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UTIAS Presents: Women in Aerospace

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Venus Ventures was fortunate to attend a recent Lunch and Learn hosted by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, the theme of which was Women in Aerospace. The event shed some light on what’s happening behind closed doors at one of Canada’s leading educational institutions and showcased the incredible work of the faculty and students of aerospace and aeronautical engineering.

There definitely was no shortage of intelligent and hardworking women at the event, all of whom bucked the stereotype that engineering is an exclusive boys’ club. One such woman was Jenmy Zhang, a PhD candidate in aerospace engineering. Learn more about Jenmy and what skills she believes are necessary to succeed in the field of aerospace engineering below:

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VV: Who or what inspired you to study aerospace engineering and what is your current focus of study?

JZ: My decision to study aerospace engineering wasn’t sparked by a single event or person. It was an evolving process. Thanks to my parents, I have enjoyed learning since I was a kid; particularly, the how’s and whys of everything!  For this reason, physics and computer science were two of my favourite subjects in high school. As a new immigrant to Canada at the time, I was often quite timid and shy. Yet, I found a lot of joy soaring in the world of science and was fascinated by new knowledge every day.

By the end of high school, I knew I want to do research. More specifically, I wanted to research methods that help solve real life problems. This led me into the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto. I eventually decided to specialize in aerospace engineering for its multi-disciplinary nature. Currently, I am studying computational methods that allow an aircraft design to be optimized based on the complex coupling effects of aerodynamics and structural responses. In other words, I am applying computer science to solving problems that involve complex physics. So yes, I am actually still pursuing my favourite subjects from high school, and I still enjoy them very much!

What skills do you believe are necessary to succeed in your discipline?

I think passion is a key ingredient for success in any field or discipline. Achieving success in general is not an easy task. PhD studies in particular require a tremendous amount of perseverance, which comes naturally when you love what you do. Critical thinking skills are surely on the list. These go way beyond the ability to solve a problem by following some form of a formula or process. Real life problems are often extremely complex; hence, we might never reach a solution if we don’t make some assumptions.

Nonetheless, making the wrong assumptions can be very catastrophic, although the mistakes are often very subtle. Therefore, good critical thinking requires a lot of reflective and careful examination of ideas from different perspectives, which will eventually lead to a much better understanding of the problems at hand.

I also like to ask a lot of questions and discuss my ideas with my colleagues, which adds good communication to the list. Last but not least, time management and the ability to prioritize are also very important, the lack of which can really hinder one’s success despite his or her great potential.

What is your attitude toward failure?

I think that no progress is possible without a previous failure in some way. My colleague and I were very excited to have new results in our research after a few months of work. However, we were quickly disappointed to find that our results were different from what we expected. Annoying indeed, but I was glad that I was made aware of a flaw somewhere because of the discrepancy, which is the first step in correcting it.

Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that we failed precisely because we are at the cutting edge of research, where a thorough understanding of the physical phenomena has not yet been established. In this way, the failure was a result of progress itself! Failure is part of a process. Every failure creates an opportunity for improvements, but we cannot take advantage of it unless we embrace the positive aspects of failure.

Feeling defensive or dwelling on the negative feelings doesn’t help in any way. As for the problem we ran into, it has been partially resolved and we are working on it continuously as I perfect both the method and our understanding. I believe that as my research progresses, slowly I will be able to close this gap.

Check out these photos of the amazing work being done by PhD candidates at the UTIAS labs!

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A UTIAS PhD Candidate introduces a flight simulator – it inspired both excitement and a little queasiness in our tour group!

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The interior of the flight simulator – an image of a runway and sunny skies are projeced through the windows to give one the full pilot experience

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As young kids, we might have played with a toy that looked similar to this PhD’s candidate’s very special device. He is working on a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that will be able to track forest fires and relate their progress in real time.

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