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Picture: Nancy Rhoads

Nancy Rhoads
Senior Specialist Engineer, Boeing Commercial Airplane Group


I have two college degrees: one in literature and one in engineering. After getting my literature degree, I travelled to Europe because I was trying to decide what to do. When I came back from Europe, I did what I always wanted to do, which was to learn to fly airplanes. I then went back to school for my engineering degree. I'd been working at Northrop for about 5 years, when someone ran into my car and my neck was broken. I spent about a year in rehabilitation and then went back to work.

Question 1: Can you describe your work?

At Northrop, I was in structural dynamics. This deals with the vibrations of the airplane caused by forces on the plane. If the structure of the plane isn't strong enough, the airplane can get torn apart when it flies. I just started my job at Boeing in the test integration group, testing the new version of the 747.

Question 2: Is learning math important if you want to have a career in aeronautics?

Oh yes. You definitely have to have the calculus to understand all the equations that govern the laws of aerodynamics. It's essential!

Question 3: How did you get interested in aeronautics?

It comes from my dad. He was always interested in planes. He was a carpenter and built airplane models. Also, I grew up during the 1960's, and my brother and I would stay up to watch the space launches. My brother is now an electrical engineer.

Question 4: What's easy and what's hard about your job?

The easy part is dealing with all the other people. The hard part is dealing with the computer--all the programs I have to use. It's good to have a good computer background.

Question 5: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in math? Why?

When I was a kid, I didn't understand the part that math plays in our physical world. People who have careers in math have made some of the biggest discoveries of all time, like how the planets revolve around the sun. It'll be the people who are pursuing careers in math who make the next big discovery, like how to break the speed of light.

Question 6: Is there anything you would like to say to young people with physical disabilities who are considering a career in aeronautics and/or math?

The physical disability is no problem because so much is done on the computer. In this age of computers, you can do just about anything. The aerospace industry is very good for people with disabilities; my employers bend over backwards to meet any needs I have.

Question 7: What challenges, if any, have you dealt with in your career due to your disability?

I think it's the same as in life. You have to get past people's perception of your disability. After I was disabled, my manager was reluctant to send me on test flights, but he finally did and it wasn't a problem. On another test, the safety people got concerned that there were too many hydraulic lines around my wheelchair, and my manager had to deal with that.

Question 8: Would you encourage young people with disabilities to pursue careers in aeronautics? In math?

Yes. Definitely aeronautics, because that's a skill that's always going to be needed both in commercial planes and the military. And I see math as the road to the future!

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