Zahra Khan

Zahra Khan

Assistant Project Engineer
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Zahra Khan
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I'm an aerospace engineer with a Bachelors degree from Carleton University in Canada and a Masters degree from MIT. My areas of interest are space system engineering, sustainable space exploration and atmospheric flight mechanics. After graduate school, I worked for several years in air traffic control research. Currently, I work at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research as an Assistant Project Engineer where I'm working on a space telescope that will search for exoplanets.

  • 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 Zahra Khan

Hi Ann,

Awesome to hear you're interested in becoming an aerospace engineer.

As for me, I was like you in that I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer so I focused my energy on making that happen. I grew up in a different country where people don't think girls are bad at math and science so I didn't have to face the adversity you're facing with regards to proving I could be an aerospace engineer. I did have to think about how to deal with having to move around the world to become an aerospace engineer as there weren't any opportunities where I grew up.

What helped me was seeing other women working on important aerospace project's like JPL's Pathfinder mission which landed on Mars when I was a high school student.

You have even more role models today. Recently, there was a space exploration panel at the White House Frontiers Conference and it was full of amazing women including Dava Newman, Anousheh Ansari and Erika Wagner (  

Try to ignore the naysayers and focus on applying to colleges for aerospace engineering programs. Many girls have gone on to become amazing aerospace engineers including several of my professors during undergrad and grad school. You can become an awesome aerospace engineer too. 

Walekum Assalam.

I believe so. You should check with the university you're applying to but in general graduate school can be flexible. I've had classmates with civil engineering background during graduate school.
You'll probably get to work on electronics related projects in aerospace if you don't have any mechanical engineering classes as your background.
But again, check with the departments you're considering applying to.

Hi Srijani,

Aerospace engineering us broader in scope than aeronautical engineering so I'd definitely recommend that. You can work in both aeronautics and astronautics fields with that degree.

And India is rapidly becoming more and more involved in space.

Additionally, you might consider applying for college in the US. Some universities offer good scholarships for foreign students. It may be hard for your Bachelors. So another option is to finish Bachelors in India and come to the US for a graduate degree which is usually fully funded. That will give you options to continue working in the aerospace field here.

The short answer is yes because in many colleges, aerospace engineering is basically a specialization of mechanical engineering.

The reverse is also true however. Studying aerospace engineering doesn't lock you into only aerospace can still get mechanical engineering jobs and even other field jobs.

I'd recommend studying what you're more passionate about. That's the key to doing well in school. 

Hi Bruce,
If you're still looking for an answer to this, the short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you'd have to work on a project where they'd apply for an export control license to allow foreign nationals to work on it. And this is rare.

The best thing to do would be to find a company willing to sponsor a work visa and green card. Once you have a green card, ITAR is no longer an issue.

The other part of the answer is that as of November 2014, ITAR rules have changed so many items have been removed from ITAR into other export control categories and a special exemption for some categories has been added for Canadians. It'll probably take some time for employers to take advantage of these changes. But I'd encourage networking to access opportunities here.

I'll also add that some companies like Gulfstream which does civilian work hire Canadians directly. So you might look into that.

For space projects, contractors at NASA Ames are more open to foreign citizens.

Hope this helps.

Aeronautical or aerospace engineering is basically a specialization of mechanical engineering. So either would be fine. Mechanical engineering is a little broader in scope.

But people with either degree can find work in both fields.

Yes since aerospace engineering is essentially a specialization of mechanical engineering.

If you're still in school, perhaps taking some aerospace electives might be useful.

Vaishnavi, I'm not familiar with the situation in India but I thought I'd so by to answer questions 4 and 6.

Getting a Masters in the US is a good idea especially because the cost is usually covered by the university.

But you're correct about it being hard to find jobs as a foreigner. This is mostly due to some security regulations called ITAR - international traffic in arms regulations - especially for space-related jobs. So employers prefer US citizens and green card holders. But it is possible to get some jobs though it is difficult. 

Getting a Masters here allows a foreign student to work here after graduation for a couple of years giving time to employers to apply for work visas. Also a degree from here will be useful to work in other countries too even if a US job doesn't work out. Europe for example is more open
So I'd encourage you to keep this option in mind. 

Hi Debbie, I'm a senior in high school this year, so I've recently been thinking a lot about what I want my major to be in college. I know that I love mechanical engineering, but I'm so incredibly interested in aesthetic design (i.e. fashion and interior design). I've always loved STEM, and I'm even a leader on my school's robotics team, but my interests are so vastly different than those of the other students on my team. My co-leaders tend to spend their time fixing up old cars, playing with their 3D printers, and rendering our solid works robot into different photoshop backgrounds; I read the poetry of Gregory Corso, look up the trending designs at Free People, and make home made craft-gifts for my friends. I know I'm just as qualified as my co-leaders academically, but I almost constantly feel the need to prove that I'm worthy to be a leader on the team. I read an interview of yours in which you said that you hated it when others didn't consider you a real engineer (sorry that this isn't verbatim, I don't have the article in front of me), and I completely empathize with that feeling. From all of this, I want to ask you two questions: 1) How do you deal with people who don't consider you a real engineer and/or who treat you differently because you're a female engineer? Do you maintain friendly relationships with them, or get angry when they make a rude comment? Do you ignore their biases altogether? 2) Based on this extremely short blurb on my life, does it sound like mechanical engineering with a focus in industrial design would be a good field of study for me in the future? (I understand if you don't feel comfortable answering this question as you don't know me on a personal level) Thank you so much for your time. Lauren

I can answer the second question really quick.
MechE + industrial design sounds like an excellent option for you with your artistic and scientific interests.

Hi Karen,

Another great option for you would be Industrial Design which combines engineering design with human factors and aesthetics to design various products - from medical devices to toys to electronics ...basically a whole host of consumer products where ergonomics, usability, aesthetics are very important.

I'm an aerospace engineer myself but my local art college offers an Industrial Design program including evening classes. I took an intro class and loved it.

Highly recommend looking into it.

Hi Sreya,
My apologies for the late response. I just saw this question recently.

First, congratulations on graduating!

As for space systems jobs, Canada does have several companies working on space systems but it depends on your interests and specialization whether they're right for you. Space robotics is the big industry and some space electronics. I'm thinking companies like MDA and ComDev and Magellan (not sure if the latter two are still around).

As for getting a Masters, it can go both ways. Sometimes a graduate education is less useful because companies might find you overqualified :-)
I'm not entirely sure about the situation with this in Canada. I haven't applied for space systems jobs in Canada before.

You're completely right about it being very difficult to get jobs in the States due to ITAR. But its been done. For working in the States, being a student here can be very useful because it entitles you to be able to work here after graduation as part of your student visa while your employer works on sponsoring a work visa. I'll be honest and say its still very difficult to get a job in space systems due to ITAR. However, I should note that ITAR restrictions for Canadians have recently (November 2014) been relaxed. And there are several Canadians around who might be able to direct you good places to apply. But an option to think about is getting a Masters here in the States. Being a student here also allows you to complete internships here before graduating and there are fewer barriers for foreign students to be hired than full-time workers.

If you'd like, you can find my direct contact info on my website:

I'd be happy to learn more about your academic background and see if I can connect you to folks in the Canadian space industry and perhaps talk in more detail about working in the US as a Canadian.

Hi Lisa,
I saw your question and decided to stop by and try to answer.

One thing is that it depends on the idea in terms of what resources ate needed to make it happen.

But a great place to start would be to find a Makerspace in your area. If you're not familiar with these, they're art and technology workshops essentially that offer various machines and tools to build and make things. Many offer classes to learn to use different fabrication techniques. Some have programs for children too.

I'm an aerospace engineer. 

And I chose it simply because I loved aircraft and spacecraft.

My specialization I'm space systems.. Well my motivation is to help humans explore the universe. As Captain Picard would say: to go boldly where no one has gone before.

I would say aerospace engineering is most closely related to mechanical engineering. In many universities, like my undergrad college, it is the same department and only a handful of courses are different between mechanical and aerospace engineering. So one can think of it as a specialization of mechanical engineering.

Sarah, study what you're passionate about.

I'm.not a chemical engineer but a lot of engineers don't actually do field work. Many of us have desk jobs, technicians usually work in the actual factory etc though engineer may supervise.

So as a chemical engineer, you don't necessarily have to be personally working with chemicals.

Also there are extensive safety precautions taken to prevent people fr getting sick.

Hi Nia,

I agree with Jessye about math and science being the key subjects to prepare for engineering in high school.
Other than that, depends on the type of engineering.

As for a nose ring, I wear one and haven't had issues so far. It depends on the work place I suppose and I don't know what percentage of places might have issues soi don't know if what I've experienced is the norm or if I've just been lucky.


You'll be in school to learn stuff you don't know!
So you're not expected to know the info you'll be taught.

Math and science are really the key subjects for any engineering field. Programming can also be really useful.

Other than that, depends on what kind of engineering you want to pursue, extracurriculars like robot competitions etc can be fun, educational and look great on a college application. 

Mary. I was totally like that when I started as well.

There are plenty of opportunities to learn those skills in engineering school. Some are through required classes and others through engineering extra curricular activities. 

As for a job, it's highly dependent on the job. I don't use any hands on skills at my job though I would love to. Also I didn't spend as much time as I would have liked learning hands on skills in school so its not my best strength. But I'm actually learning and using more skills for fun now outside of work.

I would transfer to a Canadian university. It can sometimes be hard to get jobs in Canada with foreign degrees.

Maybe you could contact some companies you're interested in and check if they'll accept a foreign degree? 
My guess is a Canadian degree will be more beneficial in the long run.

Else there are some excellent engineering schools in Toronto and other parts of Canada. There is also financial aid available for these programs so don't just think about community college, think about a university as well.  Some examples are the University of Toronto or Ryerson University

There are many other excellent engineering schools in the rest of Canada as well with financial aid available.

If there is a model rocket club where you live, you could try joining that. 
Take lots of math and science in school. 

You could also see if there is a cube sat (cube satellite) club in your area. 
For example, there is this one in California:

When you reach high school, check out this robot competition:

In Atlanta, you can try contacting the aerospace engineering department at GeorgiaTech to see if they may have any programs for students at your level:

Good luck!


I think studying aerospace engineering gives you an edge when becoming a pilot because you understand how everything works so intimately.

If you are interested in piloting as a hobby, you can take flying lessons anytime. Though be aware that these are often quite expensive.

Several people I know have also gone to commercial flight school after studying aerospace engineering and become airline pilots, etc.

Hi David,

Thanks for your question. 

I did not complete my early education in the United States but I did complete graduate school which allowed me to stay here on a work permit called Optional Practical Training. That provides enough time for employers to apply for work visas.

You are correct about security clearance issues. In the US, there is a set of regulations called the International Traffic in Arms regulations which prevents foreign nationals from working on many aerospace projects specifically in military and space applications or any dual use technologies (civil and military). For this reason, many companies simply do not hire foreign nationals. This set of regulations actually fall under export control rather than regulations on classified technology, etc. Any project requiring an actual security clearance is not open to foreigners as foreigners are not eligible for security clearances. 

What I meant to say is that I've never experienced racial or religious based discrimination on a personal level from any employers. I don't consider employers not hiring foreigners as discrimination as their hands are tied due to legal issues. 

To be able to work in the US, you need a company to sponsor a work visa. Many companies simply find this too cumbersome to do. But there are exceptions. Also, these will be companies that work on projects that don't fall under ITAR, which is tricky because ITAR rules are loosely defined as to what technologies are included. Companies can apply for ITAR-exemption for foreign nationals. But again, the process for this is quite cumbersome and many companies are not willing to do this. One company that hires Canadians is Gulfstream and they work on civilian aircraft.

The good news is that if you are able to be here on a work visa and the employer is willing to sponsor you to become a permanent resident, then you automatically become eligible to work on ITAR-sensitive projects after you get your green card. 

So the short answer is, it is extremely difficult for foreign nationals to work in aerospace in the US. I was lucky enough to find a job that was not ITAR-sensitive and my employer was willing to sponsor my work visa. However, I applied for this while I was already here on a student visa and was able to use the practical training work permit that comes with the student visa to start my job after graduation while the paperwork for a work visa was being done. 

The other thing is that getting jobs in the US is highly dependent on networking. Online job applications are not very helpful. So attending conferences, etc. where you might meet senior engineers or managers from the US who might be able to help your resume/CV get to the right person can be very useful. The opportunities that I've found open to foreign nationals  has pretty much been through networking. Hearing of another foreigner working at a company through alumni networks at my university or meeting someone at a conference and following up to see if there are other positions open at their company. NASA Ames Research Center is another place with several foreign nationals hired as contractors. Again, its networking that is really helpful to hear of opportunities like that. I met several helpful people through attending the Space Generation Congress and the International Astronautical Congress. Both of those have programs for young people include travel funding available and networking opportunities. So if you're interested in space projects, I would check those out.

I am not sure what the situation is in Canada or Europe. I think its definitely easier in those places compared to the US (though I'm Canadian so I don't have any idea about visa problems in Canada). I had good luck with applying to jobs in the Netherlands in the past. 

If you are still in school, doing internships is an excellent way to get your foot in the door. There are definitely internships in the US that are open to foreign nationals. NASA Academy for example has a few limited spots for European and sometimes Canadian students. 

Hope thats helpful.


Salaam Mariam,
Myself and other Muslim women in aerospace I know are living proof that this isn't true :-)

I encourage you to switch your major to something you really love and aerospace is a really exciting field.

As for how to convince your parents, perhaps going to an appointment at your school's career office with your parents might be helpful.  You're also welcome to check out and share my website about my work with your family. My contact info is there in case they have any questions for me.

My website is:

Hi Ikra,
It really depends on what you're interested in.
Aeronautical Engineering and Aerospace Engineering prpgrams have a lot in common.

Aeronautical Engineering would focus more on designing aircraft such as airplanes and helicopters.
Aerospace focuses on both aircraft and also spacecraft such as satellites,moon landers, Mars landers, etc.
I would personally recommend an Aerospace program as its broader and will give you more options. 

As for where, there are excellent   
Programs in both USA and Europe. You should look at other factors such as cost, visas, to decide where to go as well.but for a good engineering program, look for one that provides opportunities to do hands on projects. This is a really good way to learn and is helpful experience I'm getting jobs.

You could also look at university ratings done by various organizations.

Good luck!

Hi Morgan,
Glad you're interested in aerospace. 

As for what to major in for undergrad, it really depends on what you're interested in. You should be able to go onto a Masters in aerospace with either. Though with a background in electrical engineering, an aerospace Masters that's maybe more focused on avionics may be easier. 

If aerospace as a whole is what you're really interested in, then Mechanical Engineering is the way to go as aerospace engineering is essentially a specialization of Mechanical engineering. In fact, in many universities they are the same department. At my undergrad university, the first two years of aerospace and mechanical engineering were identical and so was much of the third year. Some schools which offer only mechanical engineering do offer elective classes that are more related to aerospace. So you could look into this. But in general mechanical engineering is broader than aerospace engineering but you study the same disciplines such as solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, materials science, control systems, etc. 

You could try talking to a mechanical engineering professor at your school to see what elective courses may be more suited to your interests in aerospace engineering. 

Good luck!

Hi there!

It seems like you're undecided about which type of engineering interests you most.
The good news is that its pretty easy to switch fields as there are a lot of common courses that all engineering students take and many colleges have a common freshman year for engineering students.

If you already know that you're interested in both biomedical and aerospace engineering, one thing you could think about would be to apply to a college that offers both those disciplines so you can explore and decide on your major later.

As for doing biomedical engineering and then going to aerospace engineering, that is certainly a possibility. Biomedical engineering programs can have significant mechanical engineering and electrical engineering courses which are also relevant to aerospace. Some of it depends on your specialization but you have time in graduate school to take classes relevant to your research. But you might think about taking some elective classes from the aerospace curriculum that you find interesting.

There are also some specializations in aerospace where a biomedical background would be very handy such as in aerospace medicine and related disciplines including designing life support systems for space exploration and designing space suits. Check out the real cool work done by the Man Vehicle Lab at MIT, for example:

So the short answer to your question is:
Yes, you can switch from being a BME undergrad to aerospace grad and chances are good that it'll work out :-)


Let me just say its never really too late to start working on what you love.
And you're only 20 and still in school so its the perfect time to switch. 

Engineering school doesn't require you to be brilliant at math. You can succeed if you're willing to put in some hard work. So don't let that hold you back. 

If you're still worried, you could try taking some math and engineering classes without officially switching your major and see you how you like it. 

As for job shadowing, perhaps you can reach out to Professional Engineers of Ontario and see if they could help. Or even just go talk to professors in the engineering department at your school. 


Don't lose heart. It sounds like that was a bad expxerience with that project group. But this is not always the case. 

Personally, I've had mostly positive experiences working in engineering teams. 
I hope that situation worked out for you. But in the future, if something like that happens, perhaps you could bring it up with your teammates or your professor. 


Let me just first say that I admire your initiative to take your studies to the next level. I am sure universities would too.

But as far as the GED goes, I would talk to individual universities to figure out what they'll accept. Might I suggest my school, MIT? 
MIT tends to appreciate young people with initiative such as yourself. 

If you're interested in aircraft and engines, you should consider aerospace engineering which focuses on designing and building aircraft and spacecraft, including different types of engines. 

If you want to get a flavour for this, you could see if you could do an internship in the field. I believe NASA sometimes has programs for high school students so you should Google those.


Aerospace engineers usually work in designing aircraft or spacecraft and related systems. 

On a day to day basis, it really depends on a particular job.
Some work in hands-on jobs that involve setting up experiments and testing different components. Some work in design which involves a lot of creative thinking and doing lots of analysis, running simulations etc.
Others, like myself, work in areas such as space system engineering, which is a discipline that ties all the different parts of a space system together. So I spend a lot of time writing requirements, talking to people working on different aspects of the project.

Mechatronics is a really fun field.

I think there may be some confusion as to what mechatronic engineers might do.
Mechatronic engineers usually work in designing robotic systems and building and testing them. Some mechatronic engineers work at factories but what they do is design the machines using in factories, they don't operate the machines. Maintenance engineers might work in figuring out problems with factory machines and design solutions for these.

But engineering in general is mostly about inventing solutions to problems. So thats what you'd be doing if studying mechatronics, inventing the machines. You don't need to graduate from a big name school to do this. And you can also try go to a place like MIT if you like. 

Engineering school teaches you how to solve problems using math and science, which can involve a lot of creative and inventive projects. All engineering schools teach engineering design. 

As for employers, you should pick a field in school that you're passionate about. Employers are flexible about the kinds of degrees they accept. This is because regardless of what type of engineering you study, the big thing that engineering school teaches you to do is solve problems and your skills can be used in other engineering disciplines than the one you majored in.

Jordan, glad you're interested in engineering.

To answer your question, you don't need to know how to draw like an artist to be an engineer.

You may be required to do engineering drawings. But this involves using computer aided design (CAD) tools. If this is relevant to the engineering discipline you're studying, your college would have classes for these. 

You may also have to do sketches to explain your ideas to other engineers. But these don't have to be artistic at all. I'm hopeless at artistic drawing but do just fine with engineering drawings. 

In terms of an academic or workplace environment, you shouldn't have any issues being Muslim.

Social challenges in college are the same regardless of which field you are in such as finding a social circle that maybe is not that much into partying etc. 

But I've experienced zero discrimination as a Muslim during my time in college and in the workplace.

Salaam Nihala!

I actually saw this question when surfing the internet and I had to join the site to answer it.

The answer to your question is: Absolutely Not!

Aerospace/Aeronautical Engineering is a great field filled with people who are really passionate about their work. And I'm so glad you're interested in this field. 

I'm Muslim too and in fact, grew up in Saudi Arabia (Al Khobar). I now work as an aerospace engineer in the US. There were other Muslim girls with me in university both for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Many of them are working in the field.

What people might mean is that you might not be able to get a job in this field in certain countries where the aerospace industry is not very large. So you would have to be open to living in a place where there are aerospace companies or government labs where you could work. 

For my experience so far, I have not experienced any discrimination during all the internships I did in university and the jobs I have done since graduating. 

So I hope you will continue your interest in this exciting field. And please feel free to message me if you have any other questions.