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Q&A with Vicki Gambrell
This mechanical engineer and manager works on naval
undersea warfare projects and oversees a $17 million budget

q What were you interested in when you were a teen?
a I always dreamed of traveling, going to the college of my choice, getting an engineering or accounting degree, and buying a candy-apple red sports car for me and a Volvo for my mom. I also dreamed of having a large home and a family.

q What influenced your career choice and made it possible to succeed in school?
a I was involved in lots of school activities, like tennis, band, and the honor society, and, in college, I pledged a female club called the Cavalettes, which promoted sisterhood. In 12th grade, I made a decision to give up being a majorette in the band to participate in a special vocational education program that allowed me to work a half day for the Veterans Administration regional office.

q How did you decide to become an engineer?
a From an early age, I knew that I wanted to build and design cars, and, later, I discovered the other things mechanical engineers do. In college, I did two internships that helped me decide that engineering was the right career for me. I worked at a power plant, and it was an incredible experience and opportunity.

q Have you had to overcome any cultural barriers to become an engineer?
a I don’t believe you ever really overcome cultural barriers as long as there is ignorance in this world. How I cope with cultural barriers is by believing in myself and my capabilities. I never give a man or woman the power to tell me who I am and what my limits are—those are determined by me. I also believe that I have a choice every day about the attitude I embrace. I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.

Truly the only barrier in a person’s way is himself or herself. I must admit there are times when I believe I was not treated fairly. But I can truly say I did not and will not ever let that stop me from being the best person I can be and doing the best job I can, so that when I am gone or when someone speaks of me, they will always have something pleasant to say.


 

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Q&A with Elizabeth Cercado
This mechanical engineer talks about building 787 airliners
for one of the world’s largest airplane manufacturers

q What were your interests growing up?
a In elementary school, I was involved in science-fair projects every year. In middle school, I started taking advanced classes in math and science, like geometry and pre-algebra. I was also in band and National Junior Honors Society, and played volleyball and basketball.

q What are you working on?
a Airplane landing gear and creating efficient design. This is a high-level position at Boeing, and I get to learn many things and apply what I learned in school. I love my work!

q How does your work make a difference in people’s lives?
a It’s a sense of pride that the airplane I’m working on helps people visit their family and go on vacation. If I do a good job, then we have produced the best design possible for our customers. Landing gear is important to the airplane. When I used to hear the landing gear “clunk” on the airplane, I was nervous, but now I know that those sounds mean it’s locking into place and is safe for the ride.

q Can you describe experiences that influenced your career choice or made it
possible to succeed in school?

a I had mentors from middle school through college, but the one person who was always there to guide me was my sister. She went through the same things as I did because she became an engineer, too. She helped me apply for scholarships and get involved in student organizations so I could grow, technically and professionally.

q How did you decide to become an engineer?
a  When I was in high school, I was selected with 50 other students from around the country to go to the Colorado School of Mines for an engineering program. For one month, I lived on campus and took engineering courses. I learned about the different types of engineers and the benefits of choosing engineering as a career. My dream job was to work for NASA and be an aerospace engineer. The university I attended didn’t have an aerospace program, so I went into mechanical engineering, because it was a broader field—I could work with energy or consumer products. I spent one summer making better diapers, and another summer I had an automotive internship. In high school, I couldn’t have predicted all the job opportunities available to me.

q Have you had to overcome any cultural barriers to becoming an engineer?
a  I have been lucky at work and have co-workers who have never made me feel uncomfortable. There have been opportunities to help people understand—for instance, I had to tell co-workers that I don’t speak Mexican, I speak Spanish, but I don’t get offended easily. We have a Boeing salsa team that I’ve taken charge of, so I’ve been creating awareness about my culture from a dance perspective.


 

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Q&A with Patricia Beckman
This “almost astronaut” and Cherokee Indian goes down in history as
one of the first women to pursue aerospace and flight engineering

q What were your interests growing up?
a Learning, learning, and learning! I enjoyed building model rockets, repairing cars, gardening, reading, and studying.

q How and when did you know that you were interested in aerospace?
a I was always good at math and science, and I wanted to be an astronaut because of the “space race” between the United States and Soviet Union. I grew up in the 1960s in Huntsville, Alabama, the testing ground for the mighty Saturn rockets that launched astronauts to outer space and the moon in 1969.

q What were your initial steps to becoming an aerospace engineer?
a In 1973, I enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school. I knew that astronauts were military test pilots and engineers, so I started my training as an engineer with hopes of training as a pilot someday. When the Navy allowed women pilots in 1973, I continued my training and went on to work in technical jobs in the Navy for 28 years. I worked as a navigator, airborne communications officer, mission commander, and weapon systems officer. Although weak eyesight made it impossible to become an astronaut, I am pretty close to being one, and I have flown 67 types of aircraft.

q Who inspired you when you were in high school?
a My high-school math teacher. I was in direct competition with a fellow student for the top grades in my class. I commented to my teacher that I was not as good as he was in the subject, and my teacher told me that I was every bit as good. My teacher’s comment increased my confidence for that class and has affected every part of my life since then.

q Have you had to overcome any cultural barriers to become an engineer?
a  Being female was the biggest barrier. There were very few women engineers in the 1960s, and I had no women engineering role models until I went to college in the mid-1970s. I was the only woman in my aerospace engineering class and only the second woman to have ever taken aerospace engineering there. One of my professors asked me what I was doing in aerospace engineering—he said that women did not belong there, and he would not help me with any of my questions.

q How did you handle the lack of encouragement in college?
a  If I approached his office when this professor was tutoring the male students, he stopped helping them so that I wouldn’t benefit from the information. He made it very difficult for me, but I passed his propulsion course anyway. No one ever asked me why I barely passed courses like his, when I made As in math, physics, and chemistry, and did well in other aerospace-engineering courses.

Luckily, I became involved in the student chapter of The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), where our faculty sponsor was a woman engineer, and where I met other women engineering students. Without their support, I might have doubted my abilities to remain in the aerospace-engineering program. Their influence, along with that of my high school math teacher, made the difference in my ability to cope with the blatant gender discrimination.


 

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Q&A with Debra Coleman
This electrical engineer was so into engineering that she earned two master’s degrees

q When you were a teen, what were you interested in?
a I loved to read, write, draw, and sing, and I also liked playing softball.

q What is your job like?
a As an electrical engineer for Boeing, I work on the galleys of an airplane that are used to provide food and beverage services to passengers. The galleys have microwave ovens, steam ovens, and espresso makers—I make sure all the requirements for electrical wiring are correct so that everything operates safely.

q Did anyone influence you to succeed?
a My mother was the biggest influence on my success in school. She wasn’t college-educated and didn’t have much of a formal education, but she made sure that I took the best classes and got involved in after-school activities, which helped me to get into college. Also, my high-school counselor helped me get into college; although, when I applied to college, at first, I shied away from engineering programs, because I thought they were nerdy. My counselor convinced me to give it a try, because I had good grades, and she said I could always switch majors if I didn’t like engineering. Luckily, I liked engineering so much that I went on to graduate school. I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Boston University, and two master’s degrees—one in computer information systems and another in electrical engineering.

q Can you describe some experiences that influenced your career choice and
helped you succeed in school?

a I started school early and was in the gifted program. I grew up in Sacramento, California, which seemed like a small town in the 1970s—we went to school during the week and church on Sundays. The small-town atmosphere helped, because there weren’t many distractions. At home, we had a set of the encyclopedias, and I did all the activities.

In high school, I joined MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement), which encourages and supports students in math and science. Through MESA, I got to do competitions and travel a little bit—I won $25, which was a lot of money to me at the time.

q Have you had to overcome any cultural barriers to becoming an engineer?
a  One of the things that helped me to overcome cultural barriers was being in an academically focused school. In elementary school, I transferred to a different school and, from an early age, was in academic-success mode. It is very important to get kids into this type of environment, so that they won’t be uncomfortable.


 

 

Q&A with Michelle M. Font
This chemical engineer and former Miss Washington shares insights about her
experiences as a member of a 787 airplane standards management board

q Who inspired you to succeed in school?
a Many people inspired me, beginning with my father and idol, Jose Ramon Font. My father asked only one thing from my sister and me: “gradúense”... “graduate” and, of course, get good grades! He did all that he could to be sure that we knew the only thing asked of us was to graduate high school and college. He was always a very good provider for us and still is. He made sure that we have all that we need—not necessarily all we want—so that we could focus on the larger picture of being successful students. My mother always said to study hard and get a job we loved that we could live off of and on our own. She said, “Life is full of surprises, and you never know when it will be just you, and you’ll have to take care of yourself.”

q Can you describe experiences that influenced your career choice or made it possible to
succeed in school?

a Before my grandmother passed away, I had a year left of school, was working full time, pursuing my second attempt at Miss Washington USA, and had so many things distracting me from school. In my last phone conversation with her, she told me that she was so proud of all of my accomplishments and pursuits. She said, “Give it all you’ve got. Finish all the things you’ve started and be persistent, because you will succeed in everything that you put your mind to.” Within one year, I won Miss Washington USA 2008, passed my last two classes, went to Miss USA, and graduated from the University of Washington with my engineering degree. In every moment of my attempt to succeed, I always thought about her and even just her words—“be persistent.” I believe that persistence, resilience, and dedication are the keys to success.

q How did you decide to become an engineer?
a After one year as a pre-engineer and undecided major, I took an internship at Boeing Aircraft and worked in the sealants lab with, at the time, Boeing Materials and Technology. I really enjoyed my experience and would come home saying, “I had so much fun today—I can’t believe they pay me for this!”

q Did you overcome cultural barriers to become an engineer?
a I wouldn’t say I have had many cultural barriers. If there were, I did not pay any attention to them. I am a very optimistic person who does not let things bring me down or get in my way. One minor issue does come to mind—I was an intern, and I lived at home. In my house, family, and culture, living at home is something that women do until they are married. In my early years at the company prior to graduating, people would constantly tell me that it’s not right for a 20-something-year-old to live at home. They would try to put me down and would succeed at making me feel uncomfortable, but I never let it affect me. I simply educated them and explained to them why I do what I do. I was brought up with good morals and values, and
respecting my parents is one of those. I respect their rules and love living in a house of traditional values.

Sometimes the best way to overcome discrimination is by education. More often than not, the offender just isn’t educated about the subject enough to make a kind comment.


 

 

Q&A with Heather Fleming
This product-design engineer and CEO is motivated by changing social inequalities and
helping her fellow Navajo community members

q Did you always want to become an engineer?
a No, when I was a little girl, I didn’t even know what “engineer” meant. I wasn’t a very technical person. Growing up, I spent a lot of time drawing and sketching with my father, and writing stories and reading books. I always had a pile of books by my bed.

My parents thought I would attend an art school, but I surprised them and majored in engineering at Stanford University. I earned a degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in product design, which is like a creative engineering degree that allows me to design innovative products that help disadvantaged people.

q Can you tell us about the company you started, Catapult Design, and what you do as the
founder and CEO?

a Catapult is a nonprofit firm in San Francisco. We design new products and technologies for disadvantaged people around the world, including those on Native-American reservations and in developing countries. One project we are currently working on is electrification. We’re helping to bring electricity to isolated communities in Guatemala, using a small-scale wind turbine that can power cell phones or a radio, so that people can communicate and learn what is going on in their community.

q What experiences or people influenced your career choice and helped you succeed in school?
a I was lucky to go to Gallup High School in New Mexico, where there was a great mentorship program. I found a mentor who was a software engineer and was teaching a graphics class. As part of the program, I spent an hour a day, four days a week, with him. During that time, we talked about life, the decisions he made, and what he liked and didn’t like about his job. I wrote down everything he said, and then I wrote what I wanted to do and what was important to me. I would not have thought about those things without him.

My other mentors were my cousins Genie and Eunice, because they were girls, engineers, Navajo, and got their college degrees. Eunice started her own business that works with the Navajo tribe, and I was amazed that I knew someone who started her own business—now I am thinking about how my company can work more closely with the Navajo. Also, I used to work with Genie, who was a civil engineer working for the Indian
Health Service. The work involved getting funding to drill a water well, and that’s how I learned that engineers can be humanitarians.

q Have you had to overcome any cultural barriers to become an engineer?
a In most of my engineering classes, I was the only girl, and I hated that so much. My freshman year, it seemed that everyone but me had taken Advanced Placement classes in high school, which allowed them to skip freshman math classes. One way that I overcame this was through a program for minority kids who didn’t have access to AP and honors courses. I put in extra work, and it really helped me with math and science. Also, I got involved with the Native community at the college. One person I met was Karletta Chief. She was a leader of Navajo people and was getting her master’s in engineering. She was smart, traditional, and could speak fluent Navajo. She seemed to have her life in order, and it was neat to go to school with her.

I found that the biggest barrier to accomplishing things was myself. I thought of a host of reasons why I couldn’t or shouldn’t start a business or do the type of work that I do. Once I got over that, things started happening. I slowly realized that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a business degree—you can still start a business. If you want to be an engineer but can only draw a picture, that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I ask for help all the time.

q What advice do you have for aspiring engineers?
a I didn’t aim very high with my college applications, because I didn’t think I had a chance at most places. But my cousin Genie told me she believed I could get in and that I had to try, because if I didn’t get in, it would set a poor example for the rest of the family. I applied to Stanford, and got in—so my advice is this: Aim as high as you can.