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9 to 5

For some, a job may mean little more than punching a clock and waiting for the weekend to roll around. But for these young Marquette alumni, it produces a new Tree of Life, the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a veteran’s memories of war and more.


Monica West

This summer, the Chicago Sun Times called Monica West, Comm ’01, “a delicate, redheaded beauty who is a remarkably subtle and expressive actress.”

That description didn’t surprise Deb Krajec, artistic associate professor of theatre arts, who first encountered West as a Marquette freshman 15 years ago. “She looks like the perfect sweet, young, leading-lady type,” Krajec says.

But there’s much more to West than meets the eye.

“She has a beautiful soprano voice and she’s an amazing dancer. She’s also hysterically funny,” Krajec says. “Everything she did when she arrived on campus ... we were blown away.”

That versatility has sustained West’s career from her portrayal of the lead role of Baby in the Toronto-based production of Dirty Dancing to acclaimed dramatic actress in Looking Glass Theater’s Eastland to now starting a new singing comedy duo, MVPleez.

It hasn’t always been easy for West, who moved to New York shortly before the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was two years before she landed her first job and union card. But all along, she felt prepared through the theatre program and mentorship from Krajec and Professor Phylis Ravel.

“Professor Ravel made no bones about the fact that this is a very difficult career,” West says, remembering her mentor who recently passed away. “However, she always made me feel like I was a performer that could knock people’s socks off, and that’s the kind of confidence you need to succeed.”

Ravel was transforming Marquette’s theatre program to a performance-based curriculum when West came to campus, and the hands-on training of the next four years changed West’s approach to acting. West remembers Ravel’s teachable moments — insights that she uses to this day. In one meeting, Ravel pulled a pencil from her hair, used it to stir her coffee, then explained how what she was doing could define a character for the audience.

Today, West uses similar quirks and gestures when portraying Alison Parker, a professor on MTV’s comedy Underemployed. “It seems random,” West says. “But it gives you some context for the character without having to be really obvious.”

— By Tim Cigelske

  Stefanie Ebbens Kingsley

Standing beside poor people while they navigate the complex legal system isn’t going to make Stefanie Ebbens Kingsley, Law ’05, rich and famous. That doesn’t stop her from loving it.

Ebbens Kingsley is the directing attorney in the Columbia, Ky., office of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund. She provides free legal services to residents in the eastern portion of the state — one of the poorest areas in the nation.

“We are there to ensure that the little people don’t get trampled on,” she says. “We are there to ensure that the scales of justice aren’t tilted toward the ones with the bigger and deeper pockets. It’s definitely a rewarding job when it comes down to standing up for the little guy.”

She works in a five-person office — with just one other lawyer — to cover a seven-county area, typically handling about 100 cases at once.

Much as a public defender’s office handles criminal cases for those who don’t have the means to hire their own lawyers, Kingsley’s office performs a similar function in civil cases that include child custody, divorce, foreclosure, eviction and debt collection.

Yes, the work can be emotionally taxing.

“It’s never an easy thing to watch a parent’s rights get terminated,” she says.

Success stories are rare, but they do occur; recently, Ebbens Kingsley helped people restructure mortgages and stay in their homes.

She is inspired by her predecessors in legal aid and sees the work as a vital counterweight to a system that too often is ruled by money.

She didn’t particularly enjoy law school and credits one of her professors, Rev. Greg O’Meara, S.J., with keeping her on target.

“I would go to his office, have absolute mental breakdowns — ‘Good God, what am I doing here?’ — and he really did a good job of picking up the pieces and continuing to encourage me to be better and do more,” she says.

Ebbens Kingsley eventually found her purpose in the Law School’s Public Interest Law Society, along with some service-oriented internships that steered her toward that aspect of the legal profession.

— By Chris Jenkins

  Brian Castner

Brian Castner, Eng ’99, appeared unscathed after two tours in Iraq. All his wounds were on the inside.

As the leader of an Air Force bomb squad, Castner was surrounded by the horror and tension of war. His subsequent struggle to resume everyday life eventually unleashed a frantic state of mind he calls “the Crazy.” Castner’s recently published book, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, is his attempt to relay those experiences exactly as he felt them.

“I don’t hold your hand for a lot of it,” he says.

In the opening pages, Castner gives a raw description of the carnage caused by a car bomb. “That’s maybe a little shocking — and I have trouble almost seeing that it’s shocking,” Castner says. “It’s like, ‘Well, duh. What do you think happens?’”

Castner graduated from Marquette’s ROTC program, became an Air Force engineer and passed a rigorous training program to join the bomb squad. After several close calls in Iraq, he made it home, only to develop an unshakeable sense of panic that nearly wrecked his family.

Through a combination of therapy, running, yoga and writing — he calls telling his story a “biological need” — Castner eventually learned to manage his trauma.

Today, he and his wife, Jessica (Spencer) Castner, Nurs ’99, live in Buffalo, N.Y., with their four sons. Castner works as a consultant and is writing another book but still recently found time to audit an Irish literature course at Canisius College — a sign, he says, of how much he misses the Jesuit approach to education.

Castner’s favorite professor at Marquette, Dr. James Richie, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, occasionally deviated from engineering to tell stories in class. Richie sometimes cited a book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior.

“He found a copy that was being given away and brought it to me,” Richie says of Castner. “I still have that copy and think of him when I see it on my shelf.”

— By Chris Jenkins

    Matt McDowell

There may be no such thing as certainty in the financial world these days. But given a complex set of data to study, Matt McDowell, Grad ’12, is confident he can determine a strategy for success.

“Strategic planning is the most enjoyable for me,” McDowell says. “It’s something that there’s not an answer to — you can’t look it up in a book. Just a chance to be creative, which is great.”

McDowell is chief financial officer for Northwestern Mutual’s Washington, D.C.-area offices. Recently, he began studying the company’s infrastructure, working toward a long-term plan to support the company’s growth.

“I spend quite a bit of time with my friend, Excel,” he jokes.

McDowell started out in the firm’s Kansas City office. He briefly left to work in corporate finance, only to return a few months later when he was offered a position at the firm’s Milwaukee headquarters. That’s where McDowell found Marquette, earning his M.B.A. in the part-time program. He bonded with classmates, especially during long Saturday sessions. Now he says he’s more ambitious than ever — and, possibly, a little more mature, too.

“If you would have told me seven years ago that I’d be a CFO, I’d be like, ‘Get out of town! That’s going to be awesome,’” McDowell says. “But that was for very selfish reasons, because I just personally wanted to get a better job. But now, the ambitions are around, ‘OK, I’m at a firm and we’ve got a large opportunity here in this marketplace, one of the most interesting marketplaces in the world.’”

To students pursuing a similar career path, McDowell recommends knowing what you’re good at and making the most of any chance to showcase your skills.

“I know I’m not going to get up and give the most dynamic speech or woo people with this great personality,” McDowell says. “For me, it was I could translate abstract concepts and break them down into something that’s more easily understood.”

— By Chris Jenkins

    Dr. Tiffani Williams

If Charles Darwin were alive, he would want to meet Dr. Tiffani Williams, Arts ’94.

Williams is working with 10 scientists on a National Science Foundation-funded project to give science a Tree of Life comprising the world’s known 2 million species. Finally, the idea Darwin nurtured will be fully grown — and fully known.

To explain the project, Williams, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University, uses the analogy of a family tree. “Instead of humans only, the Tree of Life is a family tree of all the world’s species,” she says. It will include flora and fauna, mammals and amphibians, bacteria and fungi, every living thing.

Constructing a comprehensive Tree of Life is one of the largest computational challenges yet undertaken. But Williams, who discovered a love for computing on her Commodore 64 in eighth grade, is an expert at high-performance, or parallel, computing. She writes algorithms that enable computers working together to solve different aspects of complicated problems.

“Anything I’m into is rooted in computational challenges,” she says.

The idea of applying high-performance computing to phylogenetics also touches Williams, who earned a doctorate in computer science at the University of South Florida, on another level.

“The Tree of Life has a spiritual layer of meaning that’s interesting to me. It says all of life is related. I find that a powerful concept,” she says.

The research team is pulling millions of known trees of life into a central repository for analysis. Williams and others will look for connections and layers where the trees overlap and then design algorithms to assemble the puzzle into an overarching open Tree of Life that can continually grow to keep pace with new knowledge.

“The goal of our group is to show it can be done,” Williams says, “and then it’s up to the community of scientists and hobbyists to go and refine it. Our tree will be the seed to show people it’s possible.”

— By Joni Moths Mueller

    Molly McKenna Jandrain

For Molly McKenna Jandrain, Comm ’01, the words “I’m lovin’ it” are a brand campaign she helped launch in Germany in 2003 and how she describes her professional life.

She’s a member of a McFamily, has been called a Golden Goddess and jokes that colleagues say ketchup runs through their veins. OK, enough hints, Jandrain is director of public relations for McDonald’s USA. Has anyone born in the United States since 1955 not fallen under the spell of Chicken McNuggets or Shamrock Shakes?

“It’s an exciting and busy brand to work for,” Jandrain agrees. “I love working with a large consumer brand you can touch and feel.”

She means really large. In the United States alone, 25 million people eat or drink at McDonald’s every day.

Jandrain, who was born the year the Happy Meal was introduced, joined the corporation in 2001 as a public relations intern. She became a global communications supervisor in 2002, spent several years supporting public relations initiatives around the world and assumed her current post in 2012. She has helped drive branding campaigns, represented McDonald’s global sponsorship at five Olympic Games and managed communication around new product lines such as McCafé specialty coffees. She’s also a founding member of the McDonald’s Twitter team and reserves one day a week for tweeting news and talking online with “mommy bloggers.”

Making sure McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries offer customers the best experience requires planning. Menus are localized. In India, that means burgers made of lamb. In China, Happy Meals come with corn instead of apples. In Sweden, restaurants offer drive-thru windows for snowmobilers. When McDonald’s offers a new item — well, it’s only new to customers. The item has been tested for up to three years.

“We’re always evolving,” Jandrain says. “It’s part of our journey. We take the approach that we won’t change overnight but we need to be there for our customers and be what they want from us.”

— By Joni Moths Mueller

    Caitlin Andrews

Before coming to Marquette, Caitlin Andrews, Comm ’09, hadn’t even visited Washington, D.C. Now she’s on K Street, working blocks from the White House and immersed in the twists and turns that comprise the legislative process.

Andrews is a communication and research specialist for the policy resolution group at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, where she tracks legislation and crafts strategic messages for clients. She and a co-worker recently kept tabs on one provision in a bill to help a client understand what might happen next.

“I looked at him and said, ‘You know, this is a lot more complicated than they teach you in Intro to Government,’” Andrews says, referring to Marquette course work.

Clearly, she’s getting the hang of it. She made PR News’ “15 to watch” list in 2011 and is on track to earn a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Not bad, considering it wasn’t so long ago that she arrived on campus a fresh-man from Houston who didn’t even own a winter coat.

Andrews soon felt at home in Milwaukee and then found her purpose in D.C. the summer after junior year, through her experiences at the Les Aspin Center for Government.

“To be working in a federal government office building and walking around near the monuments, it was just fascinating,” she says. “It was exciting, and I couldn’t wait to move back as soon as I graduated.”

Chris Murray, a visiting instructor at the center, says Andrews’ experience is common for students in the program. “Often times, they do have a kind of dramatic transformation,” he says. “They decide this is where they want to be.”

While a student at Marquette, Andrews was an organizer for the Obama campaign and had internships with U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, both Democrats. Working at Bracewell & Giuliani — yes, that is former New York mayor and one-time Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani on the marquee — has taught her the value of bipartisanship.

“I’ve learned a lot working in this firm about the way that Washington really works,” Andrews says. “If you want to accomplish anything for your client, it is very important to work in a bipartisan fashion.”

— By Chris Jenkins

    Katie Weiss

Inspiration comes in many forms. For Katie Weiss, Eng ’01, it was seeing the movie Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan as a kid. Suddenly Weiss knew what she was meant to do.

“It changed my world,” she says. “I wanted to be on board that ship exploring the universe. I wanted to be in that reality. And I spent my entire life from that point on working to make that happen.”

Fast forward to August 2012 when Weiss was part of a team of NASA scientists hollering, hugging and crying with joy as the unmanned Curiosity rover landed successfully on Mars.

“This was our baby,” Weiss says. “We put everything into that rover, working tirelessly together for years. A little part of each of us is on Mars right now.”

Weiss, a senior flight software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked on the project’s avionics management and fault protection programs. The project was ambitious. A writer for the London daily The Telegraph compared landing the rover on its intended spot on Mars to a golfer hitting a hole-in-one in Scotland — swinging from Los Angeles.

“You can’t help but think, ‘I know in principle this is supposed to work, and we’ve tested the heck out of it and we’ve seen it work,’” Weiss says. “‘But is this really going to work all the way on Mars?’”

After tense moments, the successful touchdown was an emotional release for team members.

“Everyone was yelling, ‘It worked! We did it! We actually did it!’” Weiss says. “It was one of the most amazing and fulfilling moments of my life.”

For Weiss, it was her latest step forward in a field in which men still largely out-number women. At Marquette, she was the only female student in her computer engineering class. At NASA, she was the only female flight software developer on a 35-person team.

Weiss advises Marquette students to pursue well-rounded life experiences instead of fixating on grades. She follows her own advice by teaching fitness classes at a gym near her home in California. But hard work, she says, was the only way she made it to Mars.

“It has not been an easy road,” Weiss says. “You have to be strong and have a lot of determination. But if you have the resolve to hold on to your dream, you can achieve it. No doubt.”

— By Chris Jenkins

    John Peronto

The tallest or largest or greenest or boldest — these are the purview of Chicago-based engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti. “We definitely do the more flashy architectural jobs,” says John Peronto, an associate at TT.

He would know. Peronto is a structural engineer whose portfolio of projects features some pretty flashy entries, including the 150-story Chicago Spire; one of the world’s largest airplane hangars, in Memphis, Tenn.; the Federation of Korean Industries headquarters in Seoul; and Meraas Tower in Dubai.

Since 2009, Peronto’s focus has been a project that will tower over those architectural achievements. He is a member of the team designing the world’s tallest building, Kingdom Tower, to be built in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. When finished, it will stand more than a kilometer tall and send the definition of skyscraper into a new stratosphere.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” he says, “the most challenging of my career.”

Peronto came to Marquette to study electrical engineering. Then he took a course on statics, which is engineering for construction to withstand gravity, aerodynamics and seismic forces, taught by Dr. Christopher Foley, professor and chair of civil, construction and environmental engineering. He also worked in the construction field prior to his time at Marquette. “My background and classes with Dr. Foley carried my interests into structural and mechanical engineering,” he says.

Peronto went on to earn five degrees in five years, including a M.Eng in civil engineering at Cornell while working with Weidlinger Associates in New York. He’s been with Thornton Tomasetti for eight years.

“I am privileged to work with some of the brightest engineers and architects, people who are at the top of their game,” he says.

Peronto brings his knowledge back to campus, teaching engineering students at Marquette and Cornell. “It’s refreshing to see students who are so motivated and passionate about engineering,” he says. 

— By Joni Moths Mueller


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