellent and strive to be excellent,” Katie said. “What you learn at DSHA is there are a wide variety of people and excellent women and you’re surrounded by it every day.”

Katie hopes her talk at DSHA inspired girls to pursue careers in math and science.

“It’s not that (girls) don’t like math, science or engineering, it’s that they don’t feel confident,” Katie said. “I think that we need to make sure that young girls understand that these fields are accessible to them and they have the ability to pursue a career in math, science or engineering just like a man does.”

Terry McGinn, DSHA faculty member, called Katie a great role model for today’s students.

“I think it’s good for our students to see someone like that who’s a younger female who made it. Sometimes I think the older alums that come back don’t quite have that same connection,” McGinn said. “Seeing someone like Katie really gave these kids a tangible, younger example of someone who had been literally sitting in their seats who succeeded at the highest level.”

McGinn taught honors English to Katie and remembers her as the type of student who “had fun with it.”

Katie Weiss is a senior flight software engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and was part of the Mars Curiosity Rover Mission, which landed on the planet in August 2012.

“Some of our kids get so caught up in every little grade, every tenth of a grade point average and I don’t think Katie ever was that way,” McGinn said. “She was truly someone who had an intellectual curiosity and wanted to learn.”

McGinn said Katie had a balance of studying and having a “light-hearted approach to high school years.”

“She’d have one low quiz and she’d realize it wasn’t the end of the world,” McGinn said. “She would recoup and come back even stronger with the next academic efforts.”

For her mother, Christine, an all-girl’s Catholic education was a priority for her daughter.

“We believe as parents that spiritual growth is essential in one’s development,” she said in an email to your Catholic Herald. “Katie was able to create a vision for herself through not only her academic work but also through spiritual growth and service to the community. The leadership opportunities allow young women to integrate these many facets of their lives.”

Christine Weiss has been a faculty member at DSHA since 1981 and is the chair of the social studies department. She and her husband, Ron, a counselor for Milwaukee Public Schools, believe Catholic education provides much more than academic or spiritual development.

“We did not want to have our children in an educational environment whose focus would be simply academic success,” she said. “A Catholic high school offered our children an opportunity to explore and grow in their Catholic faith and integrate that into other areas of their life.”

She added it’s been their goal, as a parent, for her children to explore work experiences that they find personally satisfying and challenging.

“Katie’s belief of community, supporting peers at JPL and commitment to service continue to be essential,” she said.

The Weiss’ have two other children – Annemarie and Robert.

Katie said her time in Catholic schools has shaped her way of thinking.

“I actually got a lot out of taking theology and philosophy classes,” she said. “Taking theology and philosophy classes as part of your education really makes you a more well rounded person because it helps you to think about things in a different way.”

Her experiences led her to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Curiosity. On Aug. 14, 2012, years of Katie’s work was put into this mission. She admitted that although everything had been tested thoroughly and passed, there was a part of her that thought it might not work.

“You could’ve cut the tension with a knife,” she said about landing night. “We were all saying, ‘God, I hope this works’… You have to have faith in the work that you did. You have to have faith that you did everything you possibly could to get it on the surface.”

When it landed, the control room erupted with cheers, high fives and hugs.

“The tears were real, the hugs were real,” Katie said.  “This is something we’ve been working for as a team for so long and it finally, finally came to fruition.”