“I can build leadership skills I wouldn’t have developed as quickly in a standard work experience.”

In her junior and senior undergraduate years, Linda Leung fulfilled the dream job of nerds, or at least Star Wars enthusiasts, worldwide: she developed simulation models for ion propulsion engines, the real world technology behind the fictional TIE (Twin Ion Engine) fighters made famous in George Lucas’ science fiction epics. “In real life, ion propulsion would never work for fighters,” Linda explains. “It just doesn’t create enough acceleration. But it might be perfect for deep space travel in which efficiency is more important than force.” Her investigations, part of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratories’ research into potential flights to Mars, reflect one of Linda’s lifelong ambitions: “To work on things no has worked on before.”

From plasma physics to online advertising

Although Linda retains a fascination with physics, by the time she completed her BA degree at the University of California, Berkeley she realized she did not want to make physics her career. “Science in theory,” she says, “was more interesting to me than science in practice. As a career scientist, I wouldn’t be able to create the kind of difference in the world that I wanted to make.”

Seeking opportunities to “have more immediate impact using my quantitative skills,” Linda took on consulting roles at Keystone Strategy where she discovered an interest in online advertising and search engine technology. “It’s all so new,” Linda says. “Like physics, you can do pioneering work on previously unexplored things.” After further work in the field with CBS Interactive, where she was responsible for the ad inventories of renowned sites such as CNET.com, ZDnet.com, and CBSnews.com, she decided the best way to move forward would be to pursue an MBA. “My past work was very analytical, about optimizing products already created by other people,” says Linda. “I wanted to move into product development itself.”

Leadership that recognizes potential

For Linda, HBS stood out as the MBA choice that was “net present value positive for the long-term” by virtue of its emphasis on visionary leadership, on what Linda believes is the ability to “see and articulate the future potential of a thing based on limited current inputs.” For someone shifting from analytical to development roles, HBS offers unique learning opportunities. “At HBS, I can build leadership skills I wouldn’t have developed as quickly in a standard work experience.”

“Here, I’m exposed to smart, accomplished people from all types of backgrounds,” Linda says. “In my first semester, I sat next to the best downhill skier in Cyprus. In a case we discussed about business corruption in developing countries, we heard from a UK lawyer who had direct professional experience of the issue – you just can’t get that kind of perspective anywhere else.” While she loves the case study experience, her favorite class so far has been FIELD 3 in which she and her team are developing a snap-on attachment that allows cyclists to use high-performance road bikes while wearing ordinary shoes. “Getting exposure to actually making something is eye-opening,” she says. “FIELD 3 forces us to apply the high-level strategies and plans that we would ordinarily just talk about in class.”