What SpongeBob Taught Me About Life: Dual Master’s Student Reflects on Growth, Passion

Christine Portanova
Christine Portanova says that the creator of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon series was her “biggest source of inspiration” in pursuing two master’s degrees simultaneously from Embry-Riddle. (Photo: Sidus Space)

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in Spaceflight Operations from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Christine Portanova knew that she wanted to continue on to grad school, but she was conflicted. She loved space, aviation, engineering, entrepreneurship and animation — how could she choose just one career path?

Then she remembered “SpongeBob SquarePants,” a cartoon she used to watch when she was growing up.

“The creator of SpongeBob, Stephen Hillenburg, majored in natural resource planning with a focus in marine biology,” she said, adding that he later earned a master’s in animation. “He was both a scientist and animator, as well as a director, writer and producer. There is much more to life than just one degree path!”

That settled it. Portanova enrolled in Embry-Riddle’s dual Master of Business Administration and Master of Science in Systems Engineering program — two degrees that she is currently on track to complete by late 2025 or early 2026.

Additionally, soon after graduating with her bachelor’s in 2022, she landed a job at Sidus Space, where she works as a flight controller at the company's Merritt Island, Florida, facility, overseeing satellite subsystems, ground operations and flight control systems.

"To work as a flight controller while pursuing my graduate studies is a dream come true," Portanova said in a recent LinkedIn post. "The work provides me with invaluable hands-on experience in satellite operations, and every day is a new opportunity to learn and grow.”

A first-generation college student, Portanova recognizes that the challenges she’s faced so far have only made her triumphs more rewarding.

“One of the most challenging things was learning so much all at once,” she said of entering the workforce while pursuing two graduate degrees. “It is just information overload when you get into industry, but it is one of the best feelings of overwhelm you can experience. This journey has been incredibly empowering so far, and I am eager to continue learning.”

So Much More Ahead

For Dr. Samantha Bowyer (COA), an associate professor of Aeronautical Science who met Portanova while developing a college gateway program for high school students, a key element of Portanova’s success so far has been her willingness to get involved.

“She was one of the first students to stay after school and come to meetings during lunch to help create our vision statement, mission statement and general gameplan for what the program would look like,” Bowyer said. “And the program is still going strong! She’s a wonderful woman, and I’m very proud of her.”

For the past two years, Portanova has also served as president of the local Society of Women in Space Exploration chapter, which has led her toward various mentorship positions. It was in those positions that she suddenly realized that she could be a role model for younger generations.

“I am quite interested in being a source of positivity for other young women and girls,” she said. “Although it was scary at first, persevering and keeping an open mind helped me get through everything. I always say, ‘The best is yet to come! Focus on yourself and keep your eyes on the prize.’”

It all started with cartoons for Portanova, and she still intends to make animation a part of her life in the future. In fact, one of her goals — in addition to earning a Ph.D. — is to grow her production company, then pitch a short film about a princess who travels the galaxy inspiring young girls to pursue STEM careers to a major studio.

But first, she wants to help mankind get to Mars.

“My dream is to be part of the team that launches the first manned mission to Mars,” she said. “I have so many plans for the future, although I can't exactly know how they will all play out yet.”

Still, she believes in the power of dreaming.

“I dreamt about where I am now, and it turned out better than I could have ever imagined,” she said.

Posted In: Business | Engineering | Space