What brought you back to UF MAE to serve as a member of the External Advisory Board? Mary Church visited Denver on a trip to reconnect with alumni in Colorado. I really enjoyed getting to know her and the MAE mission for industry outreach. I do serve on two other university boards but Florida is special because there’s nothing like the Gator Nation but also because of the genuine connection to people like Mary Church, Scott Banks and Warren Dixon. It is the people of the University that make it an extraordinary community.
What has been the hardest part of being a woman in a male-dominated field?
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering are very challenging fields regardless of gender or ethnicity. Being in the spotlight continually adds a dimension of stress that is hard to explain because it doesn’t just happen once, it happens on most days in the workplace and that stress adds up over time. I felt that pressure to conform to my peers and to the existing culture. The decades of culture that preceded me didn’t always fit so I was often an outsider – not invited to activities outside work, called on too often in meetings, stereotyped – the spotlight can burn or it can be a way to level the playing field. It took time but I grew into my own style as an engineer and as a woman leader. I learned to use the attention to achieve not only my goals but redirect that light to others that were gritting it out with me. Now I’m excited to mentor the newest women MAE students so they can see the opportunities instead of the barriers.
Can you share one of the most rewarding experiences you have had as a woman in engineering?
By the far the most rewarding technical program I led was a return to flight initiative after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Still early in my career I directed a small team that designed, built and tested a one-of-a-kind respirator for firefighters to rescue astronauts from a launch pad emergency. Investigations into this manned flight tragedy revealed that firefighters did not have enough compressed air supply to rescue six or seven astronauts – they only had enough for three – as in the Apollo missions. The solution came from a technician in the propellant handler’s shop. He knew that liquid air expands 300 times in volume as it becomes gas so a small dewar (thermos) would hold more air supply than any other compressed air tank of the same size making access to the small Shuttle hatch possible. I listened, learned, ran the calculations, tested, presented to dozens of decision makers, filed safety documents, met with astronauts and fire fighters and even tested it on myself. This Liquid Air Pack was used from 1988 through the end of the Shuttle program in 2011. I’m proud of that contribution to the Space program.
Do you have any advice for young engineers navigating a field that is always evolving?
Take risks – this is not a call to risky behavior but to test your limits. Learn from the failures that come with taking risks and no single person can make or break your career – except for you.
Please share your fondest memory as a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student at the University of Florida. This is a difficult question for me to answer. My time at Florida was very hard not only because I was usually the first woman, the only woman to step into classrooms as an ME but because of my personal circumstances. I came to UF with no financial support so I received grants and worked several jobs to pay for it all. At one point I lived on ten meals a week, just ten. I sold my textbooks, I sold my blood, I scraped by on a dream and somehow made it. One of the best jobs I had was TA for Professor Watts, Engineering Drafting. That technology has changed significantly and at the time we did it all by hand. One of the students was as much an artist as an engineer and he drew subtle images in the cutaways of his designs. So instead of random bubbles in the cutaway of a concrete section he drew them to trace out a Gator or a bike. At first, I thought it was a coincidence but when we spoke he shared his intent and we became friends. It was good to meet someone who found joy in the smallest task.