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Organization takes flight for UC students seeking aviation careers

Aerospace PhD student hopes to strengthen engineering community

head shot of a young woman with long dark hair wearing a light blue striped dress shirt

Rachel Wiggins expects to earn her PhD in aerospace engineering in 2024. Photo/Provided.

Upon her arrival at the University of Cincinnati in fall 2019, Rachel Wiggins discovered that she was the only incoming female doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering.

When she was an undergraduate student at the University of California Riverside, she had noticed the same conspicuous scarcity of female engineers. It made it hard for her to feel included or find where she fit in her cohort.

“It was weird not having a role model or other people like me who were experiencing the same things,” Wiggins said.

There were no organized supports for female aerospace engineering students at UC. Wiggins decided she wanted to help build a sense of community.

She drafted bylaws and met with the UC Student Activities Board to establish Women in Flight as a student organization on campus.

I want to create a voice for underrepresented female students in engineering.

Rachel Wiggins, UC aerospace engineering student

Three young women in business casual wear stand in front of a blue photo backdrop with dozens of mini plastic airplanes hanging from it

Wiggins and two other members of Women in Flight at the Women in Aviation Conference. Photo/Provided.

Wiggins held an informational meeting in January 2020 with support from aerospace engineering department head Kelly Cohen and faculty members Mark Turner and Yao Fu, the organization’s adviser. Attendees confirmed their interest in the organization’s mission.

“I want to create a voice for underrepresented female students in engineering, to create a group that can collaborate and discuss experiences or issues they may be facing,” said Wiggins, now president of the organization.

At its first meeting in February, the group made plans to participate in outreach opportunities and host speakers. Wiggins gave the first presentation on how to get involved in university research. She encourages undergraduates to prepare for research earlier in their college career.

Members attended their first outreach event later that month, a symposium for middle and high school students at Mount Healthy High School during Engineers Week.

During a Q&A session, students, including some girls in the audience, expressed preconceived ideas about engineering. Wiggins explained how aviation and engineering offer a vast range of career choices for people with all kinds of skills and interests.

“At their age, I also thought engineering was meant for people who had a passion for math and building things and that’s all they did, but there is so much more to this field than most people think,” Wiggins said.

“It made me feel nostalgic to come full circle, to reflect back on my career and why I made the decisions that led me here,” Wiggins said. “Giving back to the students, serving as their role model, and being the voice to say, ‘you can do it,' that’s what makes me happy."

We were all students at one point. We share similar goals to achieve great things in the industry.

Rachel Wiggins, UC doctoral student

To further Rachel’s professional development and outreach goals, she and two other officers from Women in Flight attended the Women in Aviation International Conference in Orlando, Florida, in March to network with aviation professionals and companies, and learn about educational and career opportunities in the industry. The UC Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, provided financial support for the trip.

Many prestigious professionals spoke at the conference, including Eileen Collins, the first and only female NASA shuttle commander and U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett. 

Joan Robinson-Berry, chief engineer at Boeing Co., was the most influential speaker for Wiggins.  

“Her speech felt so relatable. We were all students at one point. We share similar goals to achieve great things in the industry.”

One statement by Robinson-Berry resonated with her: “You are the CEO of your career.”

Wiggins, also a teaching assistant for the UC Department of Engineering Education, has an ultimate career goal to teach.

“To affect even one student is heartwarming,” Wiggins said. “It is difficult to impact a whole crowd, but if just one person can take away something from a presentation or is inspired by what we share — that is what we are trying to accomplish.”

Students who are interested in Women in Flight are welcome to contact Wiggins or meet them at the fall student organization fair in August. All UC students are welcome to join the organization.

Featured image at top: Space Shuttle Atlantis. Photo/NASA