February 16th, 2021

storyteller doll

My Brilliant Career

Back in October, fansee asked me (in response to my retirement) how I came to be a satellite systems engineer and, more specifically, about my experiences as a woman in that field. I have plenty of other catching up to do, but I’m in the mood to write about this.

As far back as I can remember, I was interested in science. As a child in the 1960’s, I had a particular interest in space. The first book I remember, from about age 5, was You Will Go to the Moon. Later on, I recall writing to NASA and getting pictures of spacecraft and planets. The first news story I remember was John Glenn orbiting the earth, And the moon landing was one of the major events of my childhood.

But, when I asked if girls could become astronauts, my mother said, “no, but maybe when you’re old enough...” For a while, after reading a biography of Maria Mitchell (part of a series my elementary school library had on childhoods of famous Americans), I thought of becoming an astronomer. Or, at least, going to Vasaar College, like she had. But then I read about Marie Curie in the back of a Classics Comics (possibly one about the story of the atom) and decided I wanted to be a chemist. I did go through other potential careers throughout elementary school and junior high, ranging from being an actress to becoming the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500. But I pretty much stuck to chemistry as the plan. For a while, I specifically wanted to be an analytical chemist for the police department, like Barry Allen (the alter ego of The Flash), which would also solve the problem of how I would get super powers without having been born on Krypton or being an Amazon princess. By high school, I was primarily interested in biochemistry and, specifically, neurochemistry.

That pretty much continued to be the plan. I did well in chemistry class (and other science classes). I also went to two National Science Foundation programs. The Columbia University Science Honors Program was held on Saturdays and I spent 3 years taking the train into the city (and the subway uptown) for it. I took a wide range of classes, not just biochemistry related. I remember one about statistics for psychology, one on elementary particle physics, and a biochemistry class where we extracted DNA - something far more exciting in 1975 than it would be now. There were also afternoon lectures a few times each semester, with the most memorable of those having to do with topology. There were also social benefits, including meeting my first real boyfriend. When there weren’t afternoon lectures, he and I hung out in the city and perpetrated public displays of affection in Central Park. But that’s a whole other story. (Before I met him, I sometimes went to the headquarters of the socialist Zionist group that ran a summer camp I’d gone to for a couple of summers and spent the afternoon handing out leaflets on the street.)

The other NSF program was the Program in Biochemistry (PIB), the summer after my junior year of high school. It was held at the Loomis-Chaffee School in Connecticut and was a mixture of lectures and research projects in small groups. I had actually spent the previous summer taking a summer school class (at my high school) on biochemistry research, which I remember as being almost entirely focused on individual projects, with a few field trips thrown in. I did a project in which I injected the nerves of clams (which are big red threads) with neurotransmitters. I don’t remember what I was trying to prove. As for the field trips. we did one or two to various institutions within a couple of hours of our school. I know we went at least once to Waldemar, which was a medical research facility that had its own summer program for high school students. And I know we went to the Coney Island Aquarium, but I don’t remember if that was an official event.

Anyway, PIB was a fun and intense summer. We took pride in sleep deprivation and people signed up for one hour naps on the sofa in the lounge, for example. We learned how to “sacrifice” mice and grind up their livers in a blender and an unlucky member of my team got a taste when mouth pipetting some of the resulting liquid. We did have papers to write and the various instructors (who were upperclassmen at prestigious universities; the head of my team was a junior at Harvard, if I recall correctly) graded them according to their own systems. There was one instructor who favored the use of classical compositions as grades. To this day, I have no idea whether “Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid” was or was not a good grade. We also had various extracurricular trips. I know I went to concerts at Tanglewood a few times. There were tours of various colleges. And there was a trip to New York to see Equus on Broadway.

So, when I was applying to colleges, I was still planning to be a chemistry major. But my brother was busily setting a Michigan State record for changing majors and someone I knew from high school was rethinking his plan to major in math at Yale. I chose MIT over Yale largely because I figured that, if I did change my mind about my major, I would still want to do something scientific.

Freshman year included 5.41, which was an Intro to Organic Chemistry class. I was reasonably well prepared and went on the next semester to the next class, 5.42. (I was also taking a lab class.) I discovered that, while I could think of lots of reactions that could happen, I often had no idea which one would happen. More significantly, I was not enjoying either of those two classes. At the same time, I read about some work that people in the mechanical engineering department were doing on prosthetics that used the body’s nervous system. That sounded fascinating and I looked further at ME as a major. (Or, in MIT lingo, Course 2.) The biggest advantage is that it would give me a broad engineering background, meaning I didn’t really have to make up my mind. There was a program (2A) that let you design your own major within the ME department and I used that to design what was, essentially, a biomedical engineering major.

One of the first classes I took was 2.02, Introduction to System Dynamics. This was focused on modeling and it just clicked with my desire to view the world as simple. There were a few times that I rushed back to my dorm room after class to work on a problem set right away to see if it all made as much sense as I thought it did. (I assure you that was not normal behavior for me.) Anyway, people said that if I liked that class, I should take 2.14, which was Introduction to Control Systems. I did and it continued to click with me. So I kept taking classes in system dynamics and controls and enjoying them. And I pursued that into grad school (at UC Berkeley).

While I was in grad school, I got a fellowship from NASA, which came about mostly because one of my professors knew somebody and helped me write the application. When I was nearing completing my doctorate and was job hunting, I did look at things in various industries, but most of the interesting controls issues were in the aerospace industry. I went to work at The Aerospace Corporation (aka The Circle-A Ranch) largely because it offered the opportunity to work across a wide range of systems. And that worked out we’ll for me, obviously, since I stayed there (in various jobs) for 35 years.

This has been fairly long and I haven’t gotten to writing about the specific issue of being a woman in the field. The short version is that I certainly had to deal with individual assholes, but I was always able to find support. As an undergrad at MIT, I chose to live in an all-women’s dorm, partly to have other women to vent to. Most of that was in the form of mircroaggressions, e.g. the instructor who headed a research project I worked on who kept a ruler with Playboy pictures on his desk or another professor who would make comments like “those co-eds are always turning in things late.” The most egregious example was a professor who had started every lecture for years by addressing the class as “:Gentlemen.” I was the only girl in the class and he’d then start with “Gentlemen,…and Miss Nadel.” On the plus side, he definitely knew who I was and I did well in his class. (I am fairly sure he was entirely unconscious of why this was annoying.) I should also mention that my undergrad advisor was a woman.

In grad school, I remember a reception where our department head proudly announced that he had doubled the number of women on the department faculty. They’d hired one person. (They did hire a couple more while I was still there.) But there were a couple of other women working on Ph.D.s and, even though we were in different subfields, we often had coffee together.

Job hunting was another story. A few places made a point of having me talk with a token woman in their group. More than one interviewer expressed surprise at seeing a female job candidate. One organization even sent me a thank you letter addressed to “Mr. Nadel” after my interview.

Circle-A was pretty good from that standpoint. Yes, I often found myself counting the number of women in the room at meetings (which included government and contractor employees, too), but I can think of only a handful of inappropriate comments. I do know of one woman whose (female) boss told her she should wear makeup. And I’ve heard of a few incidents of sexual harassment. On the plus side, we did have an African-American woman as our CEO for several years.

Overall, I had a career that suited me well.

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