One thing I wish people had told me going into the field is that whatever experiences I’m going through, I’m not alone, and I’m not crazy. So many times, I’ve discussed something that’s happened to me with another female engineer or scientist and had them say “oh, yeah, I can relate to that.”
What do you do?
I’m a Systems Engineer at JPL.
When we build a spacecraft, we have different subsystems - the power system, subthermal, etc. We also have limited resources. My job is to get the subsystems to play nice with each other, so I have to know a little bit about everything. I also have to work with scientists to make sure that their desires are accomplished.
How did you get into your current role?
I always wanted to work in space. I went to Cambridge and studied Aerospace and Aerothermal, but mostly airbreathing propulsion. I worked on jet engines, basically. I did my undergrad and Master’s there.
I was offered a job at Rolls Royce, but decided to take the risk and go to MIT for grad school. I’d been to MIT before for an exchange program; that’s when I got introduced to systems engineering. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I had done an experimental Master’s and wanted to do an analytical PhD instead.
A few people at MIT were doing research on systems architecture, and I thought that was really interesting. I went down that route, and started interning at JPL. I tailored my research in school to some of the research questions they had at JPL.
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was very little, I wanted to be an archaeologist because of Jurassic Park. Then Apollo 13 came out, and I wanted to be an astronaut instead; I still do.
Growing up in an Indian community, the thing to do traditionally was to be a doctor or dentist. Those were seen as “high status” jobs; but then I didn’t like biology, so that was maybe not the thing for me.
Did you feel encouraged or discouraged about going into technology?
My parents were always encouraging of whatever I wanted to do. My dad is an engineer, and my mom’s two brothers and sister are all engineers.
I went to an all girls school, and there were only four girls in our advanced math classes and in physics. From my class of 120, I was the only girl going into engineering. There was one girl who went into math, but that was it.
When I told my career advisor I wanted to be either a doctor or an engineer, she told me that engineering was a male-dominated field and she didn’t think I would be okay in that field. I was like, “screw you!”
What is your first memory of being intrigued by technology?
I remember my first memory of being interested in engineering - my dad built a deck for our swimming pool when I was 8 or 9, and he taught me how to cut wood, drill stuff, that was really cool.
After that it was mostly in high school. One of my math teachers took it upon himself to teach us how to code. We used Visual Basic, and he made this website with a series of math challenges. We would come in at lunch time or after school and learn to code.
Have you had any mentors or champions along the way?
In high school, one of my math teachers really pushed me harder than everyone else. He was known as the hard-ass math teacher. He made me do modules that we weren’t doing for exams. He knew that my school wasn’t going to have me prepared enough for the engineering classes at Cambridge, so he always pushed me really hard.
What are your favorite or most-used tools?
A lot of my job uses PowerPoint, which is horrible. A lot is also MatLab, which is great. There’s this divide at my job over MatLab; you either like it or don’t. I like it.
We have a lot of homegrown tools at JPL as well.
What do you want to learn next?
I just changed jobs; I was originally in mission planning and early mission concept, and I just moved to ATLO (Assembly Test and Launch Operations). I’ve never done ATLO for a larger mission, so it’s brand new for me. I’ve written requirements, but I’ve never done verification and validation, so I’m learning that side now.
Do you have any hobbies that are unrelated to your field?
I’ve been doing weight lifting since college. I tend to go through hobbies, but I found weight lifting really great in grad school because it’s almost like meditation.
I also recently started climbing; I think a lot of engineers are climbers. Again, it’s one of those sports that is meditative; it’s just you and the wall. It’s also kind of a problem to solve, which is why I think a lot of technical people like it.
What motivates you?
At JPL, we do things that no one else has ever done before. We get to send stuff to space. The issues that we face don’t have an answer yet. That really motivates me.
What advice do you have?
I always say follow your passion. Make sure that whatever you’re doing, you’re not doing for anyone else, and if you’re passionate about something, do stuff outside of school or work that will enhance that.
One thing I wish people had told me going into the field is that whatever experiences I’m going through, I’m not alone, and I’m not crazy. So many times, I’ve discussed something that’s happened to me with another female engineer or scientist and had them say “oh, yeah, I can relate to that.” Engineering is very much about people and experiences with people; I’ve learned more about my people skills than I have about engineering, which I was not expecting going in.