In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (annually on February 11th), I figured I’d write a little bit about what I actually do as an engineer, how I got here, and how it’s going.
When I was little, I would tell anyone who would listen that I wanted to be an astronaut. I mean, space! stars! rockets! What’s not to like?!
My dreams were crushed in eighth grade when we had to do a project about potential future careers. The assignment was to choose three distinct careers and research the salary, schooling required, and actual daily job tasks of each one. My three choices were astronaut, mathematician, and soccer coach, so that pretty much sums up what I cared about as a (particularly nerdy) teenager. Through my research I found out that astronauts need to go to school forever, that the vast majority of aspiring astronauts don’t actually get accepted to the training program, and that they sometimes don’t even get to go to space, which was all pretty demotivating for a twelve-year-old. But I had a backup plan: instead of going to space myself, I’d help the astronauts get there.
Ultimately, I didn’t quite make it to NASA, but I feel like working at an observatory is equally awesome. Plus, it’s one of the best spots in the world for stargazing. That’s precisely why they chose this location for a facility used to study the sky. I wrote a bit more specifically about my role as a commissioning engineer at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory on the page linked at the top of this post (and here for those of you too lazy to scroll, I fully empathize with that).
I am incredibly grateful that being female in a male-dominated field hasn’t felt like an obstacle, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t come to my attention. In my very first engineering design review about six months after starting at SLAC, which happened to be a pretty important review for my team, I took stock of the room as I nervously awaited my turn to present. Out of the 30 people present, there were three females (including me), and two people under the age of 40 (also including me). That’s a lot of older white guys. A year later, I was in New York for a week for another project-related design review, where I spent my twenty-third birthday dinner far from home drinking margaritas in a Mexican restaurant with seven male colleagues over 50. Not quite what I would have chosen had I been given any sort of choice.
Since then, a fair number of newer (and younger) hires have been made and some of the older folks have retired or moved on to different projects, so the team is definitely more diverse now than it used to be (including three female engineers in their twenties!). Unfortunately, that diversity doesn’t extend to the observatory. Now that I’m based in Chile, I’m the only female engineer here, which is progress compared to zero but there’s clearly more work to be done.
Another result of being part of an under-represented group in my field is that I tend to get profiled a lot, or asked to speak about the project. For example, one year I was interviewed in a Facebook live event for Dark Matter Day (skip to 16:00 for my part), I gave a talk for the SLAC on Tap lecture series, and I’m even in one of the Physics Girl’s videos. To be fair, even though they can be time-consuming I enjoy these types of gigs, partially because they usually let me make jokes (even if they’re terrible) and partially because I want to be a visible role model for young girls who are interested in science and engineering. That’s the ultimate goal — inspire the next generation of diverse engineers and pave the way for them to succeed.