Stephanie, an aerospace engineer and former St. Louis University cheerleader, participated in the Pop Warner Caroline Cougars Family Fun Day in Ridgely, Maryland, August 2, where she kicked off a citizen science project to involve adults in science policy discussions! Let’s learn more about her interests in engineering….
Honestly, it was probably before I even knew engineers weren’t just people who drive trains. I’ve always had a real interest in understanding how the world works and learning about science. My dad is a pulmonologist and my mom has her doctorate in nursing, so there was never any shortage of science books or other learning tools around the house growing up. When I was little, I would devour books with titles like The Big Book of Tell Me Why and begged my parents for everything from science kits to an Easy Bake Oven. I got a subscription to ZooBooks (a kid’s magazine that goes into detail about the anatomy, habitat, and psychology of animals) and used to build my Barbie’s houses out of Legos. I’d take things apart, and had a real knack for figuring out how to fix things from VCRs and computers to silly mechanical toys. I will never forget the look on my Mom’s face when she walked into my room and I had my expensive stereo in pieces all over the floor. I had taken it apart because the CD changer wasn’t working, and I think she’s still shocked that it not only worked, but was totally fixed once it was put back together!
My first real understanding of engineering came when I was in eighth grade and my family took a trip to the Kennedy Space Center. I walked in and was amazed at all the things that NASA was doing. There were exhibits on the space shuttles, astronaut training, satellites, and the Mars rover, and I found every one of them fascinating. Walking around I got more and more excited, and finally there was that moment when I thought, “I want to do that.” After an online search about how to get there, there was one term that kept coming up – Aerospace Engineer.
Once I knew the end goal, I did anything I could to learn about engineering, and my dream became to work at NASA. I was lucky to have had two opportunities during high school to really experience what engineering was all about. The first was going to Space Camp, and after that I had the opportunity to go through the Introduction to Engineering program at the University of Notre Dame. During those summers I was able to build and test rockets, simulate actual space missions, use lab resources to build and code robots and test our own engineering designs, and take courses that gave me a head start in college. By the time I graduated high school, I had no doubt that my degree was going to be in engineering.
What is your degree in and from where?
I received my BS in Aerospace Engineering from Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at Saint Louis University. I am also currently working on a dual MSE (Master of Science in Engineering) and MBA (Master of Business Administration) through a joint program between Purdue University and Indiana University.
Favorite and/or most challenging courses you took to prepare for your degree? Why?
My favorite classes in college were by far anything that allowed me to do hands-on work. I particularly loved lab classes and the experiments that we did, and actually ended up going on to be a TA (Teaching Assistant) in our wind tunnel lab my senior year. I also really enjoyed the flight simulation class that I took, where we were able to play with the code and get an understanding of how the simulator worked. I think my most challenging courses were my fluid and gas dynamics courses. I actually enjoyed the material, but it took a lot of work for me to really understand it. I spent a lot of time studying for those classes and getting extra help.
You’re working as an aerospace engineer for the U.S. military. What got you interested in that?
Throughout high school and college I was always very invested in going to work with spacecraft, so I initially took a job as a wind tunnel test engineer at NASA Langley Research Center. Over the two years I worked there I got to see some amazing projects, but was surprised to realize that I actually enjoyed the aircraft work more than I was enjoying the space work. I had a large group of friends who were already working here, and the more I talked to them about their work and the types of aircraft development and testing that they were involved in, the more interesting it seemed to me. I think the defining moment for me was after some of my close friends (one of whom cheered with me at SLU) were commissioned into the Navy and Marine Corps. I really felt compelled to switch paths and move into a job where I could support the warfighter. I am very grateful to be able to work with such cool technology, while making sure our aircraft are safe and mission effective for those who are part of the fleet.
What do you do as a flight controls engineer?
Day to day, I focus on the safety and operation of the flight controls systems of aircraft. In layman’s terms, this means that I work with the moving parts of the wing and tail that control the aircraft while it’s in flight. This includes the control surfaces themselves, the parts that move the control surfaces (actuators, tubing, wiring, metal shafts, etc.), and any computer systems that connect to the flight control surfaces. My job is to understand these systems and certify that they are safe for flight during development testing, production, and sustainment as well as after any changes are made to the design.
Best part of your day job?
The best part of my job is the opportunity to be up close and personal with all the aircraft I work with. I can walk to the hangers to look at and touch the aircraft to understand problems and develop a better solution. If they are flying new aircraft, they’ll send out emails and we can go park near the runway and watch. I love that on any given day I can watch fighter jets, helicopters, and UAVs flying around. It’s one of the coolest environments I’ve ever been exposed to.
You cheered in high school and for St. Louis University. How long did you cheer for them and why did you try out to be a cheerleader?
I cheered for all four years of high school, and three years at SLU. The funny thing is that initially I had zero interest in being a cheerleader. I’d always done dance and gymnastics, so I joined the squad in grade school just to check it out. We only knew about five cheers and just repeated them over and over. I hated it! But then my siblings and I had this babysitter, Sara, who was on the high school squad. She knew I’d been involved in competitive gymnastics and encouraged me to give it a chance. We’d go in the pool and she’d teach me to stunt and work on my tumbling with me. I ended up making both the football and basketball cheer teams, and that was it for me. I was hooked. 🙂 It was just the natural progression for me to cheer in college as well. I know I would have regretted not at least trying out, and I’m so glad that I did.
Which came first, your interest in engineering or cheerleading?
They really hit me at about the same time, in 8th grade. Before then I knew I liked science, but by then I had finally discovered the term ‘engineer’ and was developing an understanding of what that meant. Around then I was also trying out for cheerleading for the first time.
So what’s it like on your day job?
As an aerospace engineer, I focus on the science of aircraft and spacecraft. This can include: researching, designing, building, and testing new technology; researching ways to make current designs better; and developing a better understanding of the environments that aircraft and spacecraft fly (air vs. other atmospheres, weather, etc.). The main goal is to advance technology to allow us to move around the world faster, defend our country more effectively, and find ways to move us, as humans, further into the galaxy and eventually the universe.
To find these new technologies, engineers like me work to make sure that their designs are safe, work correctly, and are the right tools for pilots or astronauts to carry out their missions. We talk with one another to look at the designs and make sure that they not only work the way they are supposed to, but also match up to the mission requirements. This can be done by testing computer models of the aircraft in different flight conditions; using flight simulators where actual pilots can practice flying the aircraft and give us feedback; and putting models of aircraft (that can actually move and sometimes fly) into a wind tunnel, where we can actually watch the air flow around the aircraft and measure things like temperature and pressure at different points on the model. These are all especially important because we can see if everything looks safe before having somebody use these craft for an actual mission. Aerospace engineers can use these tools in an office, laboratory, or even at an airport or launch pad to test right up until the aircraft or spacecraft is going to fly.
What does it mean for you to be an engineer?
One of the biggest reasons that I wanted to be an engineer was because I loved the idea of pushing boundaries and changing the way people think about the world. To do something that was once thought impossible or to have a hand in creating the technology that pushes us into the future is so exciting to me, and I believe part of my job is to pass that excitement along to others. In particular, I think that being an engineer gives opportunities to involve and enthuse children in the great projects we are working on today, in order to help get them ready to build the future.
How do the qualities that made you a great cheerleader benefit you in your engineering career?
It sounds cliché, but it is so, so true – the biggest cheer qualities I use every day are having a positive attitude, understanding teamwork, and having strong communication skills. There seems to be this perception that engineers hole themselves up in their labs or cubicles, working on equations all day long without any interaction with other people. While this might be true for some engineers, the majority of us are constantly working with others in some way or another. You may have to collaborate on a design together, give a presentation about your work, or share your assessment of test results or reports. One of the greatest parts about being on a cheer team is becoming so solid as a group that you can practically read each other’s minds, and everyone knowing what someone is going to do before they do it. An engineering team is no different, and being able to understand each person’s thought process and methods can help make your work tasks flow as smoothly as possible. The positive attitude is very helpful when things aren’t going the way they should be, and someone needs to be a hopeful voice. Another helpful facet of the positive attitude is the ability to “turn it on” and completely change my attitude when necessary. As a cheerleader it didn’t matter how bad my day was, if I didn’t feel well, or if our team was losing by 50 points. Once I was in uniform and on the field/court, I was expected to be a smiling, positive face, and forget about everything else. It always amazed me how just by “turning on” a different attitude I was able to not just pretend, but truly readjust my perspective on what had been bothering me. There are moments in my career when all I want to do is yell and scream, or when nothing is making sense and I just want to give up and walk away. By “turning it on,” albeit in a slightly different way, I can redirect my focus and regain a positive attitude toward my work.
How do you feel about breaking down negative stereotypes about women in your field?
I think it’s a great thing to break down those stereotypes. We are at a point where it should be a no-brainer that women are just as capable of having a STEM and/or military career. I do find it funny when people are surprised by my job, since I actually work with a good number of women, many in leadership roles. It’s a rare day when I don’t interact with a woman in engineering. One of my best female friends even started as an engineer and recently left for flight school to become a pilot! I don’t really believe that people honestly think it’s weird or crazy that women are in engineering, but on a more subconscious level they are just expecting to hear a non-technical career and get thrown off when they hear something technical. As more women choose to go down these career paths, I would love to see the expectation, and by default the response, change.
What about cheerleading? Have you faced a situation where you had to challenge a stereotype about cheerleaders? How did you handle it?
Talking about being a cheerleader is always an interesting experience. Most people think it’s awesome, some people find it intimidating, and then there’s always the perpetual debate on whether it’s a sport. It never ceases to amaze me, however, how many people are shocked when they find out I was a cheerleader, and am now an engineer. There’s usually a pause while they contemplate it, and then a confused look that quickly morphs into a “Well I didn’t expect that!” face, ha ha. Nine times out of ten it’s a total non-issue, and maybe they’ll ask a few questions. I get “Seriously??” and “You don’t seem like the cheerleading type…” quite often. I will say people get used to it pretty quickly once their initial perceptions are shattered. What’s fun is watching them meet other engineers who are former cheerleaders, because the reaction tends to be much less surprised the next time around.
I have had moments, however, where I could actually sense a change in someone’s voice and demeanor that made it clear they were taking me less seriously. It’s been very rare, but has happened a few times. In these instances I just keep doing my work and move on, since they’re usually people that are so convinced of their opinions that nothing is going to change their judgments anyway.
Best cheerleading experience?
I definitely have a few. Competition memories are always some of my favorites. There is seriously no feeling like being out on that floor, and I miss it every day. In college, one of my favorite things was going with the basketball team to the conference tournament. However, I think overall my absolute favorite memory is from homecoming in high school. The school has these huge windows that we called the fishbowl, and every homecoming we used to paint one letter in each window to say “GO CADETS” and the rest to reflect the homecoming theme. We’d be there all day, and get pizza and hang out until everything was done and then we’d have practice. It was an awesome bonding experience and was definitely one of the most fun things we did each year.
Best engineering-related experience?
A few years ago I had the opportunity to stay on an aircraft carrier and take part in a testing event, which was probably the most amazing experience of my engineering career so far. Being out to sea and seeing the fleet in action gave me a totally new perspective on what my job means and how I’m making a difference for our armed forces every day. A close second would be in college, when our SAE Aero team was awarded the most innovative design award at a competition in Los Angeles. We put a lot of work in for that event, and it was awesome to see our effort pay off. They even gave us one of those giant checks, which I hilariously ended up sharing a seat with on the flight home.
If you could rewind the clock and change your degree, would you? If so, to what and why? If not, why not?
For me it’s not so much about changing the degree I have, but earning additional ones. If I could be a professional student I absolutely would! I’ll go to the aquarium or zoo and immediately think, “I’d love to go be a marine biologist/zoologist”, or I’ll read something about ancient history/economics/psychology/etc. and want to immediately go learn more about it. I’d never want to trade in the knowledge that I have about engineering to learn about something else, though. I really just love to learn, and if I can gain a deeper understanding about something I know nothing about, then I’m happy.
What advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
Fight for your dreams, but don’t be afraid to let them change. Sometimes what you thought you wanted and what is important to you will change, and that’s okay! But no matter the direction your dreams take, don’t give up on them. It won’t always be easy, and it won’t always be clear, but in the end it will be worth it.
What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you?
I’m tougher than I look! I’m short and pretty petite, and people constantly look at me like I’m about to break if I go to lift something heavy or do something particularly physically intense. Maybe it’s because I was a base in cheer, but I have no problem throwing my body around or getting hit. I take karate and have looked into Roller Derby, but anyone who isn’t a good friend of mine always seems surprised that I would be interested in those things.
What do you do for fun?
Right now one of my goals is to get my black belt in karate; I’m currently a green belt in the Shorin-ryu Matsumura Orthodox style. When I’m not doing that, I can generally be found doing something crafty, knitting and making jewelry in particular. I also love to read anything and everything I can get my hands on, and I’m (not so) patiently waiting for the new season of Doctor Who.
What are your plans for the future?
My only definite plans are to graduate with my Masters degrees in the next few years. Other than that I’m just seeing where life and my career take me. There are so many opportunities inside and outside of work that I can’t really say where I want to end up just yet. 🙂
Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I want to be a Science Cheerleader because so many girls seem to think that they have to choose between the two. I want them to see that being a cheerleader and liking science are not mutually exclusive, and skills from each side can benefit the other. Hopefully this will help continue to break down stereotypes about both cheerleaders and women who go into scientific careers, and show people that there is no one type of scientist, and no one type of cheerleader. I also want to promote STEM in general, and try to get more people excited about things that are occurring in science and engineering both now and in the future.
At the event in Maryland, Stephanie got Pop Warner coaches and parents involved in a citizen science project related to space!