August 28, 2007Her job: Prof. and Associate Head of Aerospace Engineering, University of Illinois
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I divide my time between teaching classes, meeting with students and performing research. The time spent interacting with young, bright people who are interested in learning about space is my favorite.
Why did you choose engineering?
I always wanted to be an astronaut. When considering a major for college, I looked at my options and aerospace engineering seemed to provide me with the background that I would need to qualify to be astronaut. Also, with an engineering degree, I figured that even if I didn't become an astronaut, I could be involved in the design of space missions. An engineering degree would set me up in a win-win situation!
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I have a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D., all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
I teach a variety of courses but currently I'm involved in teaching several design courses. In one class we are designing, building, and testing a very small satellite to be launched in 2009. It is exciting to be involved in a project that will actually fly in space. Design courses are challenging because many times the design objective is open-ended. This means that there is more than one way to solve the objective and this leads to creativity. I also do theoretical work to determine the trajectories of spacecraft with existing and futuristic propulsion systems.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
I love interacting with bright individuals who want to learn. There is nothing more exciting and rewarding than to assist each other in the learning process. Universities are a great place to work because of the diversity of people that study and work there. The best engineers are individuals who are open minded to new ideas and can combine them with existing concepts to create revolutionary products.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
I interviewed at NASA Johnson Space Center to be an astronaut. It was an exciting week-long interview that involved many physical and psychological exams. Unfortunately I was medically disqualified for my vision but I met several extremely interesting people, some with which I am still communicating.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
Becoming an engineer was not easy for me. There were no female engineers teaching in the aerospace engineering department and I was the only girl in many of my classes. I sometimes felt that it would be easier to give up, but I took it as a personal challenge to graduate with my engineering degree. I am certainly happy that I stuck it out!
Please tell us a little about your family.
I have two beautiful daughters, aged 10 and 8. I love being a mommy! We have an adorable dog named Lila.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My parents had a tremendously positive influence on my decision to pursue engineering. From my youngest days my parents told me that I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough. Both my parents were teachers so I guess my ending up being an engineering teacher is a nice balance. Also, when I was an undergraduate I had the pleasure of talking with Steve Nagel who was an active astronaut at the time. I asked him what I should study to better my chances of becoming an astronaut. He gave me some really great advice. He said "Vicki, you should choose a profession that you are really interested in practicing. Then you will be happy whether you are an astronaut or not." Thank you, Steve, for those words!
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Find a topic that you are really interested in and then work as hard as you can to learn as much as possible about it. Take as many classes in math, physics and chemistry that your school has to offer.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I love to play tennis and enjoy most physical activities. I also like traveling.