It's all started with a memorable event in my childhood. Around the age of four, I had the opportunity to enter the cockpit and have the pilots demonstrate how an altitude indicator works. It was a very brief demonstration, but it left a deep impression on me. To this day, I still remember clearly how amazed I was to see the instruments nicely packed in such a small cockpit, and how curious I was to learn more about the art of flying. At the end of the demonstration, I told myself that one day, I would contribute to the advancement of aviation technology. Little did I know that later on, I would actually pursue a career in this field.
First stop: Washington (WA)
Choosing a major was definitely a daring task for a sixteen-year-old me. To me, the options were endless, and I simply did not know which one would suit me best. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted to choose a field I would enjoy and could be good at. After lots of deliberation, I decided to combine my interest in airplanes and my superb ability in mathematics and sciences, and chose to explore the field of aerospace engineering. Although this process was not easy, it was even harder to follow through with my decision as people around me consistently questioned my decision and future in aerospace engineering simply because of my gender. It was definitely not easy to stand my ground and not to be deterred, but it is one of the best decisions I made in my life. So, when it is your turn to choose your major, remember to be true to yourself and make sure you choose a field that you are passionate about! At the end of the day, your are the one who will have to do the required work and build your own career. Having said this, being open-minded to suggestions and opinions is generally good, but always remember to think critically before taking any suggestions and opinions into account.
My introduction to the field of engineering started at Green River College (GRC) in Auburn, Washington. By enrolling in the high school completion program, I had the opportunity to take college-level courses to satisfy the requirements for high school and the first-two years of college at the same time. While doing well on my courses played an important role in my academic success later on, participating in extracurricular activities was not less important. Through these activities, I gained skills and knowledge that cannot be taught from taking courses. During my study at GRC, I was involved in the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) group at the college and served as the secretary. Through this engineering group, I also had the opportunity to participate in the human-powered paper vehicle competition, get hands-on engineering experience on a wide variety of projects, and find my place and role in this male-dominated field. Additionally, I worked at the Math Learning Center as a mathematics tutor. Here, I found the joy of teaching and helping students to develop interest in mathematics and science. At the end of my two-year education at GRC, I earned my high school diploma and Associate Degree in Engineering. But more importantly, I had a clearer view on what engineering is all about, which career path to take, and what it feels to be a female in a male-dominated field. With these, I continued my education to university with confidence that I had chosen the right major for me.
Second stop: Michigan (MI)
Upon graduation from GRC, I transferred to the University of Michigan: Ann Arbor to major in aerospace engineering and minor in mathematics. Here, I had my first research experience, starting with conducting experiments to build the eXtended Solar Array System (XSAS) for a CubeSat to developing a computational fluid dynamics code for atmospheric contaminant transport. Not only that, this is the place where I first realized the importance of mentorship. During my undergraduate study, I was lucky to find graduate students and professors who were great mentors and always glad to offer their advice and guidance. Without them, I would have not got to where I am today. During my senior year, I wanted to pay it forward and became a UROP peer advisor for freshmen, sophomores, and transfer students, introducing them to research and helping them with their academics. At the end of my undergraduate years, I found my interest in computational research, mentoring, and academic career. With this, I decided to continue to my education to graduate level.
Third stop: California (CA)
My graduate study started at Stanford University. This is where I earned Master of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Although this is my shortest stop, the experiences I obtained here are very valuable. During my study here, I was exposed to various career options: working in industry, building a startup, joining an existing startup, or pursuing a doctoral degree. These options opened my eyes and encouraged me to think about what I truly wanted to do next. On my last summer at Stanford, I realized that I wanted nothing more than continuing my education to doctoral level and chose Prof. Krzysztof Fidkowski to be my Ph.D. research advisor. Here, I want to note that while some people put more weight on the name of the university, I would recommend you to put more weight on the type of mentorship you would get from your prospective Ph.D. research advisor. Keep in mind that a doctoral program in the United States usually lasts for at least five years. That means, you and your research advisor will be working closely for quite some time, and thus, it is very important that both of you get along so that you can get the most out of the doctoral program and live a happy life.
Fourth stop: Michigan (MI)
So... Guess where my next stop is! After intensive planning and continuous communication with Prof. Krzysztof Fidkowski, I finally got my acceptance letter to enroll in the aerospace engineering doctoral program at the University of Michigan: Ann Arbor. I was thrilled and excited to receive the offer, but the real hard (fun) work kicked in very quickly. Right at the start of the program, it quickly became apparent to me that I had to plan carefully in order to get the most out of my doctoral study. My plan started with combining the Ph.D. in Scientific Computing program with my core aerospace engineering program in order to build a complete set of skills and learn essential knowledge for conducting computational research. After passing my candidacy test, my focus shifted to producing publishable research outcomes, working with other Ph.D. students in the Computational Fluid Dynamics Group (CFDG), and getting to know other experts in the field. Taking advantage of a more established network, I got the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Scott Murman's group at the NASA Ames Research Center. While this collaboration helped me greatly in terms of research progress, the value of this collaboration was even greater as it brought a new perspective into my problem-solving approach and oral and written communication techniques. In addition to research, I allocated time for building my teaching and mentoring skills. Mentoring undergraduate students, serving as a graduate student instructor, and delivering lectures required a lot work, but the time and effort put into acquiring these skills and experiences are essential for anyone who are thinking of pursuing a career in academia. Towards the end of my doctoral study, I started to learn about research projects outside the field of my expertise, and this helped me to see overlapping ideas between sub-fields of aerospace engineering and think of a way to couple these ideas into new research topics. At this moment, I want to note that there is no magic recipe on how to be a successful Ph.D. student and get the most out of a doctoral program. Each of us has the power and responsibilities to take initiatives and tailor the program to our needs, and for this particular reason, your Ph.D. advisor plays an important role in your academic and career success.
Let's pause for a second and assess my flight path!
So, what do you think of my flight path so far? At first glance, my flight path does not seem to be optimal, right? Why? Because if I were to do my Ph.D. at the same institution where I did my undergraduate study, why didn't I save some time and enroll in the direct Ph.D. program? Well, I did apply to the program, but the timing of my application was off, and I was not admitted to the program due to the lack of funding for my research topic of interest. Rejection was never easy, but having gone through the entire process, I now appreciate the chance to go elsewhere (Stanford, in my case) for I got to see different perspectives and meet new people. This indeed played an important role in my academic and career success. Taking this into account, I am satisfied with my flight path!
Now, it's time for the big question! How do you choose an optimal flight path? Again, there is no specific rule. But in general, you need to first pick where you start and where you want to be, and then you find the optimal flight path to the best of your ability. As you go through the process, keep in mind that things in life do not always work out as planned. At times, you need to improvise and find a different path that will take you to your destination. You may even need to reassess your optimality conditions and constraints. Remember, you are the pilot of your life, and you have the responsibilities and abilities to take actions when the unexpected comes up. Don't get easily discouraged because sometimes, challenges and detours open up a new path that we never thought of before.
Current (final?) stop: Tennessee (TN)
Well, my flight path did get me to my "final" destination. I am now a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Being on the other side of the academic system is indeed a new experience that is exciting and challenging, but I am looking forward to what is next to come!
Let yourself to dream big! Don't let others deter you from entering any field of expertise that you're passionate about! I've been in this male-dominated field for quite some time, and I can tell you that it's fun and I feel that I belong in this field. If I can do it, you can too! I truly believe that engineering is for everyone, and if it is your passion, you will find a way to make your mark in the field.