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The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)

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    Momentum Member Spotlight – January 2016

    AIAA Congratulates Kristen Gerzina

    By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

     

    KristenGerzina January finds the Spotlight seeking colder temperatures than here at AIAA Headquarters, so it’s pointed its beam west yet again, illuminating the state of Minnesota, and falling on Kristen Gerzina, an aeroballistician at Orbital ATK, and chair of the AIAA Twin Cities Section.

    Gerzina started at Orbital ATK in 2005 as a Mechanical/Aero Design Engineer, and is now involved in aerodynamics modelling and simulation of small to large caliber munitions. As she describes it, her job is to “make the pointed end fly first,” going on to say “that’s sometimes harder than it sounds.” Her work has involved both conventional and guided munitions, and really “anything the military could fire out of some sort of gun.” When not designing munitions, Gerzina chairs the AIAA Twin Cities Section. Gerzina also devotes herself to STEM education initiatives, noting that “STEM and STEM education is a passion of mine, and I very much enjoy sharing with others, especially future potential engineers, the fun and cool stuff I get do as an aerospace engineer.” When not working or engaging in AIAA events, Gerzina is often found at concerts or sporting events, or even attempting to play sports. Gerzina relayed that “there’s always going to be some ups and downs, but in general I’ve very much enjoyed being an aerospace engineer.”

    When asked what her inspiration was for entering the aerospace profession, Gerzina cited a broad range of agents – from Tom Cruise, or possibly Val Kilmer, to parents and teachers – showing that children are influenced by many sources to enter our community, “I’ve always had a love for airplanes. I saw ‘Top Gun’ when I was a little kid and wanted to be an F-14 pilot when I grew up!” She continued: “I realized that wasn’t in the cards for me, which was fine.” Gerzina described her father’s influence, relaying: “My dad has always had an interest in space and aviation, so growing up I got to see some air shows and visit some aviation and space museums, which was very cool to me as a kid.” She also credited her mother, stating: “My mom always said my mind was in space, so I guess it’s fitting I entered into the aerospace field.” Lastly, she noted the influence of “some pretty great high school science teachers who turned me onto the field of engineering and I thought being able to design airplanes would be pretty cool.” She noted, “I’ve worked in the defense industry my entire career, and while I don’t design airplanes, I do get to design other thing that fly through the air which I really enjoy.”

    I asked Gerzina what her favorite memories about the profession were, which she thought was a “tough question,” noting that “In general, I think some of my favorite career memories are some of the tests that I’ve gotten to attend. It’s always fun to able to see how the products you’ve been designing work – or don’t work – as intended. Because I work in the defense industry, many of the products I work on eventually find their way into the hands of the men and women of our military. There is nothing better than getting great feedback that the products you’ve helped design are making a difference to those that need and use them.”

    When it comes to her advice for college students thinking about entering aerospace, she advises them to “Go for it! Don’t be afraid of a challenge as it’s been a very rewarding career choice and there are a lot of options one can do with an aerospace degree.” Gerzina continued, “But ultimately, you have to find the career that’s right for you and that you enjoy. Also, if you are pursuing an aerospace career – seek some fun opportunities outside of the classroom – like AIAA! Get involved in some fun research or design competitions to put what you’re learning to practice, and to explore what flavors of engineering you enjoy.”

    For high school students thinking of entering aerospace, her advice was much the same: “Try to talk to some practicing engineers to ask them about their experiences, what college was like, how they entered the career field, etc. Ask them what they like and don’t like about being in the aerospace industry. If there are science or engineering classes or competitions, try to get involved to see if an engineering field might really be for you. It’s fun to be involved in a technology career and to drive technology further.” Gerzina noted “This might be challenging sometimes, but overcoming those challenges really makes for a fun and rewarding profession.”

    We discussed what more senior members of the aerospace community could do to help inspire and mentor younger members. Gerzina spoke about the importance of senior engineers reaching out to younger engineers: “There are seemingly more and more opportunities to get involved with STEM education. Every year our AIAA chapter gets a few more inquiries or requests about participating in a career fair, or speaking to high school students, or judging a science competition. Within our AIAA section, I know our student members and young professionals are always seeking mentoring opportunities, or even a simple social engagement with experienced engineers.” She added, “I know engineers love to tell ‘war stories’ and I also know that there are a lot of younger members who love listening to those. It’s very positive reinforcement for young members to hear both the challenges and the fun that have come over a more senior member’s career.”

    When it comes to the value of AIAA to an aerospace engineer, Gerzina was effusive: “I believe there are many values of AIAA to an aerospace engineer, depending on your interests or career plans. AIAA is intertwined with all facets of the aerospace industry, so if you enjoy very technical information and learning, or public policy, or STEM, or just a fun social outing with people with similar interests, there are avenues within AIAA that appeal to those interests.” She continued, “Personally, I’ve found great value in being able to meet a lot of different peers and colleagues both locally and across the country in the aerospace field.” Gerzina pointed out that AIAA membership can be especially critical for young engineers, noting that “Especially when I was a younger engineer, it was wonderful and very valuable to be able to meet and talk with other younger members as well as those more senior engineers.” She mentioned how AIAA can add dimension to your life as an engineer: “By being involved with AIAA, I get to do more with my career than just being an engineer on a daily basis.”

    As chair of the AIAA Twin Cities Section, Gerzina was enthusiastic when I asked her if others should consider getting involved as AIAA section officers, particularly as chairs. She replied, “Yes – definitely! It has been incredibly valuable for me to take on the role of Section Chair. I first became Chair a lot earlier than I would have ever imagined or intended, but I’m very glad I decided to take on the role and responsibility. As a younger engineer when I first took on the role, being Chair was a great opportunity to learn how to lead a group of people, and improve my leadership skills. Our AIAA section and local council is a great group of people, and presented a very benign environment for practicing your leadership skills.” Beyond its effect on leadership and organization skills, Gerzina pointed out other benefits as well, “Being Chair has also been a good outlet for being innovative and creative in our local section programming. Our local council has tried to do some different types of events over the past few years, and some have worked better or been more popular than others. But this has led to some fun and unique opportunities in our aerospace community that I might not have otherwise been able to experience. Because of this role, I definitely feel more ‘plugged’ in to the local and even broader aerospace community.”

    I concluded our interview by talking about what might be ahead for aerospace technology, asking Gerzina to look into the “crystal ball.” Gerzina very sensibly, in this interviewer’s opinion, replied, “if I had a crystal ball, I might first use it for things other than predicting the future of aerospace technology.” After clarifying that this particular crystal ball only views the future of aerospace, Gerzina replied: “Being involved in the modeling and simulation world, it’s always exciting to think about if and how computing technology might continue to improve over time. I’d love to see continued improvements and to drive technology forward to be able to do more real time and difficult types of modeling and simulation and to make advancements such that we can better model tougher physics and more complex problems. Personally, I’d really love to see more commitment to and further exploration of space. In the past few years we have seen a sprinkling of movies addressing space travel and exploration, so maybe we’ll be able to develop the technology and advanced propulsion and life support systems to carry humans back to the moon or even Mars in a safe and time-efficient manner. “ AIAA congratulates Kristen Gerzina for her selection as the January 2016 Spotlight subject, and thanks her for her continued leadership of the Twin Cities section of AIAA.