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Boss Women in STEM: A Conversation with Iliana Watson

As one of only three women in her graduating class studying aerospace engineering, Iliana Watson is helping to break down barriers in a typically male dominated field. Today I had the chance to sit down with this boss lady to discuss her summer job at Boeing. 

Name: Iliana Watson 

Major: Aerospace Engineering (Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology)

Year: Senior

Hometown: Memphis, TN

 

What is it like to be studying a field that is traditionally dominated by men? 

“So I actually get this question a lot! It’s one that I never mind answering because it’s definitely a question on lots of people’s minds. But, I must say my experience within Parks College has been nothing short of incredible. Of course being in a male dominated field was a very intimidating concept. I mean any woman who goes into anything male dominated is bound to be made a little uncomfortable. However, the men that I work with on a daily basis are some of the best people I know and we share nothing but mutual respect for one another. They are all fully aware of my capabilities and they don’t question my capacity to perform at the same level as them. I have never felt out of place in any of my classes. I think that I also grew up under the impression that my gender is something that I should embrace and see as a strength. 

This isn’t to say there haven’t been hiccups of course. I mean I’ve had snide comments said in the past towards me specifically because I am a woman, but I’ve really never had that occur since coming to college. I think another aspect of my comfort within my field stems from the amount of growth that has occurred over the years and the paths that have been paved by my female predecessors in STEM. Those women are the reason why the whole “women in STEM” movement is occurring at the rate it is! I still think we have a ways to go for sure because there still is not nearly enough women in engineering and especially in aerospace. I’m not sure if this lack of womanly representation is due to lack of interest or just general lack of exposure to the field as a whole. I think that another way to move forward is for men within the field to take a look at how they treat peers and coworkers. The creation of an open, accepting, and appealing environment begins with the people who have a firm hold within that environment already. 

So to those men who are in those male dominated positions, don’t be weary of women in the workplace or in the classroom, be aware of those comments you make that may be taken the wrong way, and lastly recognize your privilege and use it in productive ways to perhaps shed a light on those lesser recognized communities who are trying to enter your field.”

 

Tell me a little bit about where you worked this past summer. 

“This summer I worked at The Prologue Room within The Boeing Company. The Prologue Room is essentially a tiny air and space museum that displays the history of Boeing as well as its heritage companies. The museum has over 200 models of the products that Boeing (and its heritage companies) have compiled over the last 103 years.”

 

For those who don’t know, could you give a brief overview of what The Boeing Company is? 

“Boeing was founded in 1916 by Mr. William Boeing himself (hence why the company is named as such). He was originally the owner of a timber yard, and as a very wealthy man he saw aviation as somewhat of a cool hobby. So as many wealthy folks do…he bought a plane! However, he was dissatisfied with the product and decided he could build a better one. And so sparked the foundation of The Boeing Company. Eventually North American Aviation, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, and Douglas Aircraft Company befell underneath the Boeing name which is why they are all considered heritage companies today. These companies are responsible for creating the products that led to the first airlines and commercial airplanes, the first ever fighter jets, and the spacecrafts that first pioneered space and even landed the first ever human on the moon! Boeing continues its legacy today by being known as the largest commercial aircraft producer in the United States as well as an incredibly successful defense contractor. St. Louis is the Defense headquarters of Boeing, so they are responsible for the designing, building, and testing of anything and everything national defense. Many people know Boeing for their airplanes, but they do so much more!”

 

What were some of your daily responsibilities while working at Boeing? 

“My responsibility was essentially to learn anything and everything about as many products in The Prologue Room as possible. I memorized so many facts and stories over this summer that I basically became a Boeing encyclopedia. I would also give guided tours to new and old employees, special guests of the company, children’s groups, and senior citizen groups. Tours were always so fulfilling because I felt like as long as I taught someone something new about one of those products then I had accomplished my job! I absolutely love The Boeing Company because of its rich history and its groundbreaking accomplishments. Truly I couldn’t have asked for a better summer experience with them!” 

 

How did you find out about this job opportunity and what made you want to work here?

“I wanted to work at Boeing because as an Aerospace Engineer, it’s like freaking Candy Land over there. I heard about the job from one of my best friends and classmates who has connections with a current employee at The Boeing Company that originally began his career with the company in the Prologue Room. I told my best friend to refer that employee to me and then boom I sent in my resume, had a quick phone call with the woman in charge, and then I had my job!”

 

What are some important things you took away from your time at Boeing?

“I did A LOT of networking while I was in my position as a tour guide. Learning how to reach out to current managers and employees within the company was so incredibly crucial. My position was not an engineering position; however, that did not stop me from finding those important people within the engineering side of the company to connect with. I feel like this very much prepared me to nurture that network that I built and hopefully it leads to a full time position with the company.”

 

Where do you see yourself in the future, and how do you feel that your experience at Boeing relates to those goals?

“As I mentioned previously, I did a lot of networking. This included reaching out to managers in order to set up what are called “info interviews”. These info interviews give you the opportunity to have an inside look and sit down and chat with current employees that may be in positions you want to be in one day. I had the incredible opportunity to have a lovely info interview with a Parks College alum who is the current senior manager and team lead of the integrated vehicle technology team over at Boeing.

Integrated vehicle tech–or IVT (aerospace engineers love their acronyms)–is essentially where I want my career to begin. IVT is essentially taking someone’s concept aircraft, making a much smaller remote controlled version of said concept, and then testing it to see if it actually works and could be built into a real aircraft. You are taking all of those little technologies and seeing how they integrate into a real life aircraft. IVT is so awesome to me because you get to be that person that takes someone’s concept and turn it into something real, something tangible. You also get to be one of the very first people to get a hand on that design that could become the future of aviation. IVT is also a great way to get into configuration, which is where I want to end up. Configuration is the position where you actually get to draw those concept aircrafts. Those super cool and imaginative creations that lead to these huge strides in aviation. As an aerospace engineer, that’s the biggest dream! One day I want to look up at the sky and be like ‘oh snap… I came up with that!’”

Iliana pictured with two friends who also had internships with Boeing this past summer. (Source: Iliana Watson)

Annalise is a senior studying speech-language pathology at SLU.
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