Profile: Michele Judd, Executive Director, W.M. Keck Institute for Space Studies

Profile: Michele Judd, Executive Director, W.M. Keck Institute for Space Studies

In 1988, Mobil Oil Field foreman Michele Judd stood on top of an oil platform in Paso Robles, California. She did not give much thought to the day ending or the stars coming out. To Judd, this simply signified that the workday was finishing and most of her workers would be heading home, leaving just a skeleton crew to work through the night.

But years later, she remembers looking up into the darkening sky, wondering what it would be like working on projects high in space rather than working with materials deep in the earth.

Judd was born in Los Angeles, California. Her father is from New Zealand, and her mother is from Western Samoa. From ages five to 12, Judd lived in New Zealand.

Back in the United States for high school, Judd wanted to get somewhere fast. She went to a high school teacher she admired and asked him what career she should choose to bring her a steady, solid paycheck and attain independence as soon as possible. 

“He thought about it and asked for a day to consider,” Judd recalled. “He came back the next day with his answer. Petroleum Engineering.” 

Judd was off. She enrolled at Stanford University to attain a degree in the field, heavy in chemistry, physics and math.

“I didn’t particularly like the field as my strengths and skills lay in more creative outlets. I would have been good at anything; the teachers were amazing; the students were amazing,” Judd admitted.

She stuck with it and graduated as one of ten future Petroleum Engineers in her class. They would be the ones to take the “black gold” out of the ground and process it after the Petroleum Geologists found it.

After Stanford, Judd was hired by Mobil Oil as a Field Foreman in Paso Robles. As the only woman on the team, she developed her personal working style of cutting through the unnecessary roadblocks and focusing on getting the work done. 

“I did my job and they had to accept it,” Judd shrugged, downplaying her obvious can-do attitude.

She was at Pasco Robles for three years, then moved on to Lost Hills, California as a Production Foreman.

“I learned how best to lead teams and develop an overarching vision to achieve goals,” Judd said of her time in Lost Hills. 

After two and a half years she took these skills to an oil field in Maricopa, California and implemented what she had learned to build quality control processes and loss prevention.

“I was then promoted to the head of training for U.S. Operations in Dallas and worked on a graduate degree in Organizational Development at Southern Methodist University,” Judd explained. “Mobil sent me to various locations to train staff before I was given a job in the office of Strategic Planning for the President of Mobil Exploration & Production of all the U.S.” 

Her career with Mobil ended in 1999 when Mobil Oil merged with Exxon, formerly Standard Oil Company. Disliking Exxon’s environmental record, she decided it was time to move on. She launched a consulting company that specialized in team building, inclusion, diversity and change management in technical environments.

An opportunity presented itself when Judd became aware of a training position with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She recalled there were over 200 applicants for the position, and they interviewed seven people. 

“I felt I did well in the interview, but I could tell there was something holding my interviewers back from realizing that,” Judd recalled. “I told them, ‘I really want this job and I know I am the best candidate you have.’”

Judd had presented a spreadsheet connecting her skills and strengths with the qualities they were looking for. She remembers the committee admitted to her that they appreciated her experience but finally came out and told her they felt she was too loud and forceful, and they had concerns with how she would be able to successfully coach with these traits. 

“I said, ‘Oh good, that’s all. I can adjust my persona to accommodate that concern.’” 

With her years managing groups and training, she was confident, and she conveyed that to the committee. She got the job.

Judd was in Human Resources at JPL for 8 years. Speaking of her accomplishments there, she recalled how she “successfully coached different groups to survey their strengths, helped software teams develop better communication strategies, conducted 360-degree evaluations, and promoted team organization across different disciplines.”

Then, in 2008, a new institute within JPL and Caltech was established: the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS). With a $24 million grant over 8 years from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Keck Institute would work to better integrate and align the goals of Caltech and JPL. On their website, KISS describes itself as a “think and do tank” aimed at developing new space mission concepts and technology.

Dr. Tom Prince, Professor of Physics at Caltech and Senior Research Scientist at JPL, would head the Institute. Prince and a search committee immediately began looking for an Executive Director to ensure the KISS goals were realized. Judd says she sensed this was the right next step.

The search committee appreciated Judd’s background and strengths but wondered if the institute needed someone with more of a scientific and technical background or more relevant experience. Prince considered all the candidates and knew just how important Judd’s expertise and leadership would be to drive this newly formed entity to success. 

“Judd is the one to help me with this,” she recalled Prince saying. And so it came to be. Since 2008, Judd has worked alongside Prince in directing the path and goals of KISS.

Leslie Maxfield, Caltech’s Director of Academic Media Technologies & Communications remembers that when they first met, Judd only wanted to talk about management styles. That led to discussions on vision, high standards and expectations. 

“She was very determined to present KISS in the best possible way to communicate the tremendous liaison they facilitate between JPL and Caltech,” said Maxfield. “Judd is always open to new ideas or other processes to get KISS’ message across. She has high expectations and wants perfect product, which exactly fits our goal.”

Maxfield’s team is charged with showcasing KISS workshops and lectures. One of the ultimate projects they work on is the bi-annual Caltech Space Challenge, a unique event designed to build technical and teamwork skills and help inspire the next generation of aerospace leaders. Thirty-two individuals are selected from a large pool of talented and motivated undergraduate and graduate student applicants in a wide range of fields representing engineering, science, business, graphical design, and others. Invited participants will come to Caltech during spring break every two years and join one of two sixteen-member teams. Teams have just five days to design their mission from scratch to final proposal, after which a panel of judges from industry, government, and academia selects the winning proposal based on technical merit, innovation, and presentation.

Maxfield’s team was tasked with capturing highlights of the challenge in preparation for the Space Challenge Dinner honoring the winner of the competition. They had two days to put the presentation together, from when the winning team was chosen until the announcement at the awards dinner. Maxfield’s team came through and Judd was very pleased with the media results. 

“Judd goes out of her way to show her appreciation for everything you do for her. She makes you want to do the best you can do,” said Maxfield.

The two Space Challenge co-chairs that year, Fabien Royer and Simon Toedtli, reported greatly enjoyed working with Judd. They admitted, “Co-chairing the event was a huge responsibility and having a successful, accomplished director to guide us in the two-year gearing-up phase was instrumental in the success of the Challenge.”

“You have to like people to be a good leader, to control a group, and Judd has that trait,” Royer added.

KISS facilitates a variety of workshops, including searching for Techno Signatures (any measurable property or effect that provides scientific evidence of past or present technology), biosignatures (signals of the presence of life, whether intelligent or not), as well as on topics like building habitats on Mars. They facilitate scientists meeting with architects and communicators to bring different perspectives together. Another workshop at Beckman Auditorium showed live film from the Mars InSight Lander with a panel discussion. Attendees have joked that they are “ruined” for future workshops since KISS’s were so amazing. And that has a ripple effect. 

Janet Seid, Senior Program Coordinator at KISS, has worked with Judd for five years. Seid shared that Judd is the driving force for the Institute and makes everyone feel a big part of the team. “Once anyone has participated in a workshop, they are always a part of the KISS family.”

Today, KISS is the #12 think tank in the United States and #32 worldwide, according to the Think Tank and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Judd has come a very long way from that oil platform in Paso Robles. She’s convinced that the Keck Institute for Space Studies will leave a legacy in space exploration. Reflecting on her past and future, she pondered, “If you achieved your life’s dream, would it be disappointing? Would you still want more? Or would you know that was enough?”

For Judd, she decided, it is the latter – she is satisfied that she has contributed at the highest level.