The Next Generation of Female Engineers FAA female engineers share the personal experiences that led them to a career in Engineering

On February 23, we join the engineering community in celebrating 'Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,' also known simply as Girl Day. In past years, we have focused on female engineers with a rich history of engineering experience in the FAA. This year we also included newly hired female engineers and their personal experiences that led them to a career in Engineering Services. Many of the women we interviewed this year had family members who were engineers and helped open their minds to the possibility of an engineering career.

Laura Schneider’s father is a biomedical engineer who loves his work. She knew she was good at math, science, and solving problems, so engineering was a perfect fit for her, too. “I think people are doing a lot more to get women involved in the field,” she relates. When Laura reached the University of Virginia, she was surprised to find half of her college engineering classes were filled with women. While that was great to see, she acknowledges that her experience in college probably doesn’t reflect the norm. Laura taught engineering and drafting classes in high school for six years, but getting girls to join her classes was a challenge. Bringing girls in her classes to “Girls in Engineering Day” and introducing them to the engineering community was a memorable experience.

Camille with her mother at Stonehenge.

Camille Soutiere’s mother works for the US Army Corp of Engineers, so she grew up listening to her talk about work at the dinner table. In high school, she realized “I wasn’t drawn to English/History/Art classes because I felt there was no right answer, so long as you could defend your position.” Instead she was drawn to something more defined, and liked the challenge of engineering. Camille’s biggest dream is to be able to take people to a place where she built something and say, “Look at that. I designed and built that over 10 years ago and it’s still here!”

A recent survey showed that 27 percent of male freshmen in high school were interested in engineering as compared to 8 percent of freshman girls. It has been suggested that a lack of female engineering role models may very well play a part in the low numbers.
Arielle (far right) on Hidden Figures panel.

Aerielle Karr was recently on a panel with aviation professionals that talked about the role models in the movie Hidden Figures and how to introduce more girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. The movie highlighted the untold story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA and served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of John Glenn into orbit. Clearly, there’s more to be done to tell stories like these and help attract more young women to the field.

Keiko Schleicher and Yin Mak featured with fellow KiloWatts for Humanity volunteers in Zambia, South Africa.

Other women in engineering are leading by example. In their spare time, engineers like Alexandra “Keiko” Schleicher and Yin Mak put their skills to good use and make a difference. They are actively involved with an international non-profit organization called KiloWatts for Humanity (KWH). The group works on electrification projects in less economically developed countries, providing access to electricity and fostering the development of sustainable business. Yin relates, “Just this past summer, we were able to travel with them to Zambia, South Africa to implement a power system in a rural village.” It’s so rewarding to be able to make a difference.

All these women through their various career paths have found their way to becoming engineers at the FAA. Being invited to participate in “Math Career Day” in high school led Courtney Nolan to meet her future first engineering boss (one of the owners of Southeastern Engineers), and eventually land in the Terminal Engineering Center. A look at the book 500 Jobs for Math Majors led Aerielle away from being a math major and helped her realize that engineering was a better major to actually apply the concepts she was interested in. We welcome new FAA engineers Laura, Camille, Aerielle, Alexandra, Yin and Courtney and thank them for sharing their stories.

Bill Nye, Science Guy

Bill Nye, best known as the host of PBS science show Bill Nye the Science Guy was quoted in 2015 as saying, “Half of humans are girls and women, so we want half the engineers and scientists to be girls and women.”

At the FAA, the number of women in engineering is growing. We hope it will continue to grow and new women will be inspired to be the next generation.

Jennifer Tsakoumakis is an aerospace engineer working in the Los Angeles Aircraft Certification Office, Airframe Branch, to ensure operational safety for part of the Boeing 737 Classic fleet.

What initially interested you in the field? What was your first engineering experience?

I didn’t find myself especially interested in engineering until sophomore year in college when I joined my school’s aero design team as an extra-curricular activity. I had always enjoyed math and problem solving, but I never understood how real engineering worked until I joined that team. We were a group of students, mostly strangers to each other, and we were given an objective and a deadline. We had to work together to design, build, and fly something that successfully accomplished a mission but didn’t exceed certain parameters. We didn’t get a kit, or drawings, or materials. We started with nothing except basic knowledge of engineering principles and enough creativity and self-motivation to take this knowledge and stretch it, test it, form it, reform it until it turned into something we could use to meet our objective. Knowing formulas in a book is one thing - and sometimes a very boring thing – but understanding how to use them to solve real problems can be pretty exciting.

What does an Aerospace Engineer do?

I work as an Aerospace Engineer in the Airframe Branch of the Los Angeles Aircraft Certification Office. I support the continued operational safety for part of the Boeing 737 Classic fleet which means I work with Boeing engineers to understand current safety concerns such as cracking in fuselage structure and to ensure that corrective actions are in place to prevent future unsafe conditions. I also work with smaller applicants who want to make changes to or design and manufacture replacement parts for existing type certificated aircraft or rotorcraft.

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

I would recommend that engineering students take advantage of any kind of extra-curricular engineering activity. What you learn in class is a great foundation, but participating in team competitions, mentoring programs, or student design projects will really prepare you for a more successful engineering career.

What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?

At the FAA there are opportunities for an engineer to work in a very technical capacity in test and evaluation, research and development, or as a Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor. There are also opportunities for engineers to blend a technical background with project management skills if they work on certification projects. And if engineers want to have a broad impact on our national airspace, they may aspire to work on with policy, standards, or rulemaking. With the critical thinking skills you develop as an engineer, I think almost all FAA career options are available to individuals with engineering degrees.

Dr. Kathy Abbott is the FAA's Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for Flight Deck Human Factors, with more than 35 years of experience, she specializes in human performance and human error, systems design and analysis, flight crew training/qualification, and flight crew operations and procedures.

What initially interested you in the field? What was your first engineering experience?

I have always been interested in what makes things work. My father was an industrial engineer. As a child, I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I guess I absorbed the logical, organized, practical approach and desire to learn. As I got more involved in aviation, I became more interested in integrating pilots and aircraft for effective flight operations.

My first job out of college was working for a company called Sperry. My first assignment there was to develop a real time simulation of a Boeing 737 aircraft, to support pilot-in-the-loop research studies of Instrument Landing Systems versus Microwave Landing Systems. After that, there was no turning back. NASA hired me a few years later to do aeronautics research in flight deck design and operations. After a fantastic 16 years of doing research, I came to the FAA to get more involved in the application side.

What does an aerospace engineer do?

Aerospace engineers do a wide variety of engineering work in aeronautics and space. My own background is quite varied, with education in computer science, mathematics, flight controls, aeronautics and psychology. My specialty area is flight deck human factors, so I get involved in how equipment design, training, procedures, and other factors affect pilots’ operation of aircraft.

How does a background in engineering prepare you for your current role as an executive?

There are many ways it helps beyond the technical knowledge you acquire. An engineering background provides a good foundation for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and a practical perspective. This has served me well in the different technical and management positions I have held in my career. As a Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor, I am on a technical rather than a management career track.

From your perspective, what are some of the exciting developments in the engineering field since you first began your career?

There are so many technical advances in the past 38 years that it’s hard to know where to start. I would have to say that the advances in computing (and more importantly, what those advances enable) are some of the most exciting.

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

I would advise an engineering student to get as broad a foundation as possible. Getting a multidisciplinary background (and the broad perspective it can encourage) will serve you well in this complex, global world we live in. Take opportunities to work in a variety of areas. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. Develop your interpersonal and team skills. You can accomplish more when you work with and through others than you could possibly do alone.

What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?

There are a variety of opportunities within the FAA, for many areas of engineering. The FAA is a great place to make a difference.

Christina Underwood is the Manager, Certificate Management and Safety Oversight Branch, ACE-120A (AVS).

Engineers Week is about celebrating engineers and engineering, as well as encouraging young people to take an interest in engineering. What initially interested you in the field? What was your first engineering experience?

I have always had an interest in airplanes/aviation. I made up my mind in 4th grade that I was going to go to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and pursue a career in aviation. My dad is a mechanical engineer and private pilot. It was his influence that encouraged me to pursue aeronautical engineering.

I understand you are an aeronautical engineer - what does an aeronautical engineer do?

With my degree in aeronautical engineering, my first position out of college was in the area of aircraft structures. This set the path for my first several positions in industry and the FAA. I worked several years as a structural engineer at Lockheed supporting wing design modifications on the C-130. This position involved performing analysis and tests to validate the design. As a structures engineer in the FAA, I worked as a project engineer managing numerous type certification projects. This role involved reviewing design data, analysis, as well as, witnessing tests.

How does a background in engineering prepare you for your current role?

I greatly value my 8 years in the ACO as a project engineer and my time in industry as a delegated organization administrator. Performing these roles has helped me appreciate what the employees are facing and what the needs of industry are. This perspective has been extremely beneficial in performing in a management role.

From your perspective, what are some of the exciting developments in the aeronautical engineering field since you first began your career?

I am impressed by the advancements in modelling and how these techniques are being used in the design process.

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

Take advantage of every opportunity you can and appreciate and learn as much as you can from the people you work with. Every position/assignment has great opportunity. It takes several years to learn the certification process, so be patient and try to expose yourself to as many different projects/activities as you can.

Dionne Palermo is the AFS Liaison Program Manager, Transport Airplane Directorate, Northwest Mountain Region, and an aerospace engineer who works closely with aircraft manufacturers and oversee their systems and processes to ensure they produce designs and modifications that meet the minimum safety standards and are safe for operation.

What initially interested you in the field? What was your first engineering experience?

I enjoyed math and science in high school and had a very enthusiastic physics teacher that encouraged me to consider career fields involving science. My father is also an engineer so he was a big influence on my career path. My first engineering job experience was an internship during college with the Mechanical Systems Test Laboratory at Boeing…it was a great learning experience to design hydraulic test rigs and apply my education to real-world issue and challenges.

I understand you are an aerospace engineer in the Transport Airplane Directorate - what does an aerospace engineer do in your organization?

In my organization, engineers develop airworthiness regulations and policy, which establish the minimum safety standards for the design and manufacture of aircraft. While we don’t develop designs, we work closely with aircraft manufacturers and oversee their systems and processes to ensure they produce designs and modifications that meet the minimum safety standards and are safe for operation. Our engineers also review data and perform risk analyses to determine if corrective action is needed to address safety concerns within the operating fleet.

How does a background in engineering prepare you for your current position role?

An engineering background helped prepare me for my current position by providing me with technical knowledge and experience in aviation necessary to join the FAA. However, given the breadth of the safety work we do, there is no one person that will have all the necessary technical knowledge or experience to guide every decision and activity. So, I think one of the most valuable aspects of an engineering degree and background is developing critical and scientific thinking skills. These skills help an engineer thoroughly consider an issue from multiple perspectives, decide when to consult others/experts, and know what questions to ask to obtain relevant information.

From your perspective, what are some of the exciting developments in the aerospace engineering field since you first began your career?

The rate of evolution of technology, and the growing accessibility of it, over the last 20 years is truly amazing. I think an existing area of challenge and opportunity is the amount of information and data available to us today. We are still refining our data sharing and analysis tools and techniques to synthesize information so that we continue to improve our safety work.

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

Engineering is a great field that can provide a wide variety of career opportunities in an endless number of industries such as aerospace, medical, environmental, law, construction, academia, etc. I would encourage new engineers at the FAA to seek opportunities to work on a number of different types of projects in different capacities, which will develop their skills and knowledge and help identify the type of work they enjoy most. Keep learning – especially from those you work with; they are an invaluable resource. This advice would apply to students as they are entering a career field as well, and I would also note to students that while technical skills and knowledge are important, success in the workplace is dependent on strong interpersonal, communication and project management skills. The ability to build relationships and work with people who have diverse backgrounds and viewpoints is key to a productive career.

What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?

Engineers have a number of interesting and challenging opportunities within the FAA, given the nature of our work, especially within Aviation Safety, Airports and other lines of business. There are many engineering positions related to aircraft certification, systems oversight, designee oversight, policy and regulations, program management, and supervision.

Lirio Liu is the Director of the Office of Rulemaking (ARM), Aviation Safety Organization (AVS). She is responsible for the overall rulemaking program for the FAA, which includes rulemaking prioritization and work plan development and oversight. Read her full biography and her answers to the questions below:

Engineers Week is about celebrating engineers and engineering, as well as encouraging young people to take an interest in engineering. What initially interested you in the field? What was your first engineering experience?

I was initially interested in engineering because I wanted to be like my father, or more so, I wanted to be able to do what he did which was work on his cars, and his race cars (mostly British) on the weekends. I always liked tinkering with him in the garage so when he asked what I wanted to study on the day we went to the university to get registered, I asked him, “So what did you study?” He said aeronautical engineering. So I said that works for me.

My first engineering experience would have been in the Los Angeles Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) where I started for the FAA right out of college. I was being mentored by the FAA program manager working with Robinson Helicopter Company. We worked on the type certification of the R44, and the continued operational safety (COS) of the R22. Early on I took over the COS work for the R22 and they were having a series of accidents which meant working with the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) on the accident investigations. In this capacity I applied my engineering background more directly and did an analysis of the rotor decay rate of the R22 at that time. I would say that was what I would call my “first engineering experience.”

I understand you began your FAA career as a structures engineer — what does a structures engineer do?

As a structures engineer in the ACO, we work with the applicants (manufacturers) to determine the appropriate structural certification requirements for any new aircraft and any modification to an aircraft or product. This would primarily involve identification of the appropriate loads and stresses, factors of safety and fatigue considerations as they relate to the structural design of the aircraft or to the modification being made to the aircraft. At the time I joined the FAA, we would also do the review the analysis that was submitted by the applicant and approve the data.

How does a background in engineering prepare you for your current role as Director of the Office of Rulemaking?

Since the Office of Rulemaking does the rulemaking for all of the FAA, the critical thinking process gained from an engineering background has been helpful. Being able to consider unintended consequences and the relationships of one policy decision to another is where I see the background facilitating my ability to manage the programs in rulemaking.

From your perspective, what are some of the exciting developments in the engineering field since you first began your career?

When I graduated, all of us in my class thought that the primary technological advances had already been accomplished, and that is true to some extent, so where we have still been able to progress is in the constant gain of efficiencies based on the basic design concepts. Wing designs, engine designs, are all based on the same aerodynamics of my dad’s generation, but the advancement in modeling and the use of new materials such as composite materials, have provided continued advancement in performance. . .so that is what I see as exciting. There is also additive manufacturing which to me seems to take the engineering the manufacturing to a fully integrated process. All exciting stuff.

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

What you learn as an engineering student in school is the physics of why things happen —the book smart stuff. What you gain from the learning process — critical thinking, time management, and interpersonal skills — those are the attributes that will help you succeed in the future. Same advice —As an engineer in the FAA within aircraft certification, the focus should be on being a critical thinker and not necessarily the number cruncher.

What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?

The same future as I had still exists. FAA hires engineers throughout the different lines of business, so opportunity for engineers won’t wane in the future.

Do you remember when you first joined FAA? Take a look at what those first few months have been like for two of our newest FAA AST team members - Katie Branham and Erin Siltman share their story - Katie Branham and Erin Siltman are both aerospace engineers with the Operations Integration Division of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Of all the challenges we were prepared to face as new employees of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in the FAA, explaining our job description to outsiders was not among them. “Well, we don’t build rockets… no, we don’t launch them either… we make sure that the public is protected when companies launch them. It’s actually much cooler than it sounds!”

Before becoming a member of the AST team, the FAA appeared to us to be a sharply-dressed woman made of edges. She would be peering critically over the top of her librarian-styled spectacles at a clipboard, pen poised over a series of checklists muttering under her breath “no, nope, definitely not!” But this description was not to last. Our first day at the FAA consisted of getting passed around from handshake to handshake and cubicle to cubicle at HQ in DC. Smiles spread as everyone learned of the new additions to the team and the excitement was infectious as a realization dawned on us; AST is filled with a myriad of space enthusiasts just like us, with eyes and minds turned towards the sky, all dreaming of rockets.

Working in a field office can have some technical drawbacks (#FieldOfficeProblems), but if that office is at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), no amount of computer issues compares to the incredible opportunities it presents. The recent SpaceX CRS-9 launch is a prime example. On the Thursday before the launch, AST held a management review board meeting to discuss some launch license modifications. Since we had only been working in the office for a few weeks, we got up to speed on what was happening with this launch and became even more excited to watch it and the first stage return to land. When Sunday night rolled around, we hopped in our cars and drove onto KSC before the guards shut the gates. From the deck of the Operations Support Building II (OSB II) near the iconic Vertical Assembly Building (VAB), we had a great view of the Falcon 9 on Launch Complex 40 and estimated where we thought the first stage would land a few miles away.

The sky lit up as the engines ignited, and at 12:45 am on Monday, July 18th, we watched the Falcon 9 take off with a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station. Everyone on the deck stayed and, not 10 minutes later, we saw the first stage fly back and return to land. Because of how quickly it came in, we did not hear the massive sonic boom until a few seconds after the stage went dark on the pad, which prompted the spectators around us to reminisce about the Space Shuttle’s double boom. The energy of everyone watching was electric; it was quite an experience to watch with other people who were just as excited as we were. When we got home, there was no chance of going to sleep right away; the adrenaline was still pumping! Later at work that afternoon, it was easy to tell who had stayed up to watch the launch as the yawns started spreading. No one was complaining though; everyone was excited to maintain our public safety record and witness another success by SpaceX.

We’ve been able to see other launches from here and have been to a panel that included the Kennedy Space Center Director, Commercial Crew Program Manager, and two astronauts. Excitement for the future hangs heavy in the air. It is great to be working for FAA/AST at a location where commercial space activity is booming.

Twenty years from now, we will come to work on day to find that there is still a group of dedicated and passionate people with curious hearts staring toward the heavens in awe. We will have an easier time explaining our job descriptions by then and as we watch a rocket pierce the sky and feel the power in the vibrations that are probably rattling our homes, think to ourselves, “wow, I have a cool job!”

Ann Azevedo is the FAA's Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for Aircraft Safety Analysis, Aircraft Certification Service - Design, Manufacturing and Airworthiness, in the Aviation Safety Organization (AVS).

Engineers Week is about celebrating engineers and engineering, as well as encouraging young people to take an interest in engineering. What initially interested you in the field? What was your first engineering experience?

I was always good at math and science. I used to disassemble and reassemble my toys as a child to see how they worked. I had several science teachers in high school (including a female teacher) who encouraged my interest. I went to an all-girls’ high school, and I honestly do believe that helped. I was never made to feel I didn’t belong in STEM - until I got to engineering college, actually (there were a few professors who hadn’t come around to accepting women in engineering yet)….but, by then, it was too late to dissuade me! To this day, when I come across something that isn’t working, I try to fix it.

I understand you are a mechanical engineer - what does a mechanical engineer do?

Mechanical engineers design, build, and monitor the functioning of the products that make civilization work. Personally, I have mostly been involved on the ‘monitoring’ side. I perform risk analyses for our aviation products, and serve on several teams that study aviation accidents and incidents to learn from them and develop interactions to help prevent their recurrence.

How does a background in engineering prepare you for your current role as an executive?

I don’t consider myself an executive – as an STS (Senior Technical Specialist), not an SES (Senior Executive Service), I consider myself a technical specialist. That being said, I think an understanding of the technical concepts underlying our agency’s mission are a good background for executives.

From your perspective, what are some of the exciting developments in the mechanical engineering field since you first began your career?

Oh, gosh – life has really changed a lot since I began working! I know that “cc” stands for “carbon copy”, because that’s how multiple copies were made (showing my age, here!) Calculators were still relatively new; computers big, slow, and limited; the global connectivity that gives us answers at our fingertips unimagined. The tools we have available now to help us design and build are incredible. (I still maintain it’s important to also actually *look* at the part!) Exciting technologies continue to emerge – advanced composites; 3-D printing; interactive software. It’s incredible to imagine where future engineers will take us with these and other new tools to come.

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

STEM embraces a wonderful set of disciplines to pursue. As an engineer, you can help bring about the world of the future, and help safely integrate new technologies into the National Aviation System.

What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?

As we move increasingly towards delegation, we need to continue to have both generalist engineers who can oversee projects and technical specialists who can be called in to consult on specific issues. I think the FAA is a great place for an engineer. I’ve been very happy here.

In the eighth grade, Khanh’s teacher asked her what she wanted to become, and she said an astronaut. Motion sickness, however, quickly eliminated that as a career option.

Since math and science were her strengths, she opted to study aeronautical engineering. After two years at Wichita State University, she decided that wasn’t for her, and switched to electrical engineering. While in college, Khanh heard about the FAA Technical Center, which conducted research and testing in aviation, and that sounded like the perfect place for her. Khanh participated in a cooperative program at the Tech Center during her last two semesters of college, and was then offered a job with the FAA in 1991.

“The Tech Center is a wealth of projects and programs that involve engineering,” Khanh said. “I started out working with navigation and landing systems—everything from design review to accessing data and doing analysis, to evaluating system performance and writing reports.”

Now Acting Manager for Safety and Technical Training Standardization, Khanh manages the recruitment strategy and training development for AJI personnel. She also oversees the Quality Management System and organizational processes for AJI.

When asked what advice she would give to an engineering student, Khanh said, “to apply what you learned to what you want to do. My sister is an aeronautical engineer and works for Boeing. She started out in electrical engineering and she hated it. She likes aircraft design, and does more mechanical work—she focuses on how things run on the airplane. That was her passion and how she chose to use her degree.”

“When I talk to family members about what to study in college,” Khanh continued, “I think it is important to help them think about what job will make them happy. Otherwise, there is a disconnect and students often go back to school to get more degrees. If there isn’t a connection, you can become a professional student for a long time. I have a nephew who loves to play video games and he is really into knowing how the games work. I told him he’d probably be a great video game programmer. That gave him an area that he could hone in on for a degree to pursue in school.”

An interesting aside, Khanh celebrated her 36th anniversary of moving to the United States on February 14. She and her family fled South Vietnam amidst gunfire. They dropped their drinking water as they raced for two small boats in the middle of the night. The trip to Malaysia took seven days, and they had to barter jewelry for food and water along the way. Khanh and her family then flew to the U.S. arriving on Valentine’s Day, where she was puzzled by all the heart-shaped foods and decorations since the holiday wasn’t celebrated in Vietnam!

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