Alumni Tales | 01 Valerie Koller
Dreaming of Space and Supernovas
When Valerie Koller was a little girl, she dreamt of space – The infinite and vast nature of the universe. “Don’t we all look up and wonder what’s out there?” Little did she know back then that someday she would work for the European Space Agency – through a string of connections she made at swissnex Boston. Today, we’re telling Valerie’s story.
When Valerie started her degree in Mathematics, her fate was pretty much set in stone – or so she thought. “When you study Maths, people in Switzerland automatically assume that you’ll become a teacher or a financial adviser. I started to internalize this idea and not consider other options,” she says.
Yet when her graduation day was looming, she felt like she needed a break to pursue new impulses, outside the world of academia. “I’m genuinely curious about the advancement of technology and humanity. I wanted to find my niche in society, as a Mathematician, without being restricted to technical Maths.” She saw the job posting for a Junior Project Manager position at swissnex and immediately applied. Two days after her graduation, Valerie was in Boston.
The Boston Blues
At first, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. By late January, the city was covered in snow. Dark. Freezing. “My room was dirty and expensive. I did not know anyone in the city – there were times when I just wanted to go home,” she admits.
Her job as a Junior Project Manager at swissnex Boston was challenging. She was given a lot of freedom when she was used to guidance. Valerie had never really managed a project before. On top of it all: she had to network. Valerie is not shy or introverted, but it does take guts to talk to the leading figures in science, innovation and the arts.
But spring sprung and with it, the sun came out. The entirety of Boston flocked to the streets. Valerie took her bike everywhere – The beaches in Ipswich, along Charles River, the nearby mountains, on the T and through the hustle and bustle of Downtown Boston.
Suddenly, her job got easier. She gained confidence, was less hesitant to voice her ideas and found joy in making mistakes – and learning from them. At the end of her 6 months internship, she had successfully planned, managed and implemented events in Boston and New York.
Revived childhood dreams
When she talks about her time in Boston, Valerie gets nostalgic. “Cambridge is such a beautiful place to live. I met all these people, just by being physically present in Boston. Most of them have exciting jobs and some even worked in the space industry or related fields. One time, I randomly bumped into a guy who works for a laboratory at NASA”. Her fascination with space has not waned.
The exchange with like-minded people made her realize that her destiny was not written. “People kept asking me about my future and my projects. That’s when I realized that there are other options than becoming a Maths teacher. I can pursue my dream.” She shared her interest in space related jobs with a colleague at swissnex Boston. Luck would have it, he connected her with a person who connected her with a person who works at the European Space Agency. And that’s where Valerie went next.
Of supernovas and space startups
She completed an internship with the ESA’s Strategy Department and went back to university to finish her master’s. She’s currently writing her thesis – which of course is related to astrophysics: the simulation and modeling of supernovas. Valerie still dreams of working in the space industry, maybe a Swiss space startup or – and that’s a big one – SpaceX: “Space has really gained momentum in Europe. It’s a good time to enter the industry. My experience at swissnex Boston and ESA have really provided me with a good insight into the space startup ecosystem and the world of science in general,” she says.
Thinking back at her time in Boston, she speaks very fondly about her experience. “I enjoyed the richness of everything that was going on. You meet so many people who do cool things. Nerdy things. But I like that a lot”. When asked about her advice for future employees at swissnex Boston, she says: “Be like a sponge and soak up as much as you can. Enjoy the freedom that you’re given and don’t be afraid to speak up”.
Time in Boston: January 2016 (6 months)
Position: Junior Project Manager
Interview conducted & story written by Daniela Chiani (Content Manager, October 2018 – June 2019)
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