Dr. Wendy Okolo’s career has taken flight at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. agency responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.
She received Black Engineer’s Most Promising Engineer in Government Award during the BEYA STEM Conference in Washington D. C. recently.
Okolo is an aerospace research engineer at the Ames Research Center, a major NASA research center in California’s Silicon Valley.
She was only 26 years old when she became the first black woman to obtain a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. She earned both undergraduate and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering from UT Arlington.
Her previous research has been recognized and funded by the Department of Defense through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship; Zonta International, through the Amelia Earhart Fellowship; and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics through the John Leland Atwood Graduate Fellowship.
Currently, Okolo is a Special Emphasis Programs Manager in the Intelligent Systems Division of NASA’s Ames Research Center.
She is working on the System-Wide Safety (SWS) project, and a Space Technology Mission Directorate Early Career Initiative (STMD-ECI) project at the Ames Research Center.
For the SWS project, she led the task of predicting GPS faults in unmanned aerial systems commonly known as drones.
Okolo worked with Langley Research Center in Virginia to investigate flight data and facilitate data exchange across and within NASA centers.
On the STMD-ECI project, she leads the controls team to develop unconventional control techniques for deployable vehicles, to enable precision landing and improve maneuverability during the entry, descent, and landing phases of spaceflight.
The STMD-ECI project is a $2.5 million-dollar project that she proposed and won as part of a six-member early- career scientist team.
Okolo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and came to the U.S. for her undergraduate studies.
“My parents convinced me I was going to be an engineer even before I fully understood what engineering was.” She told an interviewer once.
Her favorite classes were always math and science. In third grade, she recalls,
“we had to tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. When I said I wanted to be an engineer, my teacher said, -‘You want to be an engineer? You want to fix ceiling fans and such? As a girl?”
Feeling dejected, Okolo recounted the incident to her mother, who was able to re-ignite Okolo passion for engineering by telling her all the cool things engineers made, things like planes and spaceships.
She went to the University of Texas for her undergraduate degree and earned a bachelors degree with honors in aerospace engineering. She completed two internships with Lockheed Martin, first as a systems engineering intern in the requirements management office for Orion, NASA next-generation spacecraft, then on the mechanical design team, where she helped create fixtures in preparation for testing and verification.
She says her internship experiences showed her how much she did’nt know.
“I realized I wanted to learn it all, and I started to seek additional independent learning outside the classroom environment.”
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