Meet Ellen McIsaac, a Materials Engineer for Lockheed Martin. Find out how she got there, a project she’s working on, and how you can #BeThatEngineer!
Growing up, I always liked math and science, but I didn’t know about many career options that used math and science. Once I discovered that engineering meant applying math and science concepts to real-world problems, I realized that I wanted to be an engineer.
In high school, I joined a FIRST robotics team which introduced me to the concept of engineering. During my time in robotics, I became interested in selecting the materials for our robot design. How does an engineer determine the trade-offs between the strengths and weights of different materials? How do you know when something will break? As I started researching different fields of engineering to determine what I might like to study in college, I realized that Materials Engineers answer those types of questions, and also work to develop new materials to address unique challenges.
As a freshman in college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I did an undergraduate research project in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering to test out my interests. I confirmed for myself that Materials Engineering was a field that I wanted to study. I tried doing research projects and internships in different areas to explore possible career options, and I found that mechanics of materials and structural materials were still the most interesting to me.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Materials Science & Engineering, I went to work for Pratt & Whitney as a Composite Structural Analyst. That means that I developed computational models to predict the strength and lifetime of composite parts for jet engines. We looked at how much force could be safely applied to parts and how long they would last before they needed to be replaced.
While I worked for Pratt & Whitney, I earned a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Connecticut which helped me to develop my skills in structural mechanics. I also learned that I preferred working on new technology development projects. I wanted to put new materials to use for the first time. That led me to my current job working for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, which is known for solving difficult problems and “making the impossible possible.”
I’ve spent most of my career developing computational models and simulations for advanced structural materials. I work with lots of other engineers to get inputs for my models, for example what shape is the part, what forces are applied to it, what temperature will it be, and how will we build this part. I work on determining what material to make the part from, how much load it can carry safely, how long it will last, and whether it can be repaired if there are any defects.
I once worked on a really interesting project to use a new composite material in a jet engine part. We had built a computer model and thought we understood everything, so we built some parts and tested them to see if they worked as expected. They were rotating parts – they would spin inside the jet engine – so we tested them by slowly spinning them, working up to the speeds that would be expected in the engine.
Watching and listening as the parts spun faster and faster was nerve-wracking. It turns out we did not understand everything about the new material, because the parts broke at a much lower speed than we expected. After that, we investigated to understand what had happened. We ended up learning a lot about the material and the manufacturing process. We redesigned the parts based on what we learned, and they worked as expected the second time. That was exciting for me because it felt like we had done real engineering – we learned from models and experiments and we made a new material work for the first time.
Right now, I’m working with ceramics for structural applications. You might think ceramics are fragile, like dishes and pottery. That’s known as low “fracture toughness” because they are brittle and fracture easily. Not all ceramics are as brittle as your dishes are at home, but you can see how it would be exciting to make new ceramics work for structural applications since that’s not a typical use for ceramics.
I love ‘making the impossible possible.’ It’s really exciting to make new technologies work for the first time.
I know a lot of people who say “I’m not a female engineer, I’m an Aerospace Engineer” – or in my case, a Materials Engineer. I think it’s important to define yourself by your abilities, your accomplishments, and your potential, rather than by your gender. If you do good work and follow through on your commitments, most people won’t care about your gender or background.
For the most part, I have had positive experiences in my engineering career. When challenges come up, I decide which ones are worth my energy. One thing to consider is intent. Did that person mean to come off as insulting, did they always exclude you from technical meetings, or was this just a one-time thing that may have been an inadvertent mistake, etc.?
When I have a good working relationship with people, I try to educate them about moments where they may have been insensitive or inadvertently insulting to me or other people. (“Hey Rob, I don’t think you meant it this way, but when you referred to the next manager as a “he” before anyone had even been interviewed, it made it sound like you don’t see women as management material. I wanted you to be aware so that you can express yourself differently the next time.”) Usually people don’t do these things intentionally and are happy to learn. This helps to create a more inclusive and welcoming team environment.
To students considering engineering, stick with it! If something is challenging to you, don’t be afraid to try again. Sometimes it takes a few tries for a new concept to click. You may need to try a different way of doing things or you may need more context for something to make sense. Creative thinking and persistence are a big part of finding success as an engineer.