“I just tell them I am an engineer.”
America knows the story of Judith Resnik, one of the two female astronauts on board the Challenger space shuttle. But as the country paid tribute and remembrance to the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion Jan. 28, a new generation of school children learned about Resnik, who was embarking on her second space mission that fateful day. As recounted by journalist Adam Sharp, when Resnik was earlier asked by Tom Brokaw on the Today Show, “What do you say when you meet a guy and he says, ‘You’re too cute to be an astronaut,’” her response was succinct. “I just tell them I am an engineer.”
Women have made great strides in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields in the three decades since the first female engineer went to space. Yet there are still challenges to overcome. In 2015, a Twitter hashtag, “ILookLikeAnEngineer” was launched by engineer Isis Wenger in response to comments made about her appearance regarding her participation in a recruiting ad for her company. The hashtag took aim at further knocking down stereotypes about women in engineering.
The Redstone Rocket sat down with three women engineers to discuss their experiences, challenges and hopes for the future of females in engineering.
Following in a father’s footsteps
For Beth Bullock, engineering is a family affair.
Bullock, an electrical engineer with the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, showed a talent for engineering at an age when her contemporaries were learning to color inside the lines.
“My grandparents adopted me and my grandfather (who became my) dad was a NASA engineer and one of the charter members of Marshall Space Flight Center,” Bullock said. “I showed a very early enthusiasm for electronics. I fixed his old radio by rearranging the tubes when I was three.”
Bullock started computer programming at age nine and opened her own website company at age thirteen, designing websites for local churches in her hometown of Athens. She was awarded a scholarship to Georgia Institute of Technology, but declined acceptance due to her parents’ concerns about her being far away at school in the big city. Bullock instead started her college career at Calhoun Community College taking programming classes. She then transferred to The University of Alabama in Huntsville, where she furthered her education while interning at communications technology company Digium, Inc.
“I was their twelfth employee,” she said. “They were brand new and I was one of their test engineers. I tested all of the cards and did a lot of their trade shows.”
After her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Bullock moved home to care for him while taking online classes at Athens State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science. He passed away a short time later.
For the next few years, Bullock worked as a contractor for different industry companies. Her father had always urged Bullock to pursue a job with the federal government and following his advice she applied and accepted a position at AMRDEC in 2011, working in development of radio frequency technologies.
“I get to do real hands-on electronic work,” she said. “We do a lot of hands-on software development and development of new radar and RF technologies within the radar group.”
Working at AMRDEC has provided Bullock with different opportunities, including a 12-week stint at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For the small town girl, living in Washington D.C. was a whole new world of opportunity.
“It was a good experience. A lot of the basic research that we can’t do here at Redstone because the risk is too high – DARPA gets to do,” she said. “I got to experience that more risk-tolerant type of program environment so it was beneficial … on top of that, it helped me bring things back to AMRDEC to help do collaborations between the two of us.”
In addition to professional opportunities, Bullock’s computer science and engineering proficiency also led her to love in an unconventional place.
“I’m so nerdy, I met my husband in a computer store,” Bullock said with a laugh. “I met him arguing over a computer. I called him an idiot!”
Bullock’s now-husband followed her out of the store and promised to fix her computer for free on his own time. The resulting friendship blossomed to love. The couple has been married three years.
As a woman in a STEM career, Bullock credited her female leadership with providing her strong examples to emulate in her role as an executive officer to Dr. Juanita Harris, director for AMRDEC’s Weapons Development and Integration Directorate.
“Being an XO to Dr. Harris really built up my confidence … she is a true leader,” Bullock said.
Bullock said that as a young woman, she has experienced being stereotyped based on her gender and not conforming to the “typical” engineer mold. Her fellow students compared her to Reese Witherspoon’s character in the movie, “Legally Blonde,” especially since Bullock was also blonde, a member of a sorority and even owned a miniature dog like Witherspoon’s character, Elle Woods.
“I call it the ‘Urkel’ stereotype,” she said. “(I haven’t experienced it) at AMRDEC or even at Redstone. But when I am in other cities … they say, ‘You don’t look like an engineer,’ and I respond, ‘What does an engineer look like?’”
Bullock said that change will happen when society starts validating intelligence and “geekiness.”
“You can be a geek and football star … if you are athletic, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t intelligent. I don’t necessarily think that it is a girl thing as much as it is a geek thing. I think it is getting better, because I see kids letting their nerd flag fly. And that is a good thing because you should be who you are.”
Finding a balance between career and family
The Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s Susan Johnson never foresaw a career with the Army. But 30 years later, she has built an impressive career working with cutting-edge technology that she never envisioned as a young girl in Anniston, Alabama. Back then, Johnson actually planned to become a teacher.
“As a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher because I come from a lineage of teachers,” she said. “I was blessed the summer before I went to college, I was a student summer hire at a daycare center and realized that was not for me!”
Johnson attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, initially majoring in computer science. After finding that she enjoyed her engineering courses more than the computer science, Johnson pursued that course of study, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, with a focus in computer science.
After graduation, Johnson initially accepted an intern position with the Army Materiel Command, where she would attend the Army School of Engineering and Logistics in Texas. After completion of a year of master’s level course, Johnson was assigned to Headquarters, Depot Systems Command at Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania to complete her internship.
Although happy in her career, Johnson felt a longing to return to sweet home Alabama.
“I wanted to do a geographic change and come back south, close to home,” she said.
Johnson accepted a job with the Multiple Launch Rocket System office at Redstone in 1990. Two years later, she accepted a position with SMDC providing her the opportunity to work several years as a matrixed employee with the Missile Defene Agency. Johnson would eventually return to SMDC and build an impressive career in directed energy, or in laymen’s terms: lasers.
Johnson said that key components of workplace satisfaction and why she has spent most of her professional career at SMDC are a strong belief in the mission and the camaraderie with fellow workers.
“First and foremost, we are a small group,” Johnson said. “We are a family. I love the group of people that I work with. I of course enjoy what I do, but it is also a pleasure to come to work every day and that says a lot for our management.
“We are not micro-managed, we are allowed to be leaders and lead our area … I think that allows us to be empowered and feel like you can contribute more. That says a lot for the program and for SMDC as a whole.”
Johnson, the parent of four, is on the cusp of the empty nest, with her youngest son set to graduate from high school this year. She will also soon be answering to a new job title – grandmother. After raising four children – including a set of twins – while working in a demanding career, she advised other working moms to give themselves a little grace.
“Being a female, and married with kids … you really have to prioritize – sometimes you don’t get it right but you pick up and you move along. You have to realize that you can’t do it all at one time but eventually will get it all done. That has been a growing experience (for me).”
Johnson said that all of her kids have shown proficiency for math and science, but none have expressed an interest in engineering – yet.
“I am holding out on the senior!” she said with a smile.
In the future, Johnson hopes to mentor young women on their career path and share the lessons she has learned over a career of government service. She had advice for the young girls who are thinking about a career in engineering – take advantage of all of the opportunities that did not exist when she was a young girl.
“In addition to taking as much math as you can, one of the things that women can benefit from are STEM programs,” she said. “Schools offer summer programs – I would highly recommend that they tap into that. Some colleges even offer summer camps for students in high school.
“And (once you have begun your career), don’t be afraid to apply yourself. Go outside of the box and accept new roles when the opportunity presents itself.”
Engineer steps outside of comfort zone
How does an introvert find herself in a job where a key role is advising others on how to improve their projects? For Tiffany Torres, it wasn’t a straight line to her current professional role at the Army Corps of Engineers, Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville.
“I was never interested in engineering, I was more into books,” Torres said. “Engineering wasn’t on my radar until I was a junior in high school. My math teacher took me to the side one day and mentioned that there was a summer program at Auburn (University) and asked me if I was interested.”
Torres spent a week in Auburn, and after the experience started dreaming of a job at NASA.
“The one engineering program that I did not want to do was industrial because it seemed so boring – and that is the one that I ended up doing!” she said.
Torres a native of Miami, Florida, would go on to attend the University of Miami. While at UM, she joined ROTC and planned a military career in the Air Force, until a heart murmur grounded her aspirations to work in missile defense. Or so she thought.
After graduation, Torres accepted a position with SMDC, where she would spend four years in the command’s internship program. While an intern the first two years, Torres had the opportunity to work in many different capacities but was not sure that SMDC was ultimately where she was meant to spend her professional career. While browsing government jobs online, Torres came across a job announcement for her current position.
“When I read the description, it was very much in line with my degree,” Torres said. “Value engineers study and look for ways to improve (projects).”
Torres was hired in 2008, and in the past eight years has assisted program managers, as well as led studies, training and discussions – which have been a hurdle for someone who “hates public speaking,” she said. Earlier in her career, Torres said that she struggled with stage fright and having the spotlight turn to her.
“My biggest challenge is myself,” she said. “I felt like I was pressured to be more assertive in meetings and that is not my personality type. I felt like I was pressured to fit into a certain mold.”
Today, Torres said that she has found a way to be true to herself, while building a confidence in front of large groups that has come with experience. Part of that confidence she said, comes from a genuine love for her job.
“I enjoy the work … I enjoy the fact that my position that has to touch every program in the building – I love to find out what everyone is working on. We really are a diverse group here that does such different work and I really enjoy learning about everyone’s program,” Torres said.
When not at the Corps, Torres is the mom to four – two toddlers and a baby on the way. Sadly, her oldest son Julius passed away in 2010. With a bustling household of children under the age of five, Torres and her husband made the decision for him to be a stay-at-home dad. But even with her husband as primary caregiver, life is still understandably busy, juggling the roles of engineer and mom. Torres credits the Corps as providing a family-friendly atmosphere, with little travel and flexibility in her job role. She tries to maintain a work/life balance by turning off her Blackberry when she is home to better focus on her family.
“I feel very fortunate to be here,” she said. “But it is still always hard to leave them.”
Even though Torres said that engineering is still a male-dominated profession, she encourages young women today to change that. And what better place to pursue engineering as a career than the Rocket City?
“There are a lot of engineers in this town,” she said. “Don’t be afraid if it is a male-dominated profession. Don’t let fear hold you back. If you are really interested in engineering, go for it. It is a very rewarding profession. I have no regrets.”