Having grown up in Troy, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Courtney Young is no stranger to the automotive industry. Both her father and her younger brother are automotive engineers, and Young herself began to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Michigan. But, during her sophomore year, she decided to shift gears.

“About two years into the [engineering] program, I thought, ‘I really want to work with words,’ ” said Young. She changed her major to English, receiving her B.A. in 2004, and, because she had already put time into the science requirements for an engineering degree, she also earned a minor in physics.

While applying for Ph.D. programs after graduation, Young received a phone call from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a field research and development center for NASA’s unmanned missions, like the Mars Rover, that is housed in the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. She accepted a job as a technical writer at the lab, editing mission proposals and journal articles. She found the work at NASA interesting, but, in the end, it wasn’t her dream job. “I really wanted to work in books.”

After about two years in Pasadena, Young packed up and headed across the country, arriving in New York City in September 2006. The day after the move, she landed a job as an editorial assistant at Portfolio, Penguin’s business imprint, which was launched five years prior. She worked for Jeffrey Krames, who was editorial director at the time, and then for president, publisher, and founder Adrian Zackheim.

Young was promoted annually at the imprint, rising to senior editor in 2010. In that year, she edited four New York Times bestsellers, including Linchpin by Seth Godin, and All the Devils Are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, which chronicled the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. She described some of her biggest hits at Portfolio as “interesting niche titles,” like 2011’s The Challenger Sale, by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson (“a must-read book for salespeople who specialize in complex customer solutions”).

In April 2012, Young was hired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as a senior editor, with a mandate to acquire a broad list of serious nonfiction. Her list thus far is a healthy mix of science and business titles. “I’m interested in books on culture and technology and how those mix together,” she said. Many of the projects she bought soon after joining HMH publish this spring. In April, there’s Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel, by Jason Padgett and Maureen Ann Seaberg, which is Padgett’s first-person account of becoming an acquired savant after suffering brain trauma during a violent mugging. May brings Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik. In the book, Miodownik examines materials science, a subset of chemistry and mechanical engineering that Young excitedly called “one of her favorite topics.” Stuff Matters, she explained, “deals with how different materials behave in different situations,” adding, “it’s very much rooted in [the] everyday.”

In mid-March, Young announced she acquired a book by Randall Munroe, the creator of the überpopular webcomic and blog Xkcd. (Young said she’s been chasing Munroe for “quite awhile.”) After he wrote about the project on his website on March 12, preorders pushed the book, titled What If, to the #2 spot on Amazon’s bestseller list, six months ahead of its scheduled publication date. “We’ve already received over 10,000 individual preorders in the two weeks since Randall’s announcement,” said Young. The title of the book comes from a section of Munroe’s site where he imagines the scientific implications of hypothetical questions submitted by his readers. Recent scenarios include, “How far would a tungsten countertop descend if I dropped it into the Sun?”; “Has humanity produced enough paint to cover the entire land area of the Earth?”; and “What if we were to dump all the tea in the world into the Great Lakes? How strong, compared to a regular cup of tea, would the lake tea be?”

In the book, Munroe answers some questions with his comics, and others with well-researched essays. “I feel like every single one of these [entries] he could get a master’s degree for,” Young said. And indeed, so much of her sensibility as an editor relates to the notion of education—the ways that a thoughtful, readable presentation can make sense of complex ideas. According to Young, she looks for books that “teach you something about the way the world works—about people, things, a system—but does so under the guise of a really good story.” She added, “If I feel like I’m learning, then it’s worthwhile.”

Age: 32

Current title: Senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Almost became: An engineer

Higher education: B.A., University of Michigan, major in English, minor in physics

Favorite books: The White Album by Joan Didion; [em]The Control of Nature [/em]by John McPhee (“anything by John McPhee, really”); The Power Broker by Robert Caro