Austin covered her childhood, as one of three sisters growing up in the Bronx, New York, and how a love for the clear answers in mathematics started the initial spark for her distinguished career. She discussed her time in graduate school and subsequent transition from mathematics into systems engineering. And then he talked about her move to California to join the Aerospace Corporation, where she would spend her career capped by leading the organization as its president and CEO from 2008 to her retirement last year.
“My entrance into the STEM field was really about the exciting projects and the reward that comes from being part of a team that’s working a project,” she said.
Austin became a systems engineer, she said, because of the joy in solving many complicated problems by bringing many disciplines together.
“The system engineer is the person who has to really think 360 degrees around the problem, and say, ‘okay, can we really get that done?’ and I found that really challenging,” she said. “We need experts in every field, but we also need people that can tie those fields together because that’s how we solve problems.”
While acknowledging the shortage of women and African-Americans in the engineering field, she noted that, “if you came in and did the work and were part of a team, people didn’t care if you were purple with two heads.”
In response to an engineering student’s question on advice going forward, Austin noted that engineers, beyond being technically sound, also need to communicate the impact of their work.
“Make sure you understand the ‘so what?’… what is the impact of what you’re doing, or the decision you’re trying to make,” she said. “Make sure we understand what the impact is of the options that are being considered… it really is about being able to communicate to people who are not engineers, the ‘so what’ of your decisions.”
Austin has received numerous honors for her work, including membership in the National Academy of Engineering, the International Academy of Astronautics, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, she was appointed by President Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Last year, she received the Goddard Astronautics Award, one the highest honors of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The program was moderated by Tim Frei, the sector vice president of Global Strategy and Mission Solutions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, as well as a UCLA Engineering alumnus.
The program was held at the California NanoSystems Institute. The Ronald and Valerie Sugar distinguished speaker series was made possible by a gift last year from Ron Sugar, a retired aerospace and defense industry executive who led Northrop Grumman Corporation from 2003 to 2010, and his wife Valerie. Both are UCLA alumni and are longtime supporters of the school.
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Up next in the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series: Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz on April 13.