|Z. Nagin Cox, spacecraft systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was one of three speakers at the first EAA WomenVenture Power Lunch on Friday. (photo by Phil Weston)
By Barbara A. Schmitz
August 2, 2013 - It wasn't your normal power lunch. Most people were wearing T-shirts and shorts and sitting on folding chairs while eating their box lunches.
Yet the more than 500 women assembled at EAA's Theater in the Woods for the first WomenVenture Power Lunch on Friday couldn't help but leave inspired.
Z. Nagin Cox, spacecraft systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Maj. Caroline Jensen, right wing pilot with the U.S. Thunderbirds, and Sherry Carbary, vice president of Boeing Flight Services, told the young and older women assembled how they found their passions and careers and encouraged them to do the same.
Z. Nagin Cox
Cox said she wanted to work on robotics aircraft at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory since she was 14 and "go places nobody has gone before."
But her father wasn't too wild about that idea for his daughter, she said. Knowing that he wouldn't help pay for her college education and that many astronauts had a military background, she walked into an Air Force recruiting van on her way home from high school one day. She found that, with her 4.0 GPA, the military would pay.
Cox went on to graduate from Cornell University and ultimately get a job at JPL. She talked about the Mars mission she is working on and the excitement everyone felt when it was confirmed that the Curiosity rover had touched down. Curiosity will mark one year on Mars next week and has already achieved its main science goal. "It is looking like Mars could have supported life," she said.
After landing on an ancient riverbed, Curiosity took photos of pebbles on Mars that resemble those on Earth, proving that water existed on the Red Planet. They were also able to determine that the water was drinkable, she said.
"This is the type of thing that inspires us," she said. "But follow your interests ... and be part of the movement that makes the world a better place."
Maj. Caroline Jensen
Jensen recalled writing a paper for school on wanting to become a military aviator. She got an F.
"I think the teacher couldn't envision a world where women would want to become combat aviators," Jensen said. "I went in to talk to her about my grade and said I had done my research. So she gave me a D instead."
Thankfully, her family was more supportive about her career choice. Jensen said she knew she wanted to be a combat aviator since she was 13 and saw the Thunderbirds perform. "But at that time, women couldn't be in combat," she said.
But that changed before she graduated from the Air Force Academy. She was deployed in Iraq and also worked as a pilot instructor before she joined the Air Force Reserves.
Jensen is also the first mom and female reservist to be selected to fly for the Thunderbirds.
"I represent the 700,000 who serve," she said. "I feel fortunate to do what I do."
Carbary said there is a need to create a sustainable pipeline of aviation professionals, and particularly female aviation professionals, to meet the upcoming needs of aviation and aerospace businesses.
Over the next 20 years, 35,000 new commercial airplanes will be built, creating a need for 460,000 new commercial pilots and 601,000 new mechanists and technicians, she said.
"Yet only 6 percent of the U.S. commercial pilots are female," she said, "and less than 3 percent are mechanics."
At the same time, 20 percent of people employed in aviation and aerospace are eligible for retirement now. That could mean a significant shortage of trained workers.
"We have to work hard to show that aviation is technologically advanced and offers so many opportunities for younger people," Carbary said.
She encouraged people to remember STEM, noting she wasn't talking about science, technology, engineering and math. Instead she said STEM stands for support, train, encourage and mentor.
"First support. Be there for each other as you move into your careers.
"Train. Learn how to speak up, share stories and make sure your voice is heard," she said. Then encourage people no matter what their dream career may be.
And lastly, mentor. "Go out and look for a mentor and be a mentor," she said. "Reach out, talk to each other, and really continue to change the world."