Industry experience at The Aerospace Corporation

By Chad Topaz
Meeting the challenges of space; The Aerospace Corporation
Interview with Lael Fisher,
Senior Member of the Technical Staff
The Aerospace Corporation, Los Angeles, CA, USA

by Chad Topaz,
Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, USA

Lael Fisher received her B.S. in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and her PhD in applied mathematics from Northwestern University. Since 2006, Lael has been working for The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California. Lael (in roman type) and I (in italics) recently chatted about her scientific interests and her experience as a recent PhD entering industry. Readers considering continuing to an industry job after the completion of a graduate degree may also wish to look at the Sloan Career Cornerstone Series and the Careers in Mathematics site.

  Lael Fisher
Lael Fisher.

Graduate school and job hunting

How did you choose to attend graduate school in applied mathematics?

My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering and I minored in applied mathematics. I was not quite ready to join the working world right after college, so I decided to pursue my interests in applied mathematics in graduate school. I knew from the start of graduate school that I wanted to go into industry. I did not, however, know exactly in what industry I wanted to land.

What sort of research did you pursue in graduate school?

My graduate research involved the study of nonlinear partial differential equations describing various problems in dynamics. My first project was a thin films problem in which I studied superposed layers of immiscible liquids on a solid substrate. This type of system is relevant to industrial coating processes, fluid lining of the pulmonary airways, and tear films, among other systems. Along with my advisor, I showed that the van der Waals interactions can lead to the system breaking up into localized droplets. I also studied the effect of surfactants, which can lead to destabilization via an oscillatory instability. Another study I did was motivated by experiments in which a liquid droplet was found to levitate above a bath of liquid. We determined the conditions under which this phenomenon can occur. For each of these problems I mentioned, I used a combination of analytical techniques (such as weakly nonlinear analysis) and numerical simulations to understand the system better.

Many graduate students I talk to are unsure of how to initiate an industry job search, and worry that the time for investigating this can be scarce because most of their attention goes into trying to complete dissertation research. How did you begin your job search, and what was it like?

Overall, I had a very positive experience hunting for a job in the industry. I began by attending some events hosted by my university's career center. I was a little discouraged at first, because most of the on-campus recruiters were primarily interested in undergraduates. Fortunately, my advisor was very supportive of my decision to work in industry and encouraged me to attend professional conferences to pursue employment through the career centers at these events. After attending some of these conferences and meeting with recruiters there, I realized that there were positions for applied mathematics PhD's across many types of companies.

Since it's currently autumn, the job search season will soon be upon us. Do you have advice for dynamical systems graduate students who are about to start a search?

My suggestion is to take advantage of the on-site interview stage of job search process. The on-site visit is a really good chance to meet the people that you will be working with. Getting along with your future co-workers, feeling comfortable asking questions, and working together in a constructive way is really going to shape your experiences on the job. It is also a good chance to learn about what goes on outside of work - especially if you are relocating to a new area. Of course the interview process is for them to learn about you, but it's also your chance to learn about the culture of your potential workplace.

A dynamical career at The Aerospace Corporation

At the end of your search, you decided to take a position with The Aerospace Corporation. What do you do there?

I am a part of the Navigation and Geopositioning Systems Department. As a department, we support GPS programs, provide launch support, and process launch data in real-time. We also maintain and evolve several of the tools used across the company for orbit analysis, ephemeris generation, and orbit determination.

A common question or concern that graduate students have is if a job in industry will take advantage of the skill set that they spent so much time building up during their degree program. Does your scientific life at Aerospace connect to the scientific life you had in graduate school?

Absolutely! I do not deal with thin films at Aerospace, so in that sense, my work now is very different from my work as a graduate student. However, the work I do now draws upon the same mathematical skills that I used for my graduate work. The codes we run solve orbital mechanics equations. After taking into account the many perturbations affecting the orbit, the code solves nonlinear, partial differential equations, similar to what was done in my graduate research. So both the general type of equations I study, as well as the techniques I use to study them, are similar to those from my graduate school experience.

It's wonderful that your graduate school experience provided scientific skills directly applicable to your employment. Tell me, do you find yourself using other types of skills that you acquired during your degree work?

Certainly. One of the most exciting challenges in my job is getting up to speed on the aerospace topics that I deal with daily, such as orbital mechanics. Reading technical papers and doing independent background research in graduate school has prepared me to do the same here. Of course, I am also lucky to be surrounded by experts who are willing to share their knowledge with me. Additionally, I wrote some technical publications and gave presentations as a graduate student, and that was good practice for the written and verbal communication that I do as part of my work.

What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your new position?

As a graduate student, I worked exclusively with my advisor, which is the nature of graduate school. I am very thankful for that training, which was invaluable. Since then, it has been a great experience to work as part of a team on a variety of projects. Performing analyses as a team takes advantage of our diverse backgrounds and expertise. It has been very rewarding both to produce results as a team that I would not be able to produce on my own and to learn from my team members. Also, The Aerospace Corporation offers in-house courses taught by personnel across disciplines, and this has helped me to learn about the aerospace industry and how our company fits in.

Future orbit

It sounds like your experience so far has been educational and stimulating. Thinking ahead, what does the career trajectory for an applied mathematics PhD at your company look like?

There isn't an exact answer to that question that I know of! It seems that everyone here at The Aerospace Corporation has a different career trajectory. Some technical people end up in management, while others stay technical for their whole career. It's exciting to know that I have flexibility to create whatever career trajectory I want as I develop more skills and experience.

Is there anything else you want to share with our readers about your experience as a dynamicist in industry?

Having a degree in applied mathematics, by definition, means that you have already learned how mathematics applies to something else. As a graduate student focused on a particular dissertation topic in dynamical systems, it can sometimes be hard to imagine what you might be applying mathematics to after your degree. If you are willing to continue learning, I really believe that you can be successful in just about any field.


Please login or register to post comments.