A friend recently
sent me an article about a former NASA intern
who shut down a guy on dating app Hinge after he insulted her intelligence. In
response to her prompt that the dorkiest thing about her was that she worked at
NASA, he followed with “So what are you, the receptionist? Jk, you look
reasonably smart.” She proceeded to serve him some wisdom:
Initially this infuriated me because this sort of response is something that is not foreign to me. As a female navigating a field dominated by men, I’ve encountered my fair share of stereotypes and biases. On my first internship during my undergraduate studies, I remember the receptionist telling me I was too bubbly to be an engineer. Although I’m sure it wasn’t her intention to insult me and I certainly didn’t take particular offense to the comment, it really made me think about what the all male staff in the office thought about my abilities as an engineer.
In my final year of undergrad, I interviewed several engineering students for a research paper focused retention of engineering students, particularly women. One of my close friends revealed to me for the first time that on several of her internships she often dressed in baggy, masculine clothing so as not to stand out. When she told me this, my heart broke a little bit. For all the times that I’d felt out of place in the classroom because I was too girly, or too loud, too bubbly, I suddenly recognized that I wasn’t the only one. Sadly, however, this isn’t a product of engineering, or of being a woman, it is a product of our society deciding for us what we ought to look like, sound like, who we should be if we choose a particular field of work. Our career and our job title are just that-titles. They do not define who we are, but what we do for 40 hours every week. The hashtag #ILookLikeanEngineer is a reminder that we can dress, talk, look, and sound how we want and we all deserve to be respected in the fields in which we work. We all look like engineers.
When I started my studies as an engineering student at RIT, I had no idea what engineers did, just that I wanted to be one so that I could score my dream job at NASA. When I speak at outreach events I often get asked by young people, “What does your average day at work look like?” So, as I celebrate my one year work-iversary, what better way to explain than to run through my average day at work as I’ve experienced it over the last year?
I currently work at NASA Johnson Space Center in the Aircraft Operations Division’s Engineering Branch. We provide sustaining engineering support and upgrades to JSC’s fleet of more than 25 aircraft which support astronaut Spaceflight Readiness Training, fly airborne science missions all over the world, and provide direct return services to our astronauts when they land back on Earth from the International Space Station. I wanted to give you a (very) small glimpse into what a typical day might look like for an engineer working in my field.
8:00: I generally arrive at work between 7 and 8 a.m. depending on what’s planned for the day. I start by catching up on e-mails and checking in with the Gulfstream mechanics to see if they have any questions pertaining to ongoing tasks I may have requested them to work on through an Engineering Work Order
9:00: On Wednesday mornings our Gulfstream team of engineers, pilots, maintenance, and the program manager gets together to discuss the status of the program. This is an opportunity to get everyone on the same page with the schedule and status of both our GIII and GV jets.
Background: Our Gulfstream GV
has recently returned from Georgia where it was modified to include two large
cutouts in the bottom of the aircraft. Two fused silica optical glass windows
will soon be installed in the nadir viewports to better serve our Airborne
I’ve been designated as the GV Window Systems Engineer. In this role I am responsible for ensuring our windows are cleaned, handled, and maintained properly. This is an important task as each of these windows costs upwards of $25,000 and take approximately 8 weeks to manufacture. In this role I am also responsible for using fracture mechanics principles to ensure that the proper time to failure of the window has been calculated to keep our aircrew and customers safe during science flights. If damage is discovered on the windows, I am responsible for providing engineering disposition. I love that I am able to apply some of the concepts I learned in graduate school to my job and doing so has helped to build self-confidence in my technical abilities as they relate to engineering.
10:00: Although we have the option to use other materials (stretched acrylic has recently been found to have fantastic optical quality while being lighter, more cost effective, and easier to maintain), our first customer has chosen to utilize fused silica. This material has great optical clarity but is highly susceptible to damage and static fatigue. After receiving a piece of glass, we perform a “receiving inspection” to ensure no damage is present and to check that the manufacturer has provided us with a piece of glass that meets the specifications we requested on the order.
of the first projects assigned to me upon starting full-time at NASA was to get
both Gulfstream aircraft ready to support the Commercial Crew Program by
providing capability to transport up to four astronauts directly from their
spacecraft’s landing site back to Houston. It’s important to get them back as
quickly as possible so that valuable science data isn’t lost.
Commercial Crew office coordinates with Commercial Crew partners Boeing and
SpaceX who will soon launch astronauts to the International Space Station from
the U.S. These upcoming launches are exciting because they will be the first
time we have launched Americans to the ISS from U.S. soil since the Space
Shuttle was retired in 2011.
12:00: I hold a CDR (Critical Design Review) to get buyoff from both the customer (Commercial Crew Program) and important Aircraft Operations Division and Engineering Branch management to ensure they are comfortable moving forward with my designs. If any action items or safety concerns are brought up by attendees at the meeting, it will be my responsibility to make any necessary changes to the design in order to receive final approval to modify the aircraft. These design reviews are reminiscent of the design reviews I was responsible for holding during Senior Design class in undergrad. I must walk management through the customer requirements and how I plan to meet them, my design and what I plan to modify on the aircraft, complete a risk analysis that the safety engineers must sign off on, and my projected budget and schedule as well as maintenance impacts.
1:00: I head out to the hangar to meet the vendor that will be installing carpet in the aircraft for my Commercial Crew aircraft modification project. I pick the carpet color and discuss where they will need to cut the carpet in order to accommodate existing seating as well as equipment I will be adding for my project. I’m a very hands-on person so one of my favorite parts of this job is that I can go out to the hangar, get on the airplane, and check measurements or whatever else I need to see in order to better complete my project.
3:00: At CDR, 90% of the design must be complete. I have two aircraft installation drawings to complete so that it is clear for the mechanics where the beds and oxygen tanks I have included in my design should be installed in the aircraft. I work on these drawings using Creo which is a 3D modeling software. Most mechanical engineers learn some sort of CAD software as a part of their undergraduate curriculum. Don’t worry if your employer utilizes a different software from the one you learned in school. Many jobs will either provide or send you to training, or give you the time to learn how to use it on the job.
This is just a snapshot of a typical day at work for me. I love that I have the freedom to work on different tasks within a day so that I am never bored or stuck doing one thing. I thoroughly enjoy the hands-on nature of my work and the fact that I am surrounded by aircraft on a daily basis. This is just one example of the many exciting career paths available to engineers today. Keep checking back to connect and learn more about me as I update the site with more stories, resources, and support to help you confidently thrive in the world of STEM.
I often get asked if you need a Master’s degree to XYZ (i.e. become an astronaut, work for NASA, be a respected, successful engineer, you name it). My answer is generally no, you do not NEED it but I always follow it with an important caveat. I think getting an advanced degree can be incredibly beneficial for several reasons. Here are my top four:
It’s an investment. Grad school was an incredible investment I made in myself. There was not a single day that passed during those two years where I didn’t question my decision because the process was extremely challenging. When I start to feel discouraged I remind myself that the things most worth having in life seldom come easy. Life’s biggest struggles often produce the best results-stick with it!
You’ll grow your self-confidence. Although I learned many important lessons throughout grad school, most importantly I would argue, is that I learned an invaluable lesson in self-confidence both as a woman and an engineer. Yes there were days where I experienced imposter syndrome (more on that in a separate blog post), but the amount of pride I felt in knowing that I succeeded through the struggle is one of my life’s proudest moments. I emerged with the knowledge that I had learned to think critically and developed an ability to solve problems independently.
It allows you to focus your interests. Although I had taken a couple of aerospace classes over the course of my undergraduate education, I chose to focus my efforts on the general field of mechanical engineering for my bachelor’s degree. I had my sights set on a career in aviation/space from the beginning but kept in mind that my interests may shift down the road. Grad school gave me the opportunity to finally narrow in on the aerospace field in a more specialized way with the security that I could market myself to businesses in aviation, oil and gas, automotive, robotics, healthcare, etc if my interests or career opportunities shifted.
It sets you apart from your peers. According to the 2015 U.S. Census*, only 12% of the population over the age of 25 holds an advanced degree. Due to the pretty widely understood rigor of graduate school, you’ll likely emerge an “expert” in at least one specialized area and can use that to better market yourself to an employer. Not to mention that individuals with an advanced degree can often negotiate a higher starting salary and will earn more in their lifetime.
Have questions about graduate school? Leave me a message and I’ll do my best to answer it!