My story

It was a journey for me to get to aerospace engineering, I didn't always know that was what I wanted to do. I wasn't a very studious kid in primary school, my parents had to take me to this maths program called 'Kumon', where you basically do maths problems all day. That unlocked something in me...it made me realise that I could be good at maths. As I progressed through high school, I just kept wanting to be good at it. It was a challenge.

I was interested in planes from a young age. As a little kid, I had the privilege of traveling a lot. There was a particular trip where I got to sit in the cockpit with the pilots mid-flight. They let me play with a few switches and knobs and joked that I was actually rolling the plane. That experience made me want to be a pilot. As I grew older, I realized that pilots had too much pressure on their hands and I don't do too well under pressure, I can't make quick decisions. Aerospace engineering was a good compromise, I was good at maths and physics but I didn't have to fly the plane-I could just design them.

I studied a double degree in engineering and science at university. After I finished, I didn't really know how I wanted to proceed with my career. In Australia, aerospace engineering is pretty competitive, there aren't as many opportunities as there are graduates. I started looking around for jobs that I could do in the meantime and I found this amazing position as a science educator at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC). Little did I know when I applied, working at this center would be some of the best times of my life. I taught science, in the context of space and astronautics, to high school and primary school students. I got to develop my communication skills and how I present myself as a person. It was really three years of professional, as well as personal development.

Once I left VSSEC, I got a graduate position with Virgin Australia. Being rotated through the different areas of the business was paramount to where I am today. What I got from that was to always be willing to learn something. Having a mindset where you seek continual improvement and continual learning will help you no matter where you go, no matter what you do. I've since moved on from Virgin and I am currently working as a flight analyst with Jetstar airways. My position now involves a lot of numbers and looking at patterns in data. This position is less pure engineering, but a lot of maths and problem solving.

I'm a big believer in mentorship, I've had some really supportive people in my life that have helped me along the way. From the science communication track, I learnt a lot from my two bosses at VSSEC. I don't get to talk to them as much these days since I've left, but whenever I do- it's just like meeting an old friend. They pay so much interest in the people they talk to. And that is so appreciated. My manager at Tigerair Australia was also incredibly supportive. She would always pay attention to each person, every day. You could tell that she was genuinely interested in how you were doing. Even after I left, we still catch up, she's always happy to help me even though we're competitors now! It's those people that you need in your life because they're ahead of you in experience, so they can impart wisdom on you without being too teachy or judgy or preachy.

Outside of work, I spend a lot of time with friends and family, I also play a lot of video games. I play a lot of RPGs (role playing games), which is quite common in the scientific community. I think scientists can be more in touch with their curiosity than the average person. We want to test: what happens if I do this, or what happens if I try this? Almost every video game will let you test your theories, so I guess that's what draws us into it. On the weekends I'm at Church, devoting time to volunteering is important to me. The appeal of Church to me is having a like-minded community. Another part of it is that I like having a purpose. I like knowing that my time on earth means something, that I'm here for a reason. And so I guess that's where my faith comes in, it sort of answers that question.

Studying aerospace engineering

Aerospace engineering looks at how craft like helicopters, gliders, drones, and aeroplanes fly. At the core of the discipline, we're trying to manage four forces. Those are: lift (upwards), weight (gravity, downwards), thrust (from the engine, forwards) and drag (air resistance, backwards). No matter what company you work for, Boeing, Airbus or even engine manufacturers like General Electric or Rolls Royce, they're all just trying to balance those four forces. In aerospace engineering, we study topics such as fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, aerostructures , materials, and then bits and pieces of other engineering disciplines . As you go towards the end of your degree, you start thinking about how to specialize. This could be in advanced materials (looking at composite materials), engines (and how to improve them), you could look at instrumentation and electronics in the cockpit etc.

Understanding these physics principles are crucial to building safe aircraft. For example, the principles of flight are derived from fluid dynamics (then called aerodynamics when the fluid is air). It is really important to understand how fluid behaves to understand how a plane is able to fly. For example, the pressure differences caused by air flowing faster over the top of the aeroplane wing than underneath. You can see this when you're in a car and you stick your hand out the window (which you definitely shouldn't do). You feel the air rushing past your hand, the faster the car is going. The more you angle your hand, the more the air wants to push up your hand. The key to getting something heavy to lift is to go really fast. The faster you go, the more air hits your craft, the more force you feel and the more pressure pushes it up.

Thermodynamics and energy conservation principles also come into it. If we take the Concorde as an example, that's a plane that, at certain phases  of its flight, flies faster than the speed of sound. You can actually see this boundary, if you're in a humid environment, in the form of condensation clouds. The temperature and pressure changes at the boundary of the speed of sound cause water molecules to condense and create that cloud. You can also hear this boundary, as a sonic boom. This also happens because of the pressure and temperature change. If you have a sudden increase in pressure and temperature, the energy has to dissipate somewhere. And so it does this in the form of sound!

Managing the four forces of flight

Aerospace engineering is all about balancing the four forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust and drag.

Producing lift

In the context of an aeroplane, the wings are what help a plane lift. For those of us who have been on a flight before, you will notice that just before take-off, you hear this whirring machine noise. That is because the pilot has flipped the switch for the wing to actually change shape. There's a little bit on the front of the wing called the slat. This extends and increases the surface area of the wing. The bits at the back of the wing also extend. We do this because you need all that surface area to be able to lift the plane up. Once we're in the air, we reach what's called cruise altitude. Now, the wings can reduce their surface area because we're just trying to maintain a flat level. At cruise altitude, the plane is not getting any faster or slower, it's not going up or down. If we go back to the four forces of flight, that means all four forces are balanced. Lift counteracts weight, equally-thrust counteracts drag. Landing is a bit more complicated than taking off, but basically the pilot flicks the switch again and the wings open to their maximum area. This allows the pilot to slow down and control the descent of the aeroplane.

Reducing drag

If you look at modern aircraft these days you'll notice that they haven't changed too much in the last couple of decades. They're mainly a long tube with wings, some bits on the tail that help with controlling direction and movement. A thin and narrow tube allows the craft to move through the air more efficiently. A wide and big shape would produce a lot of drag and slow things down, which is not what you want.

Producing thrust

The other crucial part about modern aircraft are the big engines that you see. They have these huge fans that suck in air. That air is then ignited by fire and gas and then gets shot out the back as really hot air. We know that when air heats up, it expands and when things expand, they take up a lot of space. If you force something really big out a really small hole, it goes really fast. And hence, the plane goes really fast.

Reducing weight

The heavier a craft is, the harder it is to lift it off the ground. So we need to engineer the crafts to be as light as possible. But materials that are light are generally structurally weaker, they can't hold their shape as well as heavy materials can. Aluminium is light, but it's not strong-it's malleable and soft. Concrete is very strong, but it's very heavy. Ceramic is also very strong, but it's brittle, which means it cracks easily. So the challenge for aerospace engineers is to get a strong, light and reasonably cheap material to build our planes out of. In the last couple of decades, the main material that we build planes out of is either carbon fibre, which are long strings of carbon bunched together, or aluminium alloys. An aluminium alloy is aluminium mixed together with other metals such as titanium-which makes it stronger. This gives us the best properties of both materials. Most modern aircraft are built with these two materials in mind because they're strong, light and relatively cheap.

These materials are tested in different ways to adhere to the very strict Aviation regulations in Australia. We have a really good safety record in Australia because the rules are so comprehensive that you have to make sure that the chances of anything bad happening are almost zero. One test that we do is called a wind tunnel test. We put the aircraft on the ground in a huge room and blow it with air to see what happens when this aircraft is put under lots of stress. This lets us recreate that scenario on the ground in a controlled environment. We see what happens with the material, how stressed it is, what kind of failure modes arise and how soon they arise. Then we can build a picture of what would happen in real life, when the plane is in the sky.

Communicating Science

Once I finished my engineering and science double degree at university, I didn't really know how I wanted to proceed with my career. In Australia, aerospace engineering is really competitive, there aren't as many opportunities as there are graduates. I didn't manage to get any industry experience in my final year so I felt like I was behind the eight ball already. I started looking around for jobs that I could do and I found this amazing position at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC). Little did I know when I applied, working at this center would be some of the best times of my life. At that job, I got to dress up in a flight suit every day. I taught science in the context of space and astronautics to high school and primary school students. We took them on “missions to mars”, from both the astronaut/scientist side as well as what it takes to be in mission control. I got to develop my communication skills and how I present myself as a person. It was really three years of professional, as well as personal development.

Science communication and education is very important to me. It goes off from my mantra of always wanting to learn. The reason I want to learn is so that I can impart knowledge on other people. I find purpose in empowering people and giving them tools to be able to succeed for themselves because I know what it's like to succeed on my own terms.

My time working in science communication has helped me develop a voice. Not necessarily a brand new voice, just a better definition of my voice. Being able to use that voice wherever I go now has been so profound. It helps me with my stakeholder management. It helps me build rapport a lot easier because I know how to ask the right questions. I know what to look for in certain people. I know how to find the red flags.

I still use some of the pedagogical skills that we were taught at VSSEC. One of those was: set the goal, assess prior knowledge, apply new knowledge, revisit the goal. I carry that mantra almost everywhere I go when I'm learning or teaching something new. This really helps in learning to cater to different audiences. Being able to read the room and to deliver based on what you can sense from who you're speaking to. Not everyone will be spoken to the same way, with the same material. It helps that at VSSEC we were teaching all the way from grade 4 to year 12. It gave us so much exposure to experiences, audiences, reactions, voices coming at us, whatever it may be.

Using space as a 'hook' to get people into science.

If you speak to anyone, you'll realise that there are not many people that aren't fascinated about space-it's the great unknown! There is so much out there that we don't know about. And humans are, by nature, curious. We like having our questions answered. And so using space as a hook, to talk about science, works because we know enough about space to be able to talk about it, but there is still so much to discover. This can be more approachable for the general public because even though there is content to talk about, it's on a level that is accessible. Because we readily admit that we don't know everything. It is an invitation to come on this journey with us and discover at the same time.

What I do and where I am heading

My position at VSSEC wasn't full-time unfortunately, so I had to become an adult one day. I landed a full-time spot in the Virgin Australia graduate program. This allowed me to get into an airline, (which I had wanted to do since I was a kid) and learn all about the different aspects of the airline and how it runs. The first area that I worked in was commercial and revenue performance, basically looking at how the airline makes money. After that, I moved over to digital marketing and product development. Looking at-what other things can we sell you when you purchase your seat. Finally, I worked in crew resource planning. This involved looking at cabin and flight crew, how many of each do we need, looking at their contracts, their working conditions and planning for the future. For example, when new aircraft come in, they have to be trained appropriately. Due to Covid, that airline got shut down, so I no longer had a job.

I took almost 6 months off doing nothing. I applied for a job at a company that contracts to Ford. I managed all the data that engineers use to design cars. It wasn't work that I was passionate about , it could get quite dry just looking at numbers and computers all day. So I jumped at the chance to get back into aviation when the opportunity arose. I now work with Jetstar as a flight analyst. That's my varied career journey, lots of different things, some very exciting things and some not so interesting things. But I think the lesson I've learned from it is that if I'm not happy doing something, move on and do something else.

The day-to-day of my current position involves looking at a lot of reports, a lot of numbers. The art of it is to look at the numbers and work out the purchasing behaviour of customers. We want to know which routes people want to buy and which routes they don't. We then make adjustments accordingly to try and stimulate demand in a healthy manner. There is such a thing as selling too much and selling too little. We want to make sure that the flight sells out as best we can as close to departure as possible. If there are still seats before the flight, then that is a missed opportunity. If people buy too many seats, we have angry customers because they don't get a seat on the plane. So, it's a lot of numbers, trying to manipulate data. Where STEM comes into it is data science: using lots of different systems and figuring out how they all weave together. There is not so much pure engineering involved, but a lot of maths and problem solving.

A lot of the roles that I have tried to go for have 'analyst' in their title. I think that comes from my desire to know why, to know more about certain processes and trends. I enjoy roles that require me to not accept things as they are. To always question, how can we do things better? How can we do things faster? I like variety. I like having many feathers in my cap because it makes me feel like I'm useful. I have a purpose. I can help anybody out if they need help. Especially with the graduate position, being able to see three different areas of business was paramount to where I am today. What I got from that is to always be willing to learn something. Having a mindset where you seek continual improvement and continual learning will help you no matter where you go, no matter what you do. The last company I was at really pushed that a lot. Their mantra was: 'Everyone you meet will know something that you don't know.'

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