Marika Ottman, '19
Where I've been in my career and where I'm going...Although I am early into my career, my work has taken me to awesome places and has given me incredible experiences. Some highlights include working in a BBC radio studio in England, running tests in a wind tunnel in Belgium, and getting my hands dirty working on fighter jet engines at a Marine base. I recently switched from industry to consulting, where I get to work with public sector clients to navigate and implement emerging technologies. I see some business trips in my future!
Fondest memories of AOE...
My fondest memories of AOE all involve my study group. Getting a degree in AOE was by no means a solo accomplishment; my study group was there with me for every study session before exams and every Sharkey's trip after exams. They became my best friends and kept me motivated and accountable. We often joked that each of us deserve honorable mentions on each other's degree. There were 7 of us and I was the only female, but I insisted we take grad photos together holding hands like I had done with my sorority sisters. The photo shoot was such a funny and joyful time, and I still laugh looking at those pictures. Big shout out to Dave Del Grosso, David Gardiner, Wian Coetzer, Suyash Bhattarai, Ronak Shah, and David Lee. I couldn't have done it without you!
Favorite Virginia Tech tradition...
Ut Prosim! I loved participating in The Big Event each year and appreciate how much Virginia Tech connects with the surrounding community. My time at Virginia Tech instilled the goal "that I may serve" and I continue to strive for it by volunteering and giving back to my community.
Who inspired you to become an engineer?
This might be a cliché answer, but my parents inspired me to become an engineer! My mom is a computer engineer and my dad is a financial analyst. Hobbies, skills, and interests were never gendered in our household; my brother, sister and I all played with dolls as well as with toy dump trucks growing up. I was taught how to use tools at a young age and was encouraged to create whatever I imagined. My earliest prototypes included cardboard airplanes, a rigged up garden wagon used to navigate a highway system drawn in chalk, and a "sound-proof" scream box.
I thought that my mom being an engineer was the standard; I never considered her a "female engineer" just like I don't refer to my dad as a "male financial analyst". I was always confident that women belong in engineering, and my parents gave me such a strong foundation in this belief that I never doubted my belonging regardless of external pressures, biases, discrimination or stereotyping.
Now that I am an engineer, I often discuss diversity, equity and inclusion in engineering with my mom to learn more about her experiences throughout her career and what changes she hopes to see. My dad and I enable each other's addiction to home improvement projects and enjoy building things together. I am so grateful for my supportive parents!
Challenges you've had to overcome in aerospace engineering...
Ever since my interning days, I've heard multiple comments about women getting hired because of our gender rather than our qualifications-insinuating that I might be less qualified for the job than my male counterparts. For a long time this made me insecure and second-guess my competence, and I often wondered if all of my colleagues thought that way about me. This was a whole different beast than imposter's syndrome.
The reality is, in order to succeed in this male-dominated sphere, women have to have an extraordinary combination of tenacity, work-ethic and intelligence. When I was still a student, there were far fewer female students than male students, but every female in my degree program was remarkable. That trend has held true in my career as well; there are fewer women in my field than men, but every woman I have worked with is a high performer. In my generation, perhaps patriarchal conditioning discouraged young girls from pursuing careers like mine, so the girls who still decided to study aerospace in college had already overcome obstacles and persevered. Those girls went on to become women with aerospace engineering degrees, navigating a career field that is still over 80% male.
I believe companies should continue to strive for diversity, equity and inclusion, and need to dispel the insular myth that "less qualified" people are being hired to fill quotas. I have faced discrimination, sexual harassment, and implicit bias while working my butt off to get where I am, but often still feel like I need to prove myself and overcompensate for fear that people think I was hired based on my gender rather than my qualifications.
Faculty member who had the biggest impact on you...
Dr. William Devenport was a phenomenal mentor, advocate, and inspiration of mine throughout undergrad. I remember when I took his compressible aerodynamics class in junior year and it all just clicked! His teaching style and the subject matter made me super excited and passionate about my field. This enthusiasm inspired me to approach Dr. Devenport and ask about undergraduate research opportunities in his lab. He gave me projects that were thoroughly interesting and challenging, and allowed me to work with brilliant masters and PhD students I otherwise would not have met. Dr. Devenport saw potential in me that I hadn't seen in myself and recommended that I apply for a research program at the von Karman Institute of Fluid Dynamics, a world renowned research institute in Brussels, Belgium. I thought I didn't stand a chance, but he encouraged me to apply and wrote a recommendation for me. To my surprise, I was selected! Two days before I graduated and moved to Belgium, I sat down in Dr. Devenport's office one last time to thank him for everything and discuss my career goals and dreams. He told me he could see me be an amazing professor one day, just like him. I think I am done with school for a while, but I'll never say never! Thanks again for everything, Dr. Devenport!
How AOE equipped you for the "real world"...
AOE provided me with a strong technical foundation, an incredible network, and experience in working with real-world clients. A degree from VT AOE proves that I can learn hard things; although I have relied on some of the material I learned in undergrad, the majority of the knowledge I've needed in my career has been learned on-the-job. Employers want to know that I can adapt and learn complex material quickly. Since the VT AOE program is well regarded across the industry, my degree speaks for itself!
VT AOE has connected me with professors that are world-renowned for their research, an alumni network full of mentors and advocates, and classmates that are future leaders. The saying "Hokies hire Hokies" is true; our loyalty and willingness to help one another are unmatched!
Lastly, my AOE senior design project required my team to work for a representative of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. Being able to work directly with a corporate client on a real-world challenge taught me invaluable lessons in how to communicate and navigate a client relationship before I even graduated! Succeeding in our project and in the curriculum overall required intense teamwork and really reflected how engineers work together in the real world. That project was my introduction to systems engineering and client-facing roles, both of which are interests that I am currently pursuing in my career.
What you miss most about Virginia Tech...
The community! All of my best friends, biggest advocates, mentors, and role models were within a 1 mile radius of my apartment. There is probably no other time in my life that I'll have such easy access to incredible people. I am grateful for the alumni network I have tapped into at my current company and in my city, but I'll always reminisce on the community and camaraderie I felt on campus as a student.
How do you stay connected with fellow Hokies?
Joining alumni chapters at my company and in my city! Hokies are everywhere - there is even an alumni group in Europe that I met up with in London both summers I was living abroad. I am hoping to get involved in Virginia Tech recruitment at my new company and help current Hokie students navigate their career search.
"I wish I knew then"...
It is ok to not know exactly what you want to do in your career. I think it is crazy that humans are expected to do one thing for 40 hrs/week for the rest of their lives. If you're like me and have too many interests to count and are afraid to commit to one for the rest of your life, do not fret! Employers often ask "why do you want to work here?" or "where do you see yourself in 5 years" but the truth is, you don't have to come out of the womb knowing you want to become an aerospace engineer at XX company. The trick is in how you market yourself and tell your story. If you have a wide variety of interests, explore them! It is ok to follow the opportunities and try out different specialties rather than restricting yourself to what you think you "should be doing". This is what internships are for! They are short trial periods to learn what you do and do not like. Before you know it, your resume will be filled with a breadth of soft and technical skills that prove you are agile, curious, and eager to learn, which are qualities that are highly valued by employers.
I have worked in a manufacturing facility, on a marine base, in a research institute, on a BBC Radio show, in a prototyping facility, at a space camp, and the list goes on! The skills I have learned from those experiences helped me land a job that requires me to learn new things every day and move to new projects every 1-2 years. I am not quite sure what I'll be doing in 5 years, but as they say, I trust the next chapter because I know the author, and you should too!
A woman who helped you get to where you are...
I think a pivotal moment for my career path was freshman year when I met my best friend Rebecca Keller (alumna AOE class of 2018). We had just joined the same sorority and hit it off! I was feeling very lost and unsure of what to major in, but I knew I was good at math and physics. And then there was Rebecca, a general engineering freshman who was about to declare aerospace engineering as her major. She was so smart and sure of herself, and the more I talked to her the more I thought that Aerospace Engineering was where I needed to be. Fast forward a year later, I had successfully transferred into the AOE program! At this point Rebecca was a year ahead of me in the curriculum and gave me invaluable advice and mentorship. I truly couldn’t have done it without her. After college she went on to become a rock star in the public sector and I worked in private industry halfway across the country. But as luck would have it, in 2020 I had the opportunity to work at her job site as a contractor! I got to live and work with my best friend for 5 months; we had a blast. I am so grateful for our friendship and all of her support.
Project I'm currently working on, most excited about
I am starting to get involved in a project that helps state and local governments navigate the emerging world of unmanned aerial systems - also known as drones. Questions we are exploring include: How can drones be leveraged to serve the public? How should they be managed? What infrastructure and ecosystem need to be developed to support drones? With my aerospace background, I understand how drones work and the applications that they can be used for, but that is only one small piece of the puzzle. I get to work with a multidisciplinary team full of people with backgrounds including legal, policy and regulatory, cyber, manufacturing and more to help bring our country into the future in a strategic and ethical way.
Advice to current women studying in AOE...
As you begin to navigate full-time careers, know your worth and always negotiate your offer. Remember that your female classmates and colleagues are your allies, NOT your competition. We need to work together to create more seats at the table, not fight each other for one single seat. This mentality will help you build a strong network of allies and advocates of all genders.