Gretchen McClain, who graduated from the University of Utah’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and helped lead NASA’s International Space Station program, was honored on Founders Day.

University of Utah engineering alumna, Gretchen McClain, has impacted technologies ranging from cell phone interconnects to robotics for spacecraft. At the U’s annual Founders Day banquet on Feb. 24, she was one of several distinguished alumni honored for their contributions.

Inspired by her father, a Penn State engineering graduate, McClain was surrounded by science and engineering from a young age. Her journey began at the University of Utah, where she earned a degree in mechanical engineering. She was among family: McClain’s husband, brother and sister are all College of Engineering graduates, and her nephew is currently studying mechanical engineering at the U.

She also cites U distinguished professor of mechanical engineering Larry DeVries with sparking her enthusiasm for her chosen profession. “He was so influential in keeping me interested in engineering and showing me the bigger picture. As an instructor, he was just phenomenal,” McClain says.

After graduating from the U, McClain rose quickly through engineering positions in design, program management and structural dynamics before achieving her lifelong dream of working for NASA. As deputy associate administrator for space development, she was responsible for the successful development and launch of the International Space Station. This role gave her “a unique viewpoint, where I could connect pieces across systems,” she says.

“It taught me the most important principle of my career, which is the value of teamwork. You can’t do it all yourself, but you can be the best at the piece you are responsible for. If there’s a weak link in the armor, you have to drop what you are doing and help someone else. Together, we were able to make the launch happen,” McClain says.

Fluctuating financial support from the government also led to some unusual teamwork experiences: not only was NASA working with the European Space Agency, but Russia became a partner in the program as well. This turn of events brought new challenges, McClain says, but once the team got past residual competitiveness and language barriers, they were able to learn a great deal from one another. She received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for her service.

Motivated to make an impact in the private sector, McClain left NASA for Allied Signal (now Honeywell International), which broadened her horizons even further beyond engineering. As chief technology officer, she managed Honeywell’s portfolio of aviation-related businesses and learned about their commercial aspects. In 2011, these diverse leadership experiences led to her role as president and CEO of Xylem, Inc., a leading global water technology company dedicated to solving the world’s most challenging water issues. She left Xylem in 2013 and has since served as a member of the boards of both AMETEK and Booz Allen Hamilton.

As a role model for women in engineering, McClain says she has been fortunate to have a strong network of peers and mentors and a supportive family. McClain met her husband in her strength of materials class at the U, and says that throughout her career he has been both her “biggest support and biggest critic—he’s always proud of me, but knows I can do more.”

“Listening, learning and recognizing what you can apply from your previous experiences is critical—you can never stop learning,” McClain says. “At the same time, you need to have confidence in the talents you have. Women are often more critical of themselves, but we have to remember we are at the table because we are good at what we do.”

Other 2015 U graduates and honorees recognized at the Founders Day event include Gregory Goff, CEO of Tesoro; Brent C. James, chief quality officer for Intermountain Health Care; Clayton J. Parr, an energy and natural resources attorney in Utah; and John and Melody Taft, who donated land in Montana to the University of Utah in 2012 for a new Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Education Center.

Gretchen has graciously agreed to visit the department as part of our Distinguished Speaker Seminar Series the afternoon of Friday, March 27. This will be a free event, open to the public that no one will want to miss. Her seminar announcement with details are forthcoming.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah is committed to providing students with broad-based, rigorous and progressive education. By combining state-of-the-art facilities with renowned faculty, the department provides an education that gives students the necessary skills to become the next generation of innovators.