Interview with Dr. Camila Francolin

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What brought you back to UF MAE to serve as a member of the External Advisory Board?

I graduated eight years ago with my PhD from UF MAE, and since then I’ve been lucky to lead an exciting and fulfilling career. I work at Draper – a Not for Profit institution that has a mission of solving some of the nation’s hardest technical challenges. Since joining Draper I’ve had the opportunity to work on really interesting (and important) problems – I’ve developed autonomy algorithms for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), I’ve researched how humans and robots can do a better job of working together, I’ve led a team that developed an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to autonomously map out chemical and radiological hazards, and I’ve overseen a team developing software for NASA’s next generation of Human Landing System (among other things!). All of these programs have gone on to make an impact in our national security or in human space exploration, which makes me extremely proud.

My role at Draper today is leading the Division that develops software for Autonomy & GNC systems. This means I get to lead a team of passionate engineers working on National Security and Space challenges, which is exactly the mission that led me to pursue an Aerospace Engineering degree in the first place. I credit where I am today in large part to the education and preparation that came from my years as a UF MAE student, so when I was asked to serve as a member of the External Advisory Board I was both honored and excited to have the opportunity to give back to the department.

What has been the hardest part of being a woman in a male-dominated field?

Being an engineer is hard, whether you are a man or a woman, and that’s exactly what makes it rewarding! Any engineer just starting out will need a support network – a group of like-minded people that can look out for each other. One of the harder parts of being a woman in engineering is finding that support network. Starting out, I was often one of the only women in my Aerospace Engineering classes, which could be intimidating. Nowadays I am lucky to work for a company that values diversity, and I see more female representation in my meetings today than I used to when walking into those Aerospace Engineering classes, but the trend is still the same – more likely than not my gender will be outnumbered.

I’m happy to see that lots of organizations, realizing the importance of diversity, are making an effort to help create those support networks for women in engineering. I’ve been very lucky to find other women who have supported me and mentored me to get to the point I am today, and I’m hoping to be able to do the same for the women coming after me. In fact I’m really proud to be a part of the W.E. RISE program that UF MAE has developed to do just that – connecting women in the department with a support network. I hope other universities will follow UF MAE’s lead.

Can you share one of the most rewarding experiences you have had as a woman in engineering?

I’ve had lots of rewarding experiences as an engineer, but I can’t pinpoint any that came about specifically for being a woman in engineering. I think the thrill of creating something new that solves an important problem is universal across all engineers, and I’m no different. Each time my code flies on a system (and does what it’s supposed to!) I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. I’ve felt that sense of accomplishment in many instances now – sitting in a boat in the middle of the ocean while deploying AUVs, standing in a Drop Zone in the middle of the Arizona desert watching a UAS I helped develop accomplish its mission, and even while training a soldier how to use a new robot that was developed to do a task that could keep her/him out of harm’s way. Being an engineer isn’t always that exciting – a lot of the times you’re sitting in front of your computer for hours developing code that just won’t compile – but those culminating moments make it worth the trouble.

Do you have any advice for young engineers navigating a field that is always evolving?

Never stop challenging yourself, and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. It might sound obvious to some, but to me it’s the single most important thing you can do to not only be successful but also to get the chance to work on exciting problems. I think in some cases engineers may think that their learning process ended when they graduated, when it’s just the opposite. Don’t be afraid to take on a challenge that you don’t know how to solve just yet – trust yourself that you have the tools needed to figure it out. Throughout my career I have been lucky to have mentors that challenged me in ways that seemed scary at the time, and those instances where I stepped a bit outside my comfort zone have always turned into the most rewarding experiences.

Please share your fondest memory as a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student at the University of Florida.

I’m a triple Gator – I got my Bachelors, Masters, and PhD at the University of Florida. That means UF is not only where I learned to be an engineer, but also where I made incredible friends, got my first job, and even met my husband. There’s no way I could pinpoint a single memory, but I’ll always remember all the fun Gator Football game-days, the grueling nights getting an assignment done, and the final walk across the stage at the O’Connell Center to receive my diploma!