Jennifer Cole, Dryden's aerodynamics and propulsion branch chief, delivered a keynote speech about her career journey during an Aug. 27 presentation commemorating Women's Equality Day. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) Eighty-nine years after passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, Dryden aerodynamics and propulsion branch chief Jennifer Cole was the keynote speaker at an Aug. 27 event marking Women's Equality Day.
Members of the NASA/Edwards Air Force Base communities gathered on base to hear Cole's presentation, which detailed her career as a female aerospace engineer in a field populated largely by men.
Back in the early 1990s, on hearing Cole say she wanted to become an aerospace engineer a high school guidance counselor advised against it, telling her she'd never find a job. The counselor recommended trying psychology instead. But after one semester as a psychology major at a local Pennsylvania State University campus, Cole signed up for a robotics class and knew immediately she'd found where she wanted to be.
"I really liked the hands-on part of the class, and the technical issues," she told her audience, and wasted no time switching majors. To this day, she remains in contact with people she met in the course - an ongoing reminder of the high value she places on the mentoring process.
Despite being the lone female in virtually all her engineering classes, and the sole female aerospace engineering major in the entire local program, Cole persevered. Of 10 women in her class majoring in the discipline at Penn State, she was one of the six who graduated.
In 1998, the summer before graduating, she landed an internship at Dryden and returned again in 1999 before accepting a full-time offer in June of 2000. She had begun work on a master's but recognized the potential that actual work in her field could offer. So although it meant leaving home, a half-finished graduate degree, her comfort zone and a "serious relationship" she packed her bags and headed west, along with a sister who also had finished college and was looking for a teaching job.
Now 33, Cole has found a new home in the desert and an appreciation for Mojave winters. When she married Darren Cole, she married into a longtime Antelope Valley family - Gifford C. Cole Middle School in Lancaster is named for Darren's grandfather. She discovered new, California-style hobbies like kayaking and sailplanes. In her talk, she shared with listeners some of the lessons and the values she considers most valuable among those her experiences have taught her.
Work at Dryden gave her a steady income, important lessons in team dynamics, and the chance to work with "a lot of motivated, intelligent people," she said, "I mean, there were astronauts in the hallways. I couldn't get over that." And she was finally surrounded by "other airplane geeks" - a term she's careful to note that she considers anything but a slander.
Cole stressed the importance of real-world work experience in refining career goals, of recognizing mistakes and being willing to own up to them when they happen. Of being honest with herself, of seeing mistakes as learning opportunities, of not being afraid to leave a comfort zone in search of new opportunities. Her job has also introduced her to the vagaries of work in the aerospace world.
"Airplanes break. Projects get cancelled. That's the business," she said. "But you also just keep looking for research opportunities, and eventually you find them."
No longer the newest kid on the block, Cole can take pride in knowing that she is now the one writing the technical papers instead of the student reading them. She now knows what it is to be the mentor instead of the mentored, and she mentioned the late Marta Bohn-Meyer as a figure who was important to Cole's development in her work at Dryden.
"I remember asking Marta once how she knew she was in the right job, how she would know if it were time to move on," Cole recalled, and shared Bohn-Meyer's answer, which had come in the form of an equation.
"She wrote it on a Post-It for me, and I still have it," Cole said. "It said, 'PS + $$ > BS.' I asked her what it meant, and she explained. 'If your personal satisfaction plus the money you're getting are still greater than the B.S. in your job, then you're in the right place.'
"It's a formula I still use."
Cole is currently finishing her master's thesis, in helicopter aerodynamics, and has finished the course work for the degree. The thesis topic is an ironic one; her mother recalls that when helicopters flew over Cole's head as the toddler rode in her stroller, she'd make noises and gestures simulating the craft's noise and appearance.
If there is anything to the notion of foreshadowing, Cole may definitely be in the right place, and Bohn-Meyer's equation is holding up.