VIEW: Why an aerospace engineering career is a rocketship worth boarding

Dr. Bianca Capra believes aerospace engineering is one of the most exciting industries to be working in today. With its projected growth and the current skills shortage, she also believes its a strong career for the next generation to be considering.

As a major advocate of encouraging more diversity in STEM and inspiring people of all backgrounds to explore engineering, Bianca outlines what an aerospace engineering career actually involved, what future engineers can look forward, and why diversity matters across all industries.

  • What are the biggest trends your seeing in aerospace engineering for 2020? 

I think 2020 is going to be a big year for aerospace. In the aviation sector, we will see the return of the 787-Max into service, there will be increasing focus on the sustainability of aviation, including the continued development of green and efficient fuels, continued research into electric powered passenger aircraft, and waste reduction on commercial flights.

In the aerospace sector, and a bit closer to home 2020 will see the continued development of Australian rocket motors and launch capabilities and the continuing engagement of the Australian Space Agency with the local aerospace industry including drone, satellite and rocket development companies. I am hoping that we will see more research and development partnerships between universities and industries to advance Australia’s technical capabilities within this section.  In the access to space sector, we will continue to see the growth of launch companies such as Space X, RocketLabs and Virgin Orbit.

In my opinion, one of the biggest trends in this area for 2020 will be the opening up of the commercial space tourism market with the planned crewed test flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Keeping in this space (pardon the pun), I think 2020 will see continued research and development in overcoming the challenges of crewed missions to Mars. This is such a technically exciting and challenging task that I think will remain a focus of aerospace engineers the world over for many years.

One last big trend I think we will see within the sector is the increased acknowledgment that we do not yet have the diversity mix we require in the workforce and a number of programs will continue to address this very important issue.

  • For those considering a career in aerospace engineering, what is the most exciting thing they have to look forward to, and what is the biggest challenge they need to prepare for?

If there is one thing I can guarantee, it is that a career in aerospace engineering will always be exciting! It will be challenging, at times frustrating, at times may feel like a series or failures and mistakes but trust me there is never a dull moment and you will solve all of the interesting and technical challenges to find engineering solutions. This is the true joy of engineering – using our technical skills, creativity and team work to solve what initially seemed to be unsolvable.

Aerospace is vitally important to a place like Australia which is both large and geographically remote. We rely on aviation and aerospace to connect us with each other and the world, and where there is aviation and space systems, there are aerospace engineers. Australia, however, is heading towards a shortage of engineers, and this includes in aerospace. The good news in this worrying statistic is that there will be many jobs within the industry in the coming years.

The recent creation of the Australian Space Agency with its focus on building a space industry means there will be many exciting aerospace jobs in the future from drones, to satellites to rockets all based here in Australia so it’s a great time to be entering into aerospace engineering. I don’t think I can select the most exciting thing someone currently or considering studying aerospace engineering can look forward to – they are all so exciting! The most exciting thing is that aerospace is a growth industry and there will be so many cool, complicated and technical challenges to overcome and solve – this is what I think is exciting for the future.

What is the biggest challenge to prepare for? That’s a great question, there are a few – studying engineering can at times be hard, and it’s definitely worth it. Learning about how and why things work is not only interesting, but helps shape how we see and interact with the world.  You may still come up against harmful stereotypes and this can be hard.

My advice would be to find your tribe, build a circle of power and debunk these stereotypes! But my number one advice on challenges is to be prepared to fail and don’t be afraid or lose your confidence in your ability when you do.  Over the years I have failed a lot, sometimes quite spectacularly. Sometimes due to my mistakes, sometimes due to elements outside my control. Yes, it is hard and disappointing. Yes, it is momentarily demoralising. And yet, each time I have come out the other side knowing so much more. We learn a lot from failures as they challenge us to build resilience and continue learning until we solve the challenge. And as engineers, we love solving the difficult challenges!

  • Why is diversity in aerospace engineering important? 

Diversity is important in any field. Diverse teams are more innovative and productive, they are also higher performing and better equipped for creating equitable outcomes to our technical challenges. As a high technology field known for innovation, aerospace engineering is no different.

Currently, less than 14% of degree qualified engineers in Australia are female, and this is across all fields. From my personal experience as an aerospace engineer and lecturer in this field, the number of females coming into the aerospace engineering pipeline are significantly less than this already low figure. Not only is this not representative of our society, more importantly we are missing out on the expectational skills and diversity of thinking and problem solving that gender diversity brings.

How can engineering technology be truly representative and effective for all users unless those voices are at the design table?  My answer to this is they can’t and that is why we need diversity. In aerospace, this can include such things as the design of aircraft fit outs, how human based missions to the moon and beyond can reflect the needs of all users, and gaining different perspectives and thinking when solving the ongoing challenges of highspeed flight.

Engineers can’t design inclusive solutions unless all voices, experiences, thoughts and opinions are equally represented at the design table. This is why we need to increase the number of female aerospace engineers. Of course, diversity covers more than gender, and it is imperative that we increase all diversity in aerospace engineering. All genders, cultures, physical abilities and backgrounds bring unique thinking and experience to teams and the field of aerospace engineering needs to expand to include all these voices to create an industry that is truly reflective of the needs of all of humanity.

  • Is it the same for all STEM fields? Why or why not?

Of course! Diversity is important to all STEM fields, some are doing better than others, at least on the gender diversity but I think all areas can only benefit from greater diversity overall and this includes gender, background, cultural and physical abilities.

All voices, experiences and opinions must be reflected, included and valued in all STEM areas. Without this, we cannot create a STEM industry that is truly reflective of society. How can we develop drugs for specific groups of people without those voices at the research table? How can we engineer a better, technically and environmentally responsive future without all sections of our society at the design table? How can we honestly say that STEM is for everybody unless everybody is visibly and equally included? My answer to this is we can’t and that is why achieving true diversity in all STEM fields, but equally beyond to all fields is so important.

Any child today should have the confidence to pursue any career they want irrespective of gender, cultural background or physical ability. This is something that I am truly passionate about and firmly believe can only benefit our collective future.

  • What are you most looking forward to professionally in 2020? 

There are so many things that I am looking forward to this year professionally. I’m really looking forward to continuing my research and research partnerships at UNSW Canberra investigating how hot surfaces, of the order of 1000 degrees, changes the air in and around highspeed vehicles.  We are doing some really exciting work investigating and quantifying the amount of energy we can add to very hot surfaces to cause them to break and will be performing what will be some super fun and revealing experiments later this year. I am also really looking forward to starting some really interesting highspeed experimental testing of hot surfaces in UNSW Canberra’s Shock Tunnel and how introducing different gases onto these surfaces affects the behaviour of the fluid mechanics. It’s going to be challenging and really exciting!

I’m also really excited to use my role as a Science and Technology Australia Superstar of STEM to bring my passion for aerospace engineering and especially highspeed flight to the broader society, but particularly young girls. I will be doing a number of school visits this year to share with highschool girls my career so far, what I did to get here, the passion I have for aerospace and highspeed flight and hopefully convince them all to become aerospace engineers!

I’m looking forward to continuing to develop my leaderships skills and advocating for gender equity in engineering. In my role as the Chair of the Women in Fluid Mechanics (WiFM) Sub-committee of the Australasian Fluid Mechanics Society (AFMS), my team and I have already implemented  gender equity policies, targeting a 40-40-20 gender mix in keynote speakers at our societies’ conferences and introduced return to work grants for members returning from extended career breaks. This year I’m looking forward to extending our initiatives to further increase gender equity and diversity within the AFMC which continues to remain male dominated.

I am looking forward to continuing to grow YoWIE (Young Women in Engineering) an outreach program UNSW Canberra developed and that I co-chair so that it is the must do summer event for girls. I am looking forward to exploring new partnerships to extend the program so that we can take the event to regional Australia and girls in primary schools.

Most of all, I am looking forward to increasing my outreach work and profile so that I can be the visible role model that the young girls of today passionate about aerospace or any engineering needs to make their dreams reality.

About the expert

Dr Capra is a passionate aerospace engineer working to train and inspire future generations of innovative engineers.  She currently lectures in aerospace engineering at UNSW Canberra and is chair of the sub-committees for Women in Fluid Mechanics and Communication of the Australasian Fluid Mechanics Society.  Bianca is passionate about promoting and encouraging more young women into STEM, specifically aerospace engineering and is once Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM. She is also co-chair of YoWIE (Young Women In Engineering), a program designed to promote engineering to high school girls.

Bianca completed both her bachelor’s degree and PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland and is a two-time receipt of Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship.

Currently, Bianca investigates the interaction and coupling between fluids and structures at high speed, innovative fuel injection technology, thermal protection solutions, and aerothermal heating loads in high-speed atmospheric flight.

Bianca is a proud feminist, engineer and advocate for equity and diversity in STEM.