I love how the Engineering Emily Women in Engineering Interview Series has enabled me to reach out to many friends and former colleagues who I’ve lost touch with over the years, and I’ve been able to meet new woman engineers, too. I love reading and sharing these interviews because I can always relate to them, even if she’s had a different degree and career path than me. It’s been helpful for me to read these stories, to read about the successes and challenges each woman has faced being an engineer and working mom, because I feel like I am not alone.
Today on the Women in Engineering Interview Series, I’m featuring an interview with Laura, a Mission Operations Engineer. In elementary school I was in a “Young Astronauts” program which ignited my interest in all things space (astronauts, rocket ships, Star Wars…) . Reading Laura’s story reminded me of my own childhood fascination with space and what impressed me the most is that she followed through on that childhood space fascination by majoring in aerospace & astronautical engineering. I hope you enjoy reading about Laura’s path to becoming a Mission Operations Engineer and how she balances her job with being a mom.
Engineering Emily (EE): What is your name and occupation?
Laura Crabtree (LC): Laura Crabtree, Mission Operations Engineer
EE: How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
LC: I am pretty sure I decided when I was between 8-10 years old. I used to watch Space Shuttle launches with my mom and dad and I told them I wanted to be an architect in space and that I intended to go to space one day. My mom would always say, you can do whatever you want honey, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t think I was serious.
EE: What was your college major?
LC: B.S. – Aerospace & Astronautical Engineering
M.S. – Systems Architecture in Engineering
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
LC: I was one of only 17 people in my graduating class as it was a very specialized major at the University of Southern California. There were 5 women in the class, which was by far and away the biggest percentage of women in any engineering field that I had seen.
I joined a sorority mostly because I didn’t see my friends from the dorms often enough because they had joined sororities. I used to lie to everyone about my major due to the incessant questioning, and awed faces of fraternity and sorority men and women. I told them I was a business major, which somehow seemed more believable. From my peers and my professors I never felt like being a woman was anything short of awesome.
I also ran on the USC track team and club volleyball team and somehow balanced all of these things. Looking back, I have no idea how I did it, but I wanted to make sure to keep myself motivated in all aspects of my life.
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
LC: I tried REALLY hard to get an internship in college, but at the time 2002 (ish) the Aerospace industry wasn’t nearly as strong as it is today, and people didn’t get the valuable experiences they now get through internships.
EE: How did you find your first engineering job?
LC: In a word. Exhausting.
I worked my butt off, I worked 10-12 hour days. I wanted to prove myself, but man it was hard at first. Going from school to working all the time. I never felt like I had time for myself anymore. It leveled out after about 6 months and I settled into my role as a systems engineer, but the transition wasn’t easy.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
LC: I work in the Aerospace / Space industry.
EE: What has been your career path from college graduation up to today?
LC: I started as a systems engineer on satellite systems, and from there worked a few years in operations. I moved overseas with my first job and lived overseas for almost 4 years. That was a truly life changing experience and I think I learned so much about the world, and about myself in those years. From there I moved home and took a new job as a Mission Operations engineer where I’ve been for the last 8 years.
EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?
LC: I’ve only travelled a little for work as my work is mostly done at our office headquarters. Every few months I spent about 2-4 days away from my family in Houston (from LA)
EE: Have you had to move for work?
LC: No, I think I’d probably have to find a new job in my home city if I did as my husband and I are pretty grounded here.
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
LC: I think my best experiences have been in working with such diverse teams and across all different types of engineers. I learn so much from working with new people.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
LC: I think the same response as above. Trying to work with new people can always be hard especially if they don’t speak the same “language” as you. I’m not a typical engineer, so sometimes talking to and working with software engineers is hard for me, but like I said, I learn SO much from them and I really value those experiences.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
LC: I try to work as little as possible from home. If I have to take work home I work after my kids go to bed. Before kids I worked 12+ hour days more often than I’d like to admit, but now it isn’t really possible, so I try to balance. It isn’t easy and I never feel like I can give 100% to anything.
EE: What do you consider the challenges and advantages of being a working mom?
LC: The biggest challenge I face is guilt. Most of the guilt comes from within. I want to be super mom. I want to be an amazing engineer. Sometimes one falls behind, and I have to spend time to get back up to where I’d want to be. I’m always kind of just trying to keep my head above water. Being a working mom is completely different than being a working dad. That’s not to say that being a working dad doesn’t have guilt too, but somehow it’s different. I feel that I’m the default parent most of the time, so I struggle with that.
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
LC: My advice for girls and boys would be the same. Keep working towards what you want, and keep doing the things you love. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If they do, make sure you prove them wrong.
EE: What advice do you have for working moms?
LC: Do as much as you can, and give yourself a break. Make sure to take time for yourself. A quiet cup of coffee, an early morning workout, a late night walk with the dog. I feel that when I take time for me that I am a better mom, wife and engineer.
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?
LC: It largely depends where you are working. I know that in my company I would say half the time yes, and half the time no. But the trend is going towards yes.
Thank you Laura for sharing your story on the blog today. I love the fact that she decided as young as 8 years old that she wanted to work in the space industry and was able to follow through and achieve her dream. Not many people actually have the job that they dreamed of doing as a child! She’s also managing to balance a full-time engineering career with being a mom. It isn’t easy to find that balance, so I’m glad Laura was able to share a few of her tips on how she makes it work with us today.
I’m always looking for more woman engineers (whether or not you’re still working as an engineer) to feature in my Women in Engineering Interview Series. Please contact me if you’re interested in being interviewed!