Common among new engineers is the feeling that they are not as knowledgeable or skilled as everyone else they work with, and the fear that they don’t belong – imposter syndrome. Emma Chao, mechanical engineering graduate and aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin, knows it well. She also has advice for overcoming it, including being brave enough to ask all your questions and learning everything you can to feel competent in your role.
For Chao, joining UNLV’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics student chapter helped her gain key skills outside of the classroom and make connections that led to an internship and her current career.
What experience or skill did you get out of Senior Design that you were able to apply to your work?
Throughout the process of designing and building our senior design project, I learned so much about practical design and machining practices. By working with the machinists and employees in the shop, I learned how to use different tools and apply safety practices. This new skill helps me in my current job as I still design parts and provide drawings for machinists.
What is your best memory from UNLV?
My favorite memories are from the friendships I made in UNLV’s chapter of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. By getting involved with a student organization, you not only get a lot of hands-on and professional experience that will accelerate your career, but you also spend so much time with the other members. You build lifelong friendships with people who will be a huge part of your college experience and may be important connections in your future.
What is one project or design you are most proud of?
I was the proudest of our institute team’s design for the national design/build/fly competition. We did not have many resources or professional guidance and had to learn a lot by ourselves. But we worked hard and placed third out of 100-plus teams in only our second year of competition!
Was there a class you remember taking that correlates directly to your career today?
I took the aerodynamics elective with professor William Culbreth. I really enjoyed his teaching style and learning through anecdotes and fun application problems. A lot of the theory and equations that I learned in that class directly apply to my current position with the aerodynamics team at Lockheed Martin.
What brought you to your career?
I got an internship through a connection I made by attending an institute conference.
I was heavily involved with the student chapter as an executive board member and project manager for several design projects. Through the institute, I gained a lot of hands-on experience by building radio-controlled airplanes. I learned all about airplane fundamentals and picked up new skills like computational and fluid dynamics, and composite layup techniques. The institute also gave me professional growth opportunities by attending local and national events and meeting engineers in the aerospace industry.
Do you have any advice for students struggling to find jobs or decide on an engineering major?
For those struggling to find jobs, keep applying and keep attending career fairs and conferences. Try to meet people and really express your interests and hopefully someone will know of the right opportunity for you.
With my first internship, I applied to dozens and dozens of internships. I only heard back from one and I got it. Internships can be in all different fields but they always build on your experience and will get you one step closer to your end goal.
For deciding on a major, I would just talk to students and ask what they do and how they like their major. At the end of the day, your major does not dictate where you will end up. I have a degree in mechanical engineering but I work with other engineers who have degrees in aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, etc.
Is there one thing you wish you would have known or done to prepare yourself before going into engineering?
Building a career in engineering depends more on what you do outside of your courses during college. I was always looking for opportunities to be involved with engineering student organizations and volunteer with the College of Engineering. If you can make the time to get involved with at least one professional organization, it is most likely that you will find a job through that experience.
Is there anything else you would like to share with current students?
If you have the time and financial means, I strongly recommend the integrated BS-MS mechanical engineering program. I was able to take graduate-level courses during my undergrad years and for one year afterward, so I was able to complete both degrees in only five years.