First UCLA Chemical Engineering Ph.D. Now a Senior Program Manager at Northrop Grumman

Kimberly Cross

Courtesy of Kimberly Cross
Kimberly Cross

Feb 14, 2022

UCLA Samueli
In 2012, Kimberly Cross MS ’07, PhD ’12 became the first Black woman to graduate from the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

She began her career at Northrop Grumman in 2015 working as a materials engineer and has since held multiple roles in the American aerospace and defense technology company.

To know that someone else had navigated this terrain brings hope in knowing that this is an achievable, and attainable goal.

Today, she is a senior level program manager within the firm’s Aeronautic Sector Operations in Palmdale, California. As an integrated product team lead, Cross heads a multidisciplinary team of more than 200 members.

Prior to attending UCLA for her advanced studies, Cross graduated from UC Riverside in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.

We recently caught up with Cross to learn more about her academic and professional journey since graduation from UCLA. Following are some highlights from the interview.


Q: Please tell us a bit about your background. When did you know you wanted to be an engineer?
A: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically Oakland. The summer I graduated from high school and the preceding summer right after my freshman year of college at UC Riverside, I had an internship at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. After having not stellar grades in biology while playing basketball my freshman year, my mentors during my internship told me to stop focusing on what went wrong and pay attention to the courses that resulted in better grades. My mentors happened to be chemical engineers and encouraged me to change my major to chemical engineering due to my aptitude for applied science and appreciation of fundamental chemistry, which I did.

Q: Did you have role models growing up who inspired you to pursue STEM?
A: My role models were my parents. They both made significant financial sacrifices by putting me in Catholic school from elementary school through high school in order to provide me a quality education. They had no fancy cars or exquisite vacations, but they invested into their children’s future. For example, our house was full of educational posters and books from the local teacher supply store.
With me always liking math, and later in junior high school, my parents were always finding opportunities for me to advance and challenge myself, including participating in the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement summer program on the UC Berkeley campus as a child.

Q: What was it about engineering that excited you, and how did you see yourself contributing to the field?
A: Getting an undergraduate degree in engineering entails taking various principles from math and science and applying them to various situations to solve problems. Engineering is one of the few fields in which, after getting a bachelor’s degree, you are able to work in the field as a trained professional.
I originally thought I would go to grad school to study a particular area in depth and create a start-up company based on that project. After grad school, my ambition changed to developing or further optimizing a material or production that will be utilized on an aerospace platform. In the first few years of my role at Northrop Grumman as a materials engineer advancing stealth technologies, I had the privilege to grow multiple technologies that are used within various aircraft platforms.
Now, as a program manager, I utilize my technical foundation to assist teams in solving complex problems and/or facilitate the advancement of challenging projects.

Q: Why did you choose UCLA for your graduate studies? Are there any stand-out memories?
A: UCLA is known across the globe as a premier intuition for technical excellence. I wanted to be a part of the legacy the entire campus is known for. Some of my best memories are of being a teaching assistant. I was honored to be awarded teaching assistant of the year voted by the undergraduates in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department in 2009 by supporting them through the thermodynamics course.

Q: What does it mean to you to be the first Black woman to have received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from UCLA?
A: I’m proud to be a member of the group of less than 1% of African American women who have achieved a doctoral degree in engineering. But for me, being the first means that the next set of Black females will be able to navigate grad school more efficiently, more effectively than I experienced. To know that someone else had navigated this terrain brings hope in knowing that this is an achievable and attainable goal.

Q: What is the importance of diverse representation in STEM fields to you?
A: Diversity is critical in all fields, but particularly in STEM. In order to continue to be at the cusp of leading-edge technology, we need people from all backgrounds and walks of life to tackle the challenging problems by seeing things from multiple points of view.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
A: I believe everything happens for a reason, so I would not change how I got to where I am today. I would encourage people to stay in roles long enough to be able to learn and execute that job, train the next you or inspire the next person to take over your job, and see the impacts of the decisions and actions you deployed in that role. That doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it take 10 years to find that balance to ensure you can clearly indicate your impact on the business.

Q: What advice would you give to a young girl who wants to be an engineer?
A: You don’t have to be perfect to have an impactful portfolio in academics and your career. Do not let no’s or failures stop your progress. Lean on your support system of family and friends during turbulent times, but know that the struggle doesn’t define you.

Lastly, as you are working hard and performing, don’t forget to have fun, enjoy the moments and build your network in the midst of everything.

Sara Hubbard contributed to this story.