Mindy Wilson attended college for the first time at the age of thirty, graduating ten years later with a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering from University of Akron. Prior to college, she was a dairy farmer and mother of six children. The farm went bankrupt and Mindy went to the employment agency to look for a job. At the agency, she took a skills assessment test, scoring through the roof on all the skills. The agency worker told her she was very smart and had to go to college. After securing financial aid Mindy performed very well in college, receiving Dean’s awards, scholarships, and the University of Akron’s most prestigious award, the Pioneer Award. She was also an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at the University of Akron.
Shortly after graduation, she went to work for the Naval Service Warfare Center in Indiana jamming transmitters. Then, she went to work on the Motorola (later General Dynamics) Iridium Gateway Switch in Hawaii, which was followed by working on Rescue21, the search and rescue system for the US Coast Guard. She started her STEM career as an engineer, and eventually was promoted through the ranks, first to Team Lead, then to Project Manager, and finally to Deputy Program Manager of Engineering. Recently, Mindy chose to leave management to focus on her passion for engineering, and started a new job at Orbital ATK, where she is a Senior Principal Engineer working on an abort test booster for one of the rockets.
Below is Part 1 of my interview on Mindy’s engineering career trajectory– as Mindy Wilson proves, it’s never too late to become a rocket scientist.
Suzie: What were some of your jobs before becoming an engineer?
Mindy: Mom was, and is, my number 1 job. I always wanted to be a mom. With six kids, I think I contributed my fair share to the population [laughs]. I’m proud to be a mom. For thirteen years, I was a dairy farmer. That job was 24/7. There were always things to do during the day, at nights and on the weekends: milk the cows, bale the hay, and such. The kids seemed to enjoy it. Unfortunately, the cows got a disease and eventually the farm went bankrupt. I remember telling myself [when working on the farm], not many women know how to put milking equipment together and on cows and can lift seventy-five-pound bales of hay. In high school, I worked at the Stop ‘N’ Go. My dad was a blue-collar worker, and my mom worked at the Rubbermaid factory for a about a year, so there was no one in the science fields that I could look up to [as a role model]. My dad wanted me to become a secretary and insisted that I take typing classes, which does help with my job now, and general office job classes, like filing and short hand notation writing. After high school, I went to a professional business secretary school, but I dropped out after six weeks. Because I had taken the classes in high school, I found that I had more skills than the teachers. I quit the school and got married. But the skills were helpful for later in my engineering career.
Suzie: Why did you decide to become an engineer?
Mindy: The dairy farm [my husband and I owned] went bankrupt as the result of an unknown sickness to the dairy cows, so I had to get a job. I went to the employment agency and took one of those tests that evaluate your skills. The agency worker told me I scored very high on the test; that I was very smart. He told me that someone as smart as you, you must go to college. I told him I couldn’t afford it. He showed me how to apply for financial aid, and I went to the University of Akron. I wasn’t sure what to study, but the skills test indicated I was good at math. To me, a job that uses math was accounting, so I signed up for accounting. I got all A’s that first year, and that made go, wow, I am smart. For some reason, I told my brother-in-law how much I liked the math in accounting. He suggested, if I like math so much, why don’t I study electrical engineering? So I went to the [university] guidance counselor and told him I wanted to study electrical engineering. He said, that’s really hard, but you can always be a teacher, and I thought, I’m going to show him! I was thirty years old and had four kids when I started college. I had two kids during college, took a year off even, and after ten years, I got my [electrical engineering] degree. Since no one in my family has a background in engineering, it really was meant to be.
Suzie: Describe to me what you do currently as an engineer.
Mindy: I’ve recently switched from a manager position back to an engineering position. I’m now a Principal Engineer at Orbital ATK, and I’m working on rockets and propulsion. [I’m] learning what lifts them in the sky. I’m the systems engineering lead, leading a small team of engineers responsible for the requirements of the abort test booster. It’s a fairly new job for me, I started in February, so I’m learning new and exciting things. After I got moved off Rescue21 and onto another project [at General Dynamics], I wanted a job that would have a positive impact again [on human safety]. Working to ensure the safety of astronauts is a positive impact, and I’m excited to be working on rockets. I see some of the other electrical engineers down there [on the factory floor] with hardware and cables, and I can’t wait to be down there too!
To learn more about Mindy, please come back tomorrow of the part 2! Interested in more STEM Rock Stars? Click here to read Suzie’s interview of Syronna Brown!
This piece comes to us from one of our amazing community members and content volunteers, Suzie Olsen. Her bio is below, be sure to check out her awesome website and if you would like to work with us you can email us here!
Suzie Olsen is a Staff Systems Engineer in Phoenix, AZ. When she is not busy building and maintaining the search and rescue system for the US Coast Guard, she is performing science experiments and engineering design projects with K-12 students. To encourage all students in science, technology, engineering and math,she has written the book “Annie Aardvark, Mathematician.” You can learn more about Suzie here!