Jennifer Turner-Valle

Jennifer Turner-Valle

Title
Principal Optical Engineer
Organization
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
Location
Longmont, CO, United States
Jennifer Turner-Valle
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  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Jennifer Turner-Valle

Hello Alexis,
I'm glad to see that you have taken an initial step that will help you identify a field of engineering that you will enjoy the most by trying out different fields of engineering during high school. In my experience, many undergraduate students find an area of study they are passionate about only after several semesters of university, and while it may appear to be ideal to choose your path before going to university, I would encourage you to be open to different areas of engineering specialization even after you have started towards your bachelor's degree. After all, you may find something you find even more fascinating only once you've started down your degree path.

My typical optical design engineer work in the aerospace field mainly involves optical system design, including interfacing with colleagues who design the mounts and mechanical benches that support my lenses and mirrors, interacting with customers and colleagues in meetings to ensure my part of the system works the way it needs to, and working with the instrument systems engineer to ensure that the performance of my design meets all requirements under the full set of customer requirements. In support of this work, I generally spend roughly 30% of my time working at the computer with design software tools, 10% of my time working with colleagues to package optical systems and ensure mechanical mounts meet the needs of my optical system, 35% of my time attending meetings and preparing briefing packages for colleagues and customers to explain what we're doing, and 25% of my time documenting my work in engineering reports and creating assembly, integration, and test documents to guide the hands-on work. The mix of work on any given day varies depending on how far along the program is.

As an undergraduate I studied engineering physics, specializing in optical engineering later as a graduate student. My class was approximately 30 engineering physics and physics undergraduates, and although the class generally subdivided into manageable study groups of 4-5 people once we reached our fourth semester of school, we were a fairly tight-knit, friendly bunch since everyone took the same required classes and we were all in it together. I believe there were roughly 5 women in our class, which was quite typical for physics and engineering physics at the time (~25 years ago)-- and I always felt like there was no notable gender bias among either the students or the faculty.

As far as problems or discrimination in colleges and universities, my observation is that some departments are composed of more "forward thinking" faculty members who actively work to balance any unintentional gender bias they might exhibit and other departments are composed of more faculty members who are less adept at treating all students as equals. For the schools you visit, strive to meet with an assortment of students and ask them how they feel they are treated- whether the students support each other, whether the faculty are generally bias-free, whether the faculty are willing to go the extra mile to help students learn, and find out what the program's graduation rates look like for female students. If you gather the right information, you will be able to determine which school is the right fit for you- whether you prefer a program with highly competitive classmates with a healthy camaraderie or a program with exceptionally supportive faculty or perhaps a program that allows excellent flexibility in constructing a custom degree program. I expect you will find that the students are very forthcoming in sharing their opinions about their experiences. One note I would like to add to supplement my observation on "problems" is that it often seemed to me that the women I knew as a student were less confident about their skills than our male counterparts were- even though the women in our class were all just as smart and well-prepared as the men. Always be confident- because if you work just as hard as everyone else in class and you're just as well prepared, you will do at least as well as everyone else!

In my career experiences, as far as problems or discrimination, my observation has been that nearly everyone I work with is gender-blind, particularly once they've worked with me sufficiently long to evaluate and find my engineering skills to be up to the challenge at hand. In fact, it's the case that ALL the new engineers , irregardless of gender, must prove themselves to be worthy to their coworkers before they're fully accepted into the team-- through this informal proving process the team understands where their new colleagues are able to contribute and where they may require supplemental guidance. It's just like getting to know a new player on your sports team- you need to figure out how best to mesh their different skills into the team strategy. The great thing about engineers is that it's all about performance-- so if you perform well, there should be no problem convincing them that you're a great fit to the team.

Best of luck,
Jen

Dear Shanirah,

Within the field of aerospace engineering in the United States, there is some fluidity in the usage and definition of the terms describing the field; generally the term "aerospace" encompasses all of the aeronautical and astronautical engineering, covering the craft operating within or external to the Earth's atmosphere, respectively.  The work done by aerospace engineers varies  broadly depending on which job they hold- generally ranging from the people who do the up-front mechanical engineering design work starting with a clean sheet of paper to model the structural elements of the spacecraft to fit within the launch shroud of the rocket and survive the acoustic loads during the launch process to the people who test the fully-assembled spacecraft in large vacuum chambers that simulate the pressure and thermal environment of space to ensure that all of the electronics and mechanisms perform to their requirements.  I gather from your question that you are interested in the discipline that people in the US refer to as aerospace engineering, and is often referred to as aeronautical engineering in the UK.  Be aware that I have only a passing familiarity with the UK educational system, but examining the GCA Advanced Level course information available on Wikipedia, I recommend that you take classes in physics, math, and potentially electronics or design engineering to support your career aspirations.  Your university education will require a thorough grounding in these basics and the entire field of aerospace engineering builds on a good foundation in math and physics- whether you choose to study the materials for building spacecraft, the science of spacecraft navigation, the design of rockets and thrusters to propel spacecraft into and through space, or the electronics to control and operate those spacecraft.  Through studying the many aspects of aerospace engineering (with additional reading and internet research during your A level courses), I think you will identify a sub-field of aerospace engineering that is more interesting to you than any others-- perhaps it will be fluid dynamics, which is important to developing effective rockets for launching spacecraft, and then you will choose to take a course of study at university that supports your fluid dynamics specialty, or something else may grab your interest and you will choose that direction instead.

There are many sources of information on the internet that might provide you with useful background in aerospace engineering and information on the many career paths that are available; I recommend that you start with the following: www.careersinaerospace.com  and www.aerosociety.com/Careers-Education  Other sites I recommend are: www.esa.intl and www.nasa.gov both of which provide excellent information on current, future, and past space missions and they often provide profiles of people doing specific jobs in the aerospace workforce.

I wish you all the best in your future studies and finding the right career in a field that you enjoy, thanks for asking your questions,

Jen

Dear Sayali, There is no embarrassment in dropping a class. Instructors have different teaching methods and students have different learning styles, and sometimes a student has an instructor for a class who doesn't approach problems in a manner that makes sense to the student- this makes learning the material from that instructor particularly challenging. You must understand what you need for the next time you take this class so that you will succeed. For example, if you need supplemental books that provide examples to study, you must look for those books at the library. If you learn best by discussing problems with other students in a study group, you need to seek out or start the right study group to help support your learning. The most important part of your studies at university is learning the material, not in how many tries it takes you to learn that material; if you can identify ways to learn that work for you, you will then be able to tackle any challenge you face in the future- particularly those that arise in the course of performing research and engineering work. Qualities researchers need to have include persistence (particularly in the face of difficulties), the ability to learn, good observational skills, and the ability to communicate. Your persistence in learning the material in your electronics class and your work to identify how you best learn the material will serve you throughout your engineering career. Good luck! Jen

Audrey, I think that your age upon finishing a second bachelor's degree might actually be an advantage with most employers: you are more mature, you have worked full time and therefore developed good time-management skills by attending school while simultaneously working a straight job, and you will be very focused on the types of work you want to pursue in your new field. In short, you've already gone through the new graduate adjustment break-in period that I've seen in many of our younger employees. Although returning to quantitative classes like calculus, physics, and chemistry may sound challenging, I believe that your previous good math experience and scientific technical skills (as evidenced by the guidance of your high school instructors to choose an engineering career) will kick in after a short brain warmup period if you give them a chance. Given the time commitment usually required by the first year core courses, you might find it helpful to start out with a single course per semester for the first year to allow yourself a chance to reallocate your time between work and school. Some strategies I can think of for managing your time and getting the most out of your classes would be to block out time on your calendar for studying and homework, joining a good study group, or picking up and working problems in some physics and math review study guides of the kind you might use to study for the SAT exams. Best of luck! Jen