When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Okay, to be honest, I still do. But in the meantime, I have a really cool job as an aerospace engineer where I get to do research and development to support space exploration, commercial air travel, and defense operations.
What I like best about my job is the opportunity to contribute to a variety of projects that touch on a range of important technical areas. I have worked on new airplanes that carry people for commercial travel and research projects preparing for the next space program. In general, I get to do a lot of different things from working with computers to working in teams of people. One of my favorite things about technology development is watching an idea start from a drawing, then be analyzed, next tested, and finally seen flying on a product! Although this sequence sometimes takes years, it is very exciting to see something you worked on taking its first flight.
How did I get here? I graduated from Penn State in 2004 with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering and worked part time towards a M.S. in Systems Architecture & Engineering from the University of Southern California in 2007. I’ve been working in the industry now for 7 years full-time doing structural analysis and development.
On a day to day basis, most of what I do is analyze new aircraft/spacecraft structural designs and products and predict how well a design is going to work once the product is actually made. I spend time on the computer running what is called “finite element analysis”, which allows us to study how strong a structure is and make sure that it won’t break too early so that the structure can be used to safely fly passengers and cargo. This YouTube video demonstration shows how finite element modeling is used:
I also spend a lot of time working with others to review results and determine how to improve designs and concepts. In this role, I get to present to a lot of people and need to have good communication skills, both in terms of writing and public speaking. I really enjoy the opportunity to work with others and share with them information on what I am doing each day. I get to interact with others more than I ever thought I would. This includes my teammates, bosses, suppliers, and customers. In my area, we also write a lot of papers to share our work and what we are learning, so I often get to go to conferences and present my work and hear what others in my area are working on as well. We do a lot of reviews to learn about what is new, what works, and what is not always working so that we can keep finding ways to improve.
Once we finish the design and analysis phase of a product, we get to manufacture the part and do some testing. Testing is my favorite part because I get to see how the structure will be used and watch how it will react. I get to see how much force it takes to break something and sometimes have to try really hard to get it to break. We do this in a variety of ways; sometimes we fill it with air or water to increase pressure, sometimes we throw things at it to impact it, and sometimes we pull or push on it in different directions. We do this so that we can demonstrate that it won’t break too early when it is in use.
I love being an engineer because I get to solve problems, work with people, and be involved in something meaningful. Knowing that something I worked on helped get an astronaut into space, kept our military safe, or got one of you across country quickly and safely is exciting!