AIAA Member Spotlight – November 2016 Written 15 November 2016

AIAA Profiles Susan Frost

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008–2017)
15 November 2016

Susan-FrostAfter pointing to Colorado in October, the Spotlight decided to move further west, shining on Moffett Field, California, and illuminating Dr. Susan Frost, a research scientist in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center.

Dr. Frost is an expert in intelligent control, optimal control allocation, and flexible structure control. Applications of her research have included fixed-wing aircraft, utility-scale wind turbines, hybrid-electric aircraft, and autonomous assembly of space structures. Frost developed a bioinspired optical sensor for accurate position tracking of a wing under load and for monitoring seismic fault movement. She has over 50 publications and a patent pending. She is an AIAA Associate Fellow and is chair of the AIAA Diversity Working Group. Frost enjoys doing STEM outreach and mentoring students at all levels of education. Since joining NASA in 2008, she has mentored more than 20 students. Frost has given over 15 invited talks and was an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University and the University of Nevada, Reno. She has a Ph.D. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in Mathematics from the University of Wyoming, and a B.A. in Mathematics from Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

We began our interview by discussing why Frost entered the aerospace profession and if she had any particular mentors or influencers along the way. She explained, “I became an aeronautics engineer by finally believing that I could earn an advanced degree in Mathematics and Engineering. I was always interested in how things work as a young person, but I wasn’t aware that women could be engineers. After majoring in mathematics at Wellesley College (a women’s liberal arts college), I took a job as a software engineer in Boulder, Colorado. I was an athlete in high school and continued this activity through college and into my twenties. I was an elite rock climber, runner, and cyclist. The highlight of my athletic career was when the U.S. National Mountain Biking Team selected me as a member for the 1990 World Mountain Bike Championships.

After taking several years off from work to care for my young children, I enrolled in graduate school — a lifelong dream. I found out that I loved being in grad school! While completing an M.S. in Mathematics, I started taking courses in Electrical Engineering where I was very fortunate to meet Professor Mark Balas, an AIAA Fellow. With his encouragement, I applied for and received a NASA Graduate Researcher Student Fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. After a decade spent as a software engineer, I was excited to be developing control theory and algorithms for autonomous assembly of space structures, aircraft flight control, and utility-scale wind turbine control. Dr. Balas encouraged his students to present their research at AIAA conferences where he introduced us to his AIAA colleagues, including some very inspiring women. I am grateful for the mentioning Dr. Balas has given me throughout my career."

When I asked Dr. Frost to pick her best career moment thus far, she offered two. “Completing a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in my 40s after being a stay-at-home mom with only a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics is something that I am very proud of and something that can inspire other nontraditional students or professionals, especially women or individuals who might not have the necessary coursework to take engineering when they first go off to university. Some students who are gifted athletes might be very dedicated to doing sports in high school and college, limiting the number of difficult courses they can take. But eventually, some of these students will want to transfer the drive and commitment they put into sports into being an engineer – I sure did.”

Frost went on to talk about her time at NASA, “In my career at NASA, I have successfully built up a funded project developing a bioinspired compound eye sensor for accurate position tracking of a wing under load and for monitoring seismic fault movement. Some people questioned why I would want to pursue work that was outside my area of expertise. There were times in the first few years where I was frustrated by how much I didn’t know, but I was able to build up a fantastic team and now we are having some great successes.”

Because members of the current workforce can be great sources of inspiration and advice for those looking to enter the aerospace workforce, I asked Dr. Frost if she had any advice for young professionals and her thoughts on how longer tenured members of the workforce can help them along. She thoughtfully replied, “My advice for young professionals is to embrace lifelong learning and exploration and don’t be afraid to pivot in your career. I suggest approaching people who are more senior than you and asking for 15 minutes of their time so you can hear about their early career experiences and aspirations. Remember, at some time in the past, these people were in your position. And don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.

Seasoned professionals can make themselves approachable by getting to know younger professionals. If you are at a conference, invite a young professional to join you for a meal or coffee and introduce them to your colleagues. When you get to know people you will find you have more in common with them than you think. And remember you may be intimidating to young professionals without even trying, so try to put them at ease.

As young professionals, if your career isn’t going in the direction you want, consider changing positions or employers. Sometimes it is just a matter of finding a better fit for you - that doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with you or your employer. Especially for women and individuals from the nondominant culture, if you have the sense that your current position is negatively impacting your career potential, consider looking for another opportunity. I have had to do this in my career and it was definitely the best thing I could have done for myself.

When I was a new aerospace engineer, some thoughtful AIAA members suggested that I apply to become a member of the AIAA Guidance, Navigation, and Control Technical Committee. It was through this volunteer position that I met many wonderful colleagues in my discipline. I enjoyed working on projects with my Technical Committee colleagues, especially when I was Technical Discipline Chair for the Guidance, Navigation, and Control Conference and when I was a judge for student paper competitions. I highly recommend that young professionals try to join one of the numerous AIAA committees and that people on these committees invite young professionals to join.”

Because Frost leads the AIAA Diversity Working Group, we spent the last part of the interview discussing issues related to diversity and the ways in which AIAA is actively working to help build a diverse future workforce.

I first asked Frost what she is doing personally to help build a diverse workforce, and she explained, “I go out of my way to be supportive of diverse colleagues, taking an interest in them and their work. Building diverse teams and maintaining an inclusive environment where everyone’s ideas are welcome and their contributions are valued is a high priority for me. I speak directly with team leaders when I observe behavior that is inappropriate or unwelcoming to individuals who are different from the majority. From experience I know that it can be difficult for an individual to advocate on their behalf. Since the young professionals in our industry are more diverse, we need to keep them engaged and fulfilled. I encourage young professionals to get involved with AIAA as it provides a community where individuals can grow and be nurtured. I enjoy visiting universities and speaking to groups of women studying STEM. I conceived and put on an event designed to expose middle and high school aged students to work done by interns in NASA’s Intelligent Systems Division. The event met our goal of having over half of the attendees being girls. The students heard from a diverse panel of interns and mentors talking about internship experiences. I spoke to the students about the positive impact they can have by talking to students who are younger than them about STEM. This is similar to the advice I give that more experienced professionals should reach out to younger professionals to help them successfully navigate their careers.”

Moving beyond her personal efforts, we next discussed the AIAA Diversity Working Group – especially her thoughts about leading the group and the group’s recently released “Diversity and Inclusion Plan.” Frost replied, “Data shows that AIAA membership is less diverse than the aerospace workforce at large. As the reach and impact of AIAA becomes more global – and if AIAA intends to lead our community rather than lag behind it – these numbers indicate that we need to pay more attention to, and be more diligent about, promoting diversity within our membership and leadership. AIAA chartered the Diversity Working Group to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion and to facilitate improvements in diversity of AIAA members and its groups. I am thrilled to be the first chair of the Diversity Working Group. I am especially grateful for the wonderful team of dedicated colleagues who I have worked with over the past two years.

The recently released AIAA Diversity and Inclusion Plan is one of our greatest accomplishments. The plan has comprehensive data on the current state of the aerospace workforce compared with the AIAA membership, some challenges to increasing diversity and what AIAA can do to meet those challenges — and most importantly, concrete goals and near-, mid-, and long-term actions to achieve the goals. I invite everyone to read the plan and see how you would like to participate in this initiative. We are always looking for volunteers and individuals who would like to attend our events. We have already sponsored many activities to increase awareness of diversity and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events in the future. Please visit our website or our LinkedIn subgroup.”

When I asked Frost for her thoughts on how, as she is a woman in aerospace, her educational and professional experiences differ from that of others, she answered, “Well, first of all I went to a women’s college (ha ha). I think being a stay-at-home mom gave me a unique experience. It was during that time that I picked up a lot of interesting skills through volunteer work. I also realized that I wanted to solve challenging problems based in the physical world. It was very humbling to say ‘I am a stay-at-home mom’ instead of ‘I am an aerospace engineer.’

During my career, I have had many wonderful and supportive colleagues and have been a member of some amazing teams. Unfortunately, I have been in a couple situations where, regardless of the quality or quantity of my work, I would not receive the same support as my male colleagues to move forward in my career. Upon seeking management’s help to resolve employment issues related to my gender, sometimes the results were disappointing. Strong and driven people in this situation might think they can push themselves even harder, but without management’s support, the best option for their career and happiness may be to make a change. It could take some time before you feel like your career is back on track after making a lateral move. But it will be well worth it in the long run when you are in a collaborative and supportive environment where you enjoy your work and colleagues and have a healthy work-life balance. This has been very true for me.”

She also added, “My advice to anyone who has these sorts of experiences is stay positive and don’t let anyone derail your dreams. Get the support you need to deal with the situation, pivot if you need to, and just keep on moving toward your goals! Remember you are paving the way for the next generation of young people who look up to you.”

We closed our interview with me asking Frost to look into the crystal ball and tell us what she sees for aerospace in the years ahead. She gazed into the future and related, “I am part of an exciting team that is working on hybrid-electric aircraft research. In 10 years, you should be able to travel on a hybrid-electric commercial aircraft! We will see an explosion of autonomous systems that use smart materials, artificial intelligence, data analytics, and the Internet of Things to efficiently and safely solve challenges.” She ended the interview by noting, “Most importantly, diverse multidisciplinary teams will achieve the next big thing in aerospace.”

AIAA congratulates Dr. Susan Frost for her selection as the November 2016 Spotlight subject, and wishes her the best as she continues to fashion a truly diverse and inclusive workforce for the future.