My journey as an aerospace engineer

The steps to greatness emerge from small beginnings. Her story is one of a little girl’s dream, carefully nurtured into an unquenchable passion, that has led her to an exciting career with endless opportunities. The sky is not even the limit! Be encouraged by the Bonolo Mpabanga‘s grit and determination, as you find out what it takes to be an aerospace engineer. 

What made you consider aerospace engineering as a career? I fell in love with physics in high school. The way my professor presented physics to us was really fascinating! He created scenarios for us in class, for example, a simple car. How does it travel on the road, the reaction forces on the wheels, what is the driving force? At the time, this was a whole new world to me. We can’t really see these forces, but we can feel them. This sparked my curiosity. If this is happening to the car, what is happening to the fan in my bedroom on a hot summer day in Botswana? I remember, one time, walking home from school and there was a man cutting down a big tree. And I actually started calculating where the tree would fall, depending on the amount of force he applied to the trunk!

Then Newton’s Laws were introduced to us – in my opinion, these are the fundamental laws of life! Our teacher presented lots of ideas to us in terms of pictures. He described how an aircraft flies using a picture. I was immediately captivated by that! My other interests were in interplanetary space travel and watching rocket launches growing up. After watching the Apollo movies and the space missions, I knew I wanted to learn how humans were launched into space. I even had magazines about all the satellites that were built way before I was born.

Another factor that contributed to my interest in Aeronautical Engineering was my mother’s constant encouragement, her academic achievements, and the fact that my father worked at the airport so I was around planes a lot. That is partly how my curiosity was piqued. “How do they build planes?” I knew I wanted to get into aircraft engineering; I wanted to learn how they work and build them.

What was your journey between discovering what you wanted to do and enrolling at University? My parents and professors helped me narrow down what I wanted to do and to discover what “my major” would be. It was a question of “I know what I want to do but what is it called? How do I get into studying this?” Mr. Dube who worked at Legae Academy at the time, was very helpful in suggesting where and how to research on what I wanted to study. My friend, Natasha (who is also my partner in Society of Women Engineers Botswana) and I would research after class every day. We wanted to get into MIT and Stanford. We were obsessed about Aerospace Engineering. The fascination is what drove us. My parents helped me find the SAT centres and covered the costs.  I got into Florida Institute of Technology to study Aerospace Engineering.

What is aerospace engineering exactly? Aerospace engineering is basically aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering combined, that is, engineering of space vehicles and aircrafts. The implementation requirements lead you to the design of the aircraft. You design models, manufacture them, test them and implement them.

Tell us about the process of discovery of the field of aerospace engineering. The first year was for adjustment, giving the freshmen a feel of Aerospace Engineering. The second & third year had a mixture of aeronautical, electrical engineering, structural, space flight mechanics and materials courses along with labs. They were all building up to the overall function of a rocket/aircraft. We also had a design class where we did 3D modeling. Final year distinguishes between aerospace and aeronautical engineers; our classes were more intricate and detailed. We also had our final aerospace project, which was to design a Mars Rover with a robotic arm. Our requirements were based on a competition in the US to design an unmanned vehicle, that can withstand the planet Mars-type conditions; high temperatures, sandy/dusty, and controlled remotely from another point (base station). The Rover was supposed to carry a certain weight and had a robotic arm for picking up samples and testing the pH of the soil. So many things had to happen at once. We built our own motors and had a live stream from the Mars Rover to our base station. It took us a whole year to do it and it was a success! I would do it all over again if I had the chance to! The project taught us so many things, costs, finding materials for cheaper prices and getting sponsors and so much more.

You have been a member of several women’s organizations along your journey. What benefits do you get from these? Society of Women Engineers provided a common support group of women that had the same mindset and went through the same struggles of being female in a male dominated industry. National Society of Black Engineers, of course, pertained to issues of being a minority in the STEM field and then American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA) was mostly about being exposed to the research that is being done out there/being kept up to date.

Is there formal career counselling offered to high school students in Botswana? I am sure there are programs but while I was in Legae, it was the teachers. If you were doing well in their subject, they would guide you to a certain direction. For us in form 6, Mr. Dube was the one who tried to guide us. Of course, it differs from school to school, but in terms of central society or a guidance program that is for children and the youth, I would like to believe the Botswana Youth programs are managing that aspect.

You founded Society of Women Engineers Botswana. What led you to this? In high school I wish I had more guidance when trying to figure out my career – an outside source of information really. It would have been nice to have a team of women directing us, saying “This is what you need to do.” Exposure to different areas in science and engineering would have been great. Society of Women Engineers Botswana was created to showcase different women in various engineering professions, who have achieved some of their goals. What I am hoping for is that the readers would come across the website, and find women who have been through the same process. They would get exposure to what engineering is about, thus, creating awareness. The future of Women Engineering Botswana is to have a science club and community outreach. We also plan on having a formal mentorship program. It will probably start in Legae Academy because that is where I am more familiar with, and try and move to other schools. We intend, in future, to mentor anyone who reaches out through social media, email, or the website.

What two things have you learnt about leadership? Leadership starts with listening and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. In my opinion you need to be focused, have plenty of patience, passion for what you do and having the ability to understand other opinions. When you are open to listening to one’s opinion, you get a different perspective.

What is your opinion on the leaky pipeline in Science and Engineering, and how do we keep women in STEM careers? I think it is all perspective. Women leave their careers because of the factors that are put in front of them. Sometimes they are not enjoying their workspace, or maybe they are not progressing as much as the want in their careers. Maybe they are not interested in it anymore – they have lost their passion. I think to keep them in the field is support. Giving them the space and opportunity to come up with solutions, and having the support to follow through with their ideas.

What are your favourite quotes?

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness” – Oprah Winfrey

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass” – Maya Angelou

Hobbies? I like to swim, travel, read inspirational books and watch movies. On a day to day basis, I work on creating new ways to inspire women to join Tech & Engineering.

Parting shot?

Focus on what you want to do in life.
Learn about yourself and create self-awareness.
Make sure whatever you pursue, you will enjoy it.
Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries – space is the limit.
Don’t shy away from the amazing opportunities the world has to offer.
Most importantly work hard, play hard.

Read more on aeronautical engineers here.

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