'Awesome' Earhart Summit inspires young and accomplished engineers
They walked away giddy, in the perfect sense.
A group of four female students seized a lunch break to stop Beth Moses, right next to the half gallons of tea and juice, and adoringly deluge her with questions. Moses obliged, peppering the conversation with honest assessments about career paths and snippets of wisdom that nearly 25 years in government and industry bring.
Eventually, the group had the likely millennial request: A selfie. Instead, a bystander offered to take a more traditional group photo. Once accomplished, Moses graciously said she was happy to meet all of them before walking away to prepare for an upcoming talk.
As soon as Moses turned, the students hardly could control themselves, tightening their circle into almost nearly a hug, excitedly chattering about what just happened. They just spent quality time with a member of Purdue’s Cradle of Astronauts — Moses became the first female commercial astronaut when she reached space in February on a Virgin Galactic flight.
The Amelia Earhart Aerospace Summit offered those kinds of interactions throughout the two-day Ideas Festival event, as students were up close and in the personal space of a loaded lineup of pioneer women in space exploration and aviation in government, industry and academia.
The keynote speakers were a who’s who of inspiring professionals, from the Honorable Sue Payton (government), Moses (industry), Kathleen Howell (academia) and Sammie Morris (academia). The Careers in Space and Careers in Aviation panels similarly were stacked with influential speakers from government, industry and academia. A networking session opened up the opportunity for students to directly interact with some of the keynote speakers and panelists, as well as members of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Industrial Advisory Council. A workshop provided hands-on learning with a prominent figure in industry.
That left nearly 270 who registered for the Summit in Year 2 with a comprehensive, captivating experience.
“We are so thrilled with how the Summit came together,” Summit co-chair and president of Graduate Women’s Gathering Arly Black said. “Since we organized this event for students like ourselves, we had the unique opportunity to plan it to directly reflect our own interests in the aerospace field. It was incredible to look around and see over 200 faces staring in awe and admiration at someone who not too long ago was where we are today. And to see the drive and passion of our speakers, accompanied by their humility and genuine love of their work, was hugely inspirational. It is astonishingly easy to lose sight of your goals as you get lost in all of the assignments and stress of day-to-day student life, and I hope that this Summit served to put students' dreams back into perspective.”
Attendees from 13 universities, including Purdue, and even several high schools were treated to empowering keynote talks, jump-started by Payton’s. With more than 37 years working in senior industry and government positions with military services, defense agencies, coalition partners, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Intelligence Community, Congress and universities, Payton brought a breadth of knowledge. Her talk focused on career paths in aerospace that could strengthen national security and counter threats to the United States, specifically speaking about the state of the Department of Defense, and she shared opportunities for students to get involved.
Moses (BSAAE, MSAAE) offered a closer look at the commercial human spaceflight industry, relaying nearly step-by-step the experience she had in February as Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor when she performed cabin tests in space. Moses’ vivid descriptions of seeing Earth from space helped attendees feel like they were there. Which probably was exactly the point: Virgin Galactic’s mission is to offer the same experience to everyone, opening spaceflight for customers, of which about 600 already are awaiting their chance to soar.
Howell, the Hsu Lo Distinguished Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, shared her journey to Purdue and the challenges she had to overcome, including being told by her high school guidance counselor that women don’t study aerospace engineering and, later, being told her research was “purely an academic exercise” and “no one will ever care.” Howell never wavered and ultimately became one of the preeminent aerospace engineers in the country for her work in orbital mechanics.
To close Saturday’s activities, Morris offered an enlightening look at the Summit’s namesake, Amelia Earhart, a career counselor and advisor to the Department of Aeronautics from 1935-37 at Purdue. Morris, professor and Head of Archives and Special Collections at Purdue, is one of the country’s leading sources on Earhart.
And those were only the keynotes.
“The thing that stood out most to me in all four of the keynotes was how passionate each of them were in talking about their corner of aerospace,” said AAE senior Emily Schott, co-chair of the Summit and vice president for Women in Aerospace. “We purposely invited people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and the keynotes really highlighted that. It was nice to take a break from the grind of the semester to remember why I'm so excited about aerospace in the first place. I hope that everyone had that moment at some point during the weekend.”
Moses may have been the draw for some students’ attendance — there was a line more than 10 people deep after her talk, folks with hopes of saying hello, getting an autograph or a photo — but their enthusiasm may have been outmatched. By Moses.
“I was thrilled and honored by the invitation because this event is for young engineers, emerging engineers and really about the future,” Moses said. “It speaks to Purdue and also local engineers in the Midwest, and I just can’t think of a more honorable group to inspire.
“I’m so active here at Purdue because I love Purdue, and I want to pay it forward and give back. Purdue gave me the most amazing education. I worked hard for it, as everyone in Purdue aerospace does, but I couldn’t do the job I do and I wouldn’t really be the person I am without my time at Purdue. I’m just very, very proud to be a Purdue graduate.”
A variety of innovators from government, industry and academia lined the front of Hiler Theater in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center for the Careers in Space panel. Marina Koren, a staff writer at The Atlantic, moderated a panel that included University of Colorado Boulder professor Penina Axelrad, Purdue EAPS professor Briony Horgan, Blue Origin’s Yen Matsutomi (BSAAE ’03, MSAAE ’05, PHD AAE ’09), Moses, AAE professor David Spencer (BSAAE ’89, MSAAE ’91) and NASA’s Moogega Cooper Stricker.
The group’s back-and-forth discussion gave a unique insight into the personalities of powerful women as they shared success stories and spoke about how they’ve overcome challenges, whether because of gender or solving technical problems.
“Amelia Earhart is a pioneer explorer in the aviation world and definitely an inspiration for all of us women in aerospace engineering. I was deeply honored to be on the panel,” said Matsutomi, who was awarded the Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship in 2006 as a Ph.D. student in AAE. “Hearing conversations from all the other women, it reminded me that this industry is so much more than just my day-to-day work and the things I’m exposed to. It was comforting to hear other successful ladies still have similar struggles and we can work through them and contribute and help everyone else in the industry.
“The Summit was awesome. When I was in college, I attended numerous technical conferences and technical panels, it was all about the technical part of things. Career development and personal development, I think I got that from one-on-one conversations with grad students more senior than me or talking to professors, but having this opportunity to listen to folks from industry, from academia, from government agency, it’s eye-opening to what their day-to-day life is, what they’re working on, and it inspires you. Maybe it paints a picture of where students want to head and who they can talk to, gives them some direction.”
The Careers in Aviation panel that included Captain Margie Freeman, Boeing’s Kathryn Johnson (BSAAE ’14), GE Aviation’s Jen Watson Perez (BSAAE ‘03), Benz Aviation’s Margaret Wint and Payton may have had the most emphatic interaction of the day when a student asked about their favorite aircraft. Freeman did a fist pump at one point during the selections, and oohs and ahs spread across the room.
It was clear each panelist was passionate about the industry, and the event was particularly special for AAE alumnae Johnson and Perez.
Johnson couldn’t remember when she’d been back to campus, and it’d probably been since 2014 for Perez, who formerly was part of GE’s Purdue recruiting team. So when they heard about the Summit, the response was emphatic.
Johnson was eager to represent young alumni and offer insight into building a network and fostering relationships, advice she was able to give especially during the hour-long networking session.
Perez, who grew up in West Lafayette, saw that the event supported several of her interests.
“For me, Amelia Earhart has always been such an inspiration,” Perez said. “When I was in high school, I actually did a history day project on Amelia Earhart. The theme that year was migration, and most people took it very literally and did projects about civilizations migrating. I did my project about migration of the thought of women in the aviation industry. So I was down at Purdue with the Archives and seeing some of her stuff, which was so inspiring. So when I heard about the Summit, it actually was from a colleague at GE, and he was like, ‘Hey, we should get involved in this, and you would be a great person to get involved.’ I was like, ‘Yes.’
“I do a lot at work around diversity and inclusion. I have a passion for helping women succeed, so once I learned more about what this Summit was all about and who organizes it, it’s very aligned with things I’m passionate about. I’m excited to be here.”
The Summit was organized by Purdue’s Women in Aerospace and the AAE Graduate Women’s Gathering and sponsored by AAE, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), AIAA's Diversity Working Group, Northrop Grumman and the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence.
What people are saying about the Earhart Summit
“The keynote speakers and panels did an excellent job in describing successful steps to achieve rewarding careers for STEM oriented grads in industry, government and academia. The dialog and networking between students and invited speakers and panelists was exceptional.”
— Summit keynote speaker Sue Payton, owner SCI Aerospace, Inc.
“As a student aerospace engineer, the Amelia Earhart Aerospace Summit expanded my knowledge in terms of what I can do as a professional. Very informative and great experience overall. There are so many opportunities out there for an engineer. A presentation by Sue C. Payton in that event really inspired me to pursue a career in the Air Force as a civilian aerospace engineer. Something I have never considered before.”
— Summit attendee Alfredo Guerra, junior in aerospace engineering at UC San Diego
“From what I heard the summit was a wonderful experience for all who attended, including my teenage daughter. It is wonderful to see that Amelia’s words and deeds continue to inspire students at Purdue and beyond. It was a unique moment and place at an intersection of Purdue and aerospace field past, present and future with the unique exhibit from Amelia’s collection at Purdue Archives, amazing speakers who are rocking it in aerospace field right now and all the energy and enthusiasm of students in the panels and networking sessions.”
– Summit co-organizer Alina Alexeenko, faculty advisor Women in Aerospace, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue