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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Momentum Member Spotlight – November 2015

    AIAA Congratulates Penina “Penny” Axelrad

    By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

     

    Penny_Axelrad_1 November finds the Spotlight still pointing its beam west, but swiveling from Utah to Colorado to fall on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) and illuminate Dr. Penina “Penny” Axelrad, an AIAA Fellow, and Professor and Department Chair of the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department.

    Axelrad is the recent recipient of the 2015 Women in Aerospace (WIA) Aerospace Educator Award, which recognizes her efforts as “an instrumental leader in the development of hands-on curricula in the aerospace engineering program at CU-Boulder, as well as her devotion to mentoring graduate and undergraduate students, particularly women and underrepresented groups.”

    Among Axelrad’s other honors are the 2012 Institute of Navigation Samuel Burka Award; the 2011 AIAA Summerfield Book Award; the 2009 University of Colorado, College of Engineering and Applied Science, Max S. Peters Faculty Service Award; and the 2009 Institute of Navigation Johannes Kepler Award; Axelrad is also a Fellow of the Institute of Navigation and a member of Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi.

    When asked what inspired her to pursue a career in aerospace, Axelrad, like so many other Spotlight awardees, cited the impact of the Apollo moon landings, noting that they were “an inspiration to everyone in my generation.” Axelrad went on to describe how she would play astronaut with her sister, “tying pillows on our backs and jumping around like we were walking on the Moon.” Although Axelrad did not have a lot of specific aerospace memories from her childhood, she certainly remembered a lot of mentors, noting that “I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors in my life. My parents who instilled in me a love of learning and the confidence to pursue any field of study; excellent math and physics teachers in high school who prepared me for college; and amazing professors and classmates at MIT who challenged me at every turn.” Axelrad did not enter MIT to earn a degree in aerospace, but to “major in physics or electrical engineering,” explaining that “I ended up volunteering in the Space Systems Lab based on advice from my friends in the dorm and just got hooked on the excitement and opportunities of aerospace.”

    Unlike most Spotlight subjects, Axelrad’s fondest aerospace memories are not projects or systems oriented, but instead the ritual of each class of engineers’ graduation. She explained, “I really do enjoy graduation – seeing students I’ve known since freshman or sophomore year walking across the stage to get their diplomas, or signing off on my Ph.D. student’s dissertation. Each graduate has put in so much effort and accomplished so much during their degree program; they are rightfully proud and excited to take the next step in their career. It’s really an inspiring moment.”

    When it comes to offering advice to college students who are thinking about entering aerospace as a profession, Axelrad has several pieces of advice. First, “learn as much as you can, as deeply as you can while you are in college – this prepares you to take on lots of projects and helps you bring new ideas to solve problems in ways you didn’t expect.” Next, “talk to the faculty and other students as much as you can – discuss technical ideas, homework problems, and cool aerospace news. These conversations help you build your technical vocabulary and skill in explaining things clearly to others.” She continued, “I think it’s the most effective way to recognize when you don’t really understanding something. I believe that it’s very important to become comfortable with getting things wrong, recognizing your mistakes, and moving on to correct them. It will also give you practice in interacting with colleagues professionally.” Last, she counseled, “take advantage of opportunities to do things you didn’t plan on – if someone tells you that Elon Musk or Dava Newman is going to be speaking this afternoon, or there’s an extra spot on the ‘vomit comet,’ or that there might be a last-minute summer internship opportunity at JPL or Blue Origin, go do these things. You can always stay up later to do your homework, but go listen and do things that don’t come along every day.”

    For students still in high school who are thinking about aerospace as a career, she advised: “Make sure to challenge yourself in high school – take a broad range of tough classes, read as much as you can, and build your practical skills like programming, writing, and communication. One of the best things about aerospace engineering is how multidisciplinary it is. Not only will you be studying a wide variety of subjects in college, you’ll also always be working with other people with different background and skills. It’s important to bring your own skills to the table AND to be able to fully appreciate what other people have to contribute.”

    When asked her thoughts about how educators at both the college or high school level can reach out to young women to help them pursue a career in STEM fields, Axelrad had several concrete ideas. “Show them that they belong here in STEM careers. That it’s not remarkable and shouldn’t be unusual or surprising. That it’s incredibly rewarding to figure things out, solve problems that matter in society, and invent new technologies.” Second, “give them a chance to build things and break things, and try again, especially working in teams.” Next, “talk to them about your own experiences in learning STEM subjects. Talk about what was difficult for you and how you had to work hard to understand something and find new ways to get ‘unstuck’ on a problem.” Axelrad explained that educators could “encourage a growth model of intelligence,” noting that “it’s not something fixed that you are born with, but rather something that you build through study and effort.” Last, Axelrad advised that educators should “teach young men to treat young women with professionalism and respect and model this behavior in their classrooms.”

    When asked about her thoughts on receiving the WIA Aerospace Educator Award, she replied, “I am very grateful to the members of Women in Aerospace for their vision and investment in creating an organization specifically dedicated to expanding women’s opportunities for leadership and increasing their visibility in the aerospace community. What a remarkable idea! Receiving this recognition for my role in aerospace education is truly an honor. “She continued, “It’s wonderful to get an award for doing what you love to do.” Axelrad concluded, modestly, “Most of the credit goes to my amazing students for making me look good through their success.”

    Finally, we discussed the benefits of AIAA to the aerospace community. Axelrad noted that AIAA provides “excellent technical materials to learn from and opportunities to share your innovations and discoveries through conferences and publications.” She also noted that AIAA provides “networking with other professionals through events and conferences,” as well as professional recognition and scholarship programs for students.

    AIAA congratulates Penina “Penny” Axelrad for her selection as the November 2015 Spotlight subject, and for winning this year’s WIA Aerospace Educator Award. We thank her for her work with the next generation of the aerospace community, and we look forward to her students’ continuing record of success.