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Aeronautical Engineers

By Nancy J. Mellem

NAME: L. Nicole Smith

Electrical Power Systems Integration Engineer
Company: NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center
Job Title: Electrical Power Systems Integration Engineer
Education & University: B.A. Mathematics/Statistics
and B.S. Aeronautics, Miami University; M.S. in Aerospace Engineering, University of Cincinnati

Nicole Smith is currently the electrical power systems integration engineer for the International Space Station (ISS) Vehicle Office at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. She previously worked in the ISS Training Division, where she trained astronauts and flight controllers on ISS electrical and thermal systems, and was the lead systems instructor for Assembly Flight 13A and integration of the Russian Segment simulator. Prior to that, Smith was employed by Lockheed Martin Space Mission Systems. Her background includes work in computational fluid dynamics, aerothermal analysis, hypervelocity impact studies and orbital debris analysis.

Smith has also worked extensively with the cooperative education and development of the mentoring programs within the ISS training division. She has been active with the Texas Aerospace scholars program and Mars Settlement Design Competitions.

Smith was an Ohio Space Grant Consortium Fellow at the University of Cincinnati, and she is a member of the Board of Directors at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She has been awarded the Sustained Service Award, Special Service Citation. She was also awarded the 2006 Lawrence Sperry Award, which honors Lawrence B. Sperry, pioneer aviator and inventor, and is presented for a notable contribution made by a person under 35 years of age to the advancement of aeronautics or astronautics. In her free time, Smith enjoys traveling, rollerblading, cycling, and being politically active.

NAME: Myles L. Baker

Company: M4 Engineering, Inc.
Job Title: President
Education & University: B.S. Aerospace Engineering, UCLA; M.S. Mechanical Engineering, UCLA; Ph.D. Aerospace Engineering, UCLA

Baker started his professional career with McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, Calif., in 1991. He began as an engineer in the Loads and Dynamics group, which is responsible for determining the loading and vibration environment an aircraft will have to endure in service. In this position, Baker had to understand aerodynamics, structures, weights, propulsion, stability and control, and a variety of other engineering subjects to comprehend aircraft loads. This diversity of topics helped expose Baker to the big picture in the field of engineering.

Through a merger with Boeing, he continued working in this area for ten years. Baker eventually managed the Loads and Dynamics department of a Phantom Works division, which is responsible for many of the new aircraft and spacecraft designs at Boeing.

In 2001, Baker left Boeing to found M4 Engineering, an engineering consulting company focused on multidisciplinary analysis and optimization, as well as on aerospace structures. The company has developed several systems for multidisciplinary analysis and optimization of high-speed aircraft and missiles, which allow engineers to rapidly and automatically evaluate the impact of different aspects of a vehicle's design (aerodynamics, propulsion, structure, thermal system, flight trajectory, etc.), and determine the best overall vehicle design that balances the often conflicting requirements. This capability becomes more important as technology continues to push new vehicles ahead and demands increase for more capability, performance and reliability. On the structures side, M4 performs construction design and analysis of aircraft structural components that will fly on the next generation of commercial and military airplanes.

Baker is an associate fellow of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and a licensed professional engineer in California. He received the AIAA's Lawrence Sperry Award in 2003, which is given to an engineer under the age of 35 who has made outstanding contributions to aeronautics and astronautics.

1) How long have you been at your job and what do you do there?

MLB: We started M4 Engineering in 2001, so we are just wrapping up four years in business. We've been growing rapidly over this time. I do different things every day. When I first started at M4, I was really the technical "heart" of the company, and did pretty much all of the technical engineering work. Since we were focusing on multidisciplinary analysis, this meant I was a structural engineer one day, an aerodynamicist the next, a software engineer the day after that, and so on. As we've grown, I have had to spend more of my time on business issues like staffing decisions, proposals, budgets and accounting tasks. This is not quite as immediately gratifying as the technical work, but it is all part of building an organization and a team, which is the best way to accomplish more technical work in the end.

LNS: I've been with NASA for six years. The first five years I spent training astronauts, flight controllers, and other instructors about ISS electrical and thermal systems.
I also worked a lot with the cooperative education students, and worked to develop a solid mentoring flow for co-ops and new employees.

The past year I have been working in the ISS Vehicle Office as the electrical systems integration engineer, which means that I am a project manager for electrical systems. Basically, any work that needs to be accomplished with regards to the electrical system-whether it is hardware development, on-orbit maintenance work, or maintenance on the ground-has to be worked through several different organizations. I am the person who makes sure that all of the appropriate people have inputs and are communicating with each other. In addition, I manage the list of equipment that the ISS community has to be prepared to remove and replace if there is a failure on-orbit. We have to make sure that the crew is trained, procedures are in place, and spare equipment is on board so if a failure occurred, we could fix it in a timely fashion. It sounds simple, but a massive amount of integration work is involved to prepare in advance for the possibility of a handful of failures. I also pick up some smaller projects, like working the recent jettison of a failed probe from the ISS. That project required integration across the hardware, operations, science and safety communities. It was a really intense project, but the jettison was performed safely by the crew, and it was extremely rewarding to see that happen!

2) What's the best aspect of your job?

MLB: Without a doubt, it's the wide variety of technical issues I get to tackle. While the task may vary (write a piece of code to analyze a system in a new way, or come up with a better design for a part), it is the problem-solving aspect that is the best part of engineering. I can't imagine a place where I could find a wider variety of challenges to work on than at a small company like M4. Any time I can figure out how to make something work better in space in the morning, make something fly better in the atmosphere at lunch, and make something swim better underwater in the afternoon, I consider it a good day!

LNS: I have the opportunity to work with some really amazing people on a daily basis. The people who work at ISS are from all over the world, with a variety of backgrounds. Also, no two days are ever alike. I love coming to work and not knowing what the day has in store for me.

3) What's more important: salary or job satisfaction?

MLB: Of course they are both important. Anyone who says job satisfaction is the only thing that matters has never had to pay their own bills, and anyone who thinks money is the only important thing has never found something they like to do. In my view, if you can have a job where you go home every day thinking, "I accomplished something today", and can make enough money at it to lead a comfortable life, it's all good. If you have a job you hate, even if the money is great, you probably won't succeed at it for long, and the money won't last anyway.

LNS: I believe that a happy balance is necessary. Job satisfaction is definitely important, however. If you feel that your work is not being valued, that can deplete your satisfaction. There are so many other factors that balance out the equation, such as: training, leadership, growth opportunities, and pats on the back. All of these are equally as important as the salary, and help lead to wonderful job satisfaction.

4) What's the best career advice you've ever received?

MLB: People will think this is a shameless plug for your magazine. When I was close to graduating from UCLA with my B.S. degree, I saw a copy of Graduating Engineer with advice for seniors on what they should focus on in their last semester of school. The message of the article was "network." Get to know people, and get to know how to get to know people. At the time, I remember thinking this was crazy. Obviously the best thing to do was to spend more time on studies and projects, and get the most engineering knowledge and best grades I possibly could. It took a long time to realize it, but most of the success I have had in my own career has come to me because I took the time to get to know someone. The old quote "It's not what you know, it's who you know" is not quite true, but there is a corollary that is very true: "It doesn't matter what you know, if you don't know anyone who cares."

Networking is just as important in a big company as in a small business. It is a great way to learn about opportunities. Ask for help, and help people in return. Unfortunately, it is often easier said than done. One of the best ways I have found is to get involved in professional organizations like AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) or IEEE (Institute of Electrical or Electronics Engineers). I would go so far as to say if I had not been an active member of AIAA, it is doubtful I would have been able to get M4 Engineering off the ground.

LNS: I've received some really good advice over the years, but one of the best pieces of advice came from my father. He's in charge of production and planning for a small steel forge. When I was still in school, I went into his work to see him, and we walked all around the shop. We talked about what work was being conducted and how it was accomplished. He pointed to a guy who was using a hydraulic press to straighten a steel axle, and he said, "Always take into account what the guy on the line tells you. He's been doing this for years, and he's doing something that is learned, but can't be taught. If he says that something isn't going to work, believe him, because he knows!" I've kept this in my mind through all these years. You must make sure you understand the situation you're dealing with. Take into account the experience of the personnel with whom you are working. Just because someone doesn't hold an engineering degree doesn't necessarily mean they don't know better!

5) What's the best way a fresh-out-of-college employee can impress you during the first week on the job?

MLB: For me, it is all about initiative. The really successful employees look for tasks that need to be done and problems that need to be solved. If they run into a roadblock, they try to find a way around it themselves, rather than waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The worst thing a new hire can do is to wait for someone to tell them what to do. That's bad for both the employer and the employee. Get involved, ask questions, and try to understand how your work fits into the big picture. This will not only impress the boss, it will help you understand what you want to do and where you want to go.

LNS: Be excited to learn about your new job and willing to dive right in to new challenges. Also, new employees who conduct themselves professionally really impress me. Some of these traits include: presenting yourself well, working hard, not being afraid to ask for help when you need it, and carrying yourself with dignity. If you do these things, you'll earn my faith and trust in your technical and leadership abilities that much sooner.

6) How did you learn to work with staff outside of your department?

MLB: I was lucky. Since I started in a group that depended on many other groups for the data required to do our job, I had plenty of opportunities to work with people in different departments. It came relatively easy.

LNS: I'm really outgoing and I love to meet new people, so it has always come pretty naturally. First. there is so much knowledge out there, I cannot possibly own all of it. I can, however, learn who to call when I need an expert opinion. Second, I am always willing and open to answer questions for others, because if they learn that they can depend on me then I can definitely depend on them at a later time. Communication breakdowns happen when people become territorial with their knowledge.

7) What trait do you admire in co-workers?

MLB: Two things are important. One is a commitment to get the job done. When deadlines are looming, it takes a real commitment to make sure things get done. Sometimes this means working overtime, but a lot of times it just requires a dedicated focus on the task at hand to make sure distractions don't interfere. The second thing is the tenacity to keep working on a problem until it is fixed. It is easy to get an answer to a problem-the important thing is to make sure you understand that answer, understand why it is right (or at least reasonable), and that you have not missed something. This is especially important as we rely more and more on software tools to help with engineering work. It is very easy to make a model that gives garbage results. Even though it takes more time, more effort, and may mean doing things over if you find an error,
it is critical to make sure you understand the results you are generating.

LNS: Honesty and the ability to accept responsibility-whether that means accepting work, or admitting when they have made a mistake. I admire people who are sharp and well prepared for meetings and discussions. I really admire the upper management in the ISS Program-they have this incredible capability to manage risk, schedule and budgets for all of the ISS system work in the program all at once. I can only hope that someday I will be that talented.

8) How do you relieve job frustration?

MLB: I spend time with my family. I am lucky enough to have kids of the age that they still yell "Daddy!!" when I come in. That is a great way to wash away a tough day at the office. Also, a good workout is great for getting rid of stress. I also enjoy projects around the house and reading.

LNS: As a short-term solution, I am a big fan of hanging out with friends, kickboxing, or doing something that is a complete departure from engineering, like playing the piano or going to the theatre. For the long-term, though, I am a fan of trying to work out the problem. What is causing the frustration? Is it something that can be rectified? Is there anything I can do about it? I like to understand what is good and bad about each position
I've been in, why things are that way, and apply that knowledge both now and in the future.

9) What one thing do you know now that you wish you could have known when you first started your job?

MLB: The importance of networking. When I look back on my career, I did not make much of an effort to get to know people outside my immediate professional circle for quite a while. Many of the opportunities I have had would not have come about without a personal relationship.

LNS: Communication with your leadership is key. It is not a bad thing to bring issues to management, as long as you try to bring solutions as well. Sometimes situations just don't work out as nicely as everyone hopes, and if you are struggling or unhappy, suffering quietly while trying to work through it won't fix the problem. An honest but constructive conversation with your manager can allow them to help address the problem. Even the best manager cannot fix something if they don't know it exists. Also, it's great to give kudos for your co-workers to your manager. It's difficult for managers to give credit or on-the-spot awards to you or your peers if they don't know about the great things they have done. Keep the lines of communication open between yourself and your management; it can really keep you moving smoothly along your career development path.

career profilesaerospace engineeringaeronautical engineering

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