Those of us working in down-to-earth jobs can only tip our caps to those working in more lofty professions like space travel, biotechnology and systems gaming. There is no doubt, in the age of autonomous vehicles and virtual reality gaming systems, that behind these innovations lies a talented group of engineers pushing the proverbial bar higher to build the technology that will take us into the future.
It just so happens that quite a few of them are well-educated and passionate African-American engineers and scientists. Below, they share details of their career journey (for some, it started at an HBCU) and their thoughts on the future of aerospace engineering, biotechnology and gaming.
Aisha Bowe, co-founder and CEO, STEMBoard
Education: University of Michigan, Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering; master’s degree in space systems engineering
On her career journey: “I am the co-founder and CEO of STEMBoard, a technology-solutions company that specializes in developing defense and intelligence systems. My responsibilities include leading development, expansion and management of STEMBoard’s defense contracts and private-sector clients. Prior to STEMBoard, I was an aerospace engineer at the NASA Ames Research Center.”
On the future of the industry: “A background in aerospace has allowed me to transition from working as a NASA engineer to a CEO of a growing startup. It’s not the education, it’s the application. The inventions we take for granted were all at one point considered unlikely. This is particularly true today, as the best and brightest from the next generation are creating their own jobs rather than waiting for someone to hand them an opportunity. Those with the boldest ideas and the ambition to see them through are the ones who will be most successful.”
Wanita Dixon, staff project engineer, UTC Climate Controls & Security
Education: North Carolina A&T University, Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering; University of Florida, Master of Science in mechanical engineering; Capella University, Ph.D., in organization management
On her career journey: “I am a seasoned engineer with a background in rocket and jet engine design, assembly and testing. Recently, I moved into the commercial side of UTC, which includes international and domestic projects in refrigeration, fire/security, elevators and HVAC solutions with the UTC portfolio. As an in-house consultant, I am responsible for training and facilitating new product development through the application of innovation methodology.”
On the future of the industry: “Aerospace offers the opportunity to work on defense projects of critical national need. Working on consumer products allows a different perspective and opportunity to make life better internationally through access to resources such as air travel, reliable refrigeration and climate-control solutions. It will be important to consider customer experience with products and not just the functional utility.”
Myron Jonah Fletcher, rocket propulsion engineer, Boeing
Education: Tuskegee University, Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering with a minor in physics and mathematics; Duke University, pursing a master's degree in engineering management
On his career journey: “As a former NASA research assistant, I studied the behavior of functionalized multiwall carbon nanotubes and determined their mechanical behaviors.”
On the future of the industry: “As an engineer, we create something out of nothing. We fix problems that don't even exist and strive to make better lives for all mankind. The most important aspect for the next generation would be to work together and collaborate as international partners for the betterment of mankind.”
Lloryn Hubbard, clinical trial manager, Medivation Inc.
Education: Seattle University, Bachelor of Science in biology, with a minor in cultural anthropology
On the future of the industry: "Many people might not think about the biotech field this way, but it's extremely creative/innovative and that's what I appreciate most: the ability to think outside the box to determine better ways to treat and help patients. I think that's also what's important for those coming into this field: Don't be afraid to push the limits, and as cliché as it sounds, always think about the patients you're serving."
Andrew Lake, lead systems engineer, Blue Origin
Education: Mississippi State University, Bachelor and Master of Science in aerospace engineering
On his career journey: “I grew up in Jamaica, dreaming of airplanes and spaceflight, and never being told by anyone to stop that silliness. Since then, I’ve been an experimental flight-test engineer, a wind tunnel test engineer, an avionics-system-safety engineer, and now the lead system-safety engineer at a company pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight.”
On the future of the industry: “Across the space industry today, the pieces of the infrastructure necessary to build and sustain a lasting human presence in space are being put into place. A wide range of opportunities are emerging to help build that infrastructure and to help build entirely new economies using that infrastructure. I believe that we should see ourselves as an essential part of that future and that we will make it so by focusing on two basic things: an uncompromising drive for a deep understanding of anything that occupies our time, and a willingness to dream beyond the expectations of others.”
Lauren Lyons, mission integration engineer, SpaceX
Education: Princeton University, Bachelor of Science in engineering in mechanical and aerospace engineering; Harvard Kennedy School of Government, master’s degree in public policy, with a focus on business and government policy
On her career journey: “I have worked as a medical device R&D engineer, a writer, a Mars robotics engineer at NASA, a dating-company founder, and a leadership instructor at Harvard. [At SpaceX,] I manage the integration of NASA satellites onto our rockets, and moonlight as the co-host of our live launch webcasts. In my spare time, I write [true] stories, give talks about the power of STEM education, and do my little part to help make the world more empathetic, joyful and just.”
On the future of the industry: “At SpaceX, we’re always working to push the boundaries of what’s possible. We have ambitious goals, like achieving fully and rapidly reusable spacecraft and sending humans to Mars, and we aim to inspire the public to experience this journey with us. Being part of a team that’s not just able to dream big, but execute well, makes this one of the most exhilarating places to be an engineer.”
Cierra McDonald, senior program manager for Xbox, Microsoft
Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bachelor of Science in computer science
On her career journey: “My primary role at Xbox is owner of the Xbox Live Achievements & Gamerscore systems across all Xbox platforms (Xbox One, Windows 10, Xbox 360, etc.). Essentially, this means that I design the features and lead a team of developers to implement those features; I own the technical and business policies for Achievements & Gamerscore; and I assist game developers with integrating achievements into their games.”
On the future of the industry: “I love working in the gaming industry. Besides my immediate connection as a gamer since childhood, working in this industry is an amazing opportunity to create products that bring joy to millions of people every day while also working on legitimately challenging, yet fulfilling, engineering problems. There are innumerable opportunities for STEM folks to bring their know-how in areas such as Big Data, AR, VR and HCI to bear in the world of video games. Plus, building games is a great way to introduce and stimulate STEM educational or career interests in kids, and there are tons of accessible, often free, tools available online. Let's teach the next generation to not just consume, but to create and bring their imaginations to life!”
Edward Tunstel, senior roboticist, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
Education: Howard University, mechanical engineering (bachelor's and master’s degrees); University of New Mexico, Ph.D., electrical and computer engineering
On his career journey: “I served on the NASA Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) flight project as a flight-systems engineer specializing in rover surface mobility and autonomous navigation, and on its surface operations Spacecraft-Rover Engineering Team as lead of its mobility and robotic arm sub-element. I’m currently engaged in performing research enabling human-collaborative teams of autonomous aerial and ground robots, as well as modular open system architectures for next-generation robotic systems.”
On the future of the industry: “Next-generation engineers in this field will deal with robotics technology that is increasingly capable and effective at exploration and as partners to humans. Attention to developing ways to make interactions between robots and humans, whether astronauts or factory workers, would be attention well spent.”
Sherrell Dorsey is a social-impact storyteller who started coding at the age of 14 and now speaks and writes frequently on the intersections of sustainability, technology and digital inclusion. Follow her on Twitter.