I discovered astronomy when I was in fifth grade. It was the International Geophysical Year and I found it very exciting. I had a neighbor who had built a telescope and I would go to his house to look at the stars and planets. When I was 12, I got a Saturday job at the library and bought my own telescope.
I was raised by a single mother (my dad died when I was five) who always encouraged me in my interest in science. She had always loved math. In high school, I joined the astronomy club, but found I wasn’t really welcome. The only other girls were girlfriends of the guys. I majored in astronomy and math in college, but didn’t receive much encouragement from my professors.
My plan after graduation was to work a couple of years to earn money for grad school and then get my master’s and PhD. But things didn’t work out that way. As they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans. I found it difficult getting that first job after college. Sometimes when I would call about a position, the agent or recruiter would say in a surprised voice, “You mean you want it for yourself?” I was also told I couldn’t get a job as a programmer because I couldn’t lift the boxes of computer cards. Right! And one manager asked me if I didn’t have a husband or father to take care of me! That would be illegal today.
I finally got a job writing for a science magazine. They had planned to make a TV special on astronomy, which I would help write, but the special was never made. But my writing experience got me my first computer programming job. Most technical people are not known for good writing. After programming in the Defense industry for several years, I advanced to software engineer. I was fortunate to have a (male) mentor to help me make that transition. I wrote code for military simulators, including for rockets, and flight code for the FA/18 fighter jet.
Then I accepted a position at NASA as a flight systems engineer with a software specialty. This was the most exciting and fun job I ever had. I was software manager for the experimental scramjet, Hyper-X, which made the Guinness Book of World Records twice in one year. The first successful flight was Mach 7 and the second was Mach 10. Since then I have worked on satellite systems, including GPS.
I had planned to go into pure science and never expected to become an engineer. When I was in college I was often the only women in my astronomy, math and physics classes. There weren’t many women programmers when I started working either. Now there are many more women in programming and engineering, though still not enough. I have mentored women college students who are interested in technical fields for many years. I hope to see more young women entering science and engineering in the future.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do some because you are a girl. Don’t give up.
Find me at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/cbarklow
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