Where are they now?
University of Illinois, BS, ’13 in aerospace engineering and a Professional Pilot Certificate
Texas A&M, MS, May ’19 in engineering systems management
I currently work for a company called 5D Systems that provides technical services and solutions for unmanned, manned, and optionally piloted aircraft / aviation systems. In my current role I am serving as the Integration & Test IPT Lead and Flight Test Director for a newly designed full-scale unmanned aerial vehicle. Since I started working on the program about two years ago, I’ve seen the vehicle go from clean-sheet design to integrated system testing, and we will move toward our first flight this month. The pace of the work and the depth of my involvement in the development has been extremely challenging, exciting, and rewarding.
In addition to my aerospace endeavors, I also own and manage two boutique fitness studios in Houston and Austin. I came from a large family of teachers and while I decided to follow my dreams towards engineering, I have always had a passion for teaching. I wanted to create a studio environment where I could share my enthusiasm for health and fitness and help women of all ages feel confident, happy, and strong. I developed the business concept in 2013 while still in school at U of I and opened my first studio in Houston after I accepted my first job working on Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.
Fast forward a few years and I was transitioning my life toward Austin, Texas; I accepted an aerospace job offer and signed a lease for the second location on the same day! My days transition from working with all men on a military drone to teaching all women in a barre or TRX class. For some people that might be crazy, but for me it’s the perfect balance!
I loved my experience at Illinois for a variety of reasons. However, I think the single differentiating factor for me was that Illinois allowed me the opportunity to learn from and interact with people who had varying interests and abilities. It was commonplace to meet rock star engineering students participating in Greek life, championing for an amazing cause, playing on a club sport team, and starting an online company. The students were, and still are, multi-faceted, and are defined, not by the major or college they belong to, but rather the summation of all their talents. Engaging with these kinds of people and receiving encouragement to do so from faculty and staff made Illinois the perfect place to prepare for and excel in “real life.”
I think one experience that stands out is when I first acted as a Flight Test Director. After about six months working on a new drone platform, I was asked to lead a test campaign with two unmanned vehicles, one manned vehicle, and multiple ground sensors. I was the youngest person on the program and the only female. After completing the first flight test I sort of looked at myself in the mirror and went, ‘well, I guess you can do it.” It’s funny how you often you are the only obstacle between yourself and your goals. I didn’t give myself time to think about the negative and I achieved something I previously assumed couldn’t be done until later in my career.
What advice do you have for current Illinois aerospace students?
Involve yourself in everything and worry less about your grades. Apply for every internship, participate in clubs and social events, and don’t try to define the next 30 years. The world is constantly changing, and Illinois will prepare you to be successful regardless of the career path you choose to forge for yourself.
University of Illinois BS, ’96, MS, ’97 in aerospace engineering
I work at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where I have been since I graduated in 1997. In that time I have worked on more than 10 different spacecraft missions for NASA, most recently supporting the integration and launch of the Parker Solar Probe mission to the Sun and the New Horizons flyby of 2014 MU69 in Jan. 2019.
My work mostly focuses on the Guidance and Control subsystem for spacecraft, though I have been also working at the Spacecraft and Mission Systems level for several years. I am currently working on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, whose mission is to ram an asteroid with a spacecraft and see the effects on the asteroid’s orbital state.
How did your education and experiences at Illinois help you get there?
My time at the U of I laid the foundation for the work I have done at JHU/APL. It gave me the basic knowledge which I built upon after joining the lab. I still use the textbook from AAE 391 when designing spacecraft flight software.
Everything surrounding the New Horizons mission has been exciting. Not just the technical aspects of flying by Jupiter, Pluto, and 2014 MU69, but all the public presentations, interviews, documentaries, and tours that we have given to celebrities, congressmen, and senators. I have personally discussed our mission with Brian May of Queen and the band STYX, debated Neil deGrasse Tyson about Pluto still being a planet, and discussed with Senator Barbara Mikulski why space science should be a priority in our country.
Follow your passion. There are many paths to take in aerospace engineering, from advanced material development to hypersonic fluid dynamics to interplanetary mission design. Use the time at U of I to find the area you really enjoy and envision yourself doing for the next decade and jump in with both feet. Also keep in touch with your network of friends and mentors even after graduation, as you never know where the next opportunity for ground breaking research and development will come from.