Dr Wendy Okolo’s achievements will remain an endless source of pride and inspiration to her fellow Nigerians and to young aspiring black female scientists across Africa and beyond. She is the first black woman and the youngest to obtain both undergraduate and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr Okolo received her secondary education at Queen’s College, an all-girls school in Lagos, Nigeria.
The 26 year old has also won the prestigious Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) at the STEM Conference in 2019 for being the most promising engineer in the US government. The BEYA STEM Conference is a vital platform seeking to create and promote networks and interactions between students, educators and STEM professionals. It also fosters partnerships with individuals and their local STEM resources and scientific organisations.
Leading a team of researchers
Dr Okolo is currently based at the Aerospace Research Engineering Intelligent Systems Division at the NASA Ames Research Centre. She is sub-project manager for the System-Wide Safety (SWS) Project leading a team of 13 to 15 researchers, developing in-flight safety ascent and navigation capabilities for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). She also leads a control team in a Space Technology project, Pterodactyl, to advance the guidance, navigation and control capabilities which would make precision landing for deployable entry vehicles a reality for planetary exploration.
Dr Okolo says she is indebted to her parents who nurtured her love for engineering from an early age. She chose aerospace engineering because she found “it to be a more fascinating prospect than more conventional engineering routes such as mechanical and chemical engineering”.
Supporting humanitarian efforts
Dr. Okolo says what she enjoys about her work is that it utilises unconventional trimming mechanisms. These include internal fuel transfer and differential thrusting to trim induced rolling moments on the trail aircraft, rather than conventional, drag-inducing mechanical trim mechanisms, thereby increasing the benefits of formation flying. She says she has also developed a Matlab code capable of running computer simulations. “I’m also proud of the SWS Project, which is enabling the safe integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) and urban air mobility (UAM), especially with the potential of UAV’s to support humanitarian efforts around the world,” she says.
At undergraduate level, Dr Okolo already displayed leadership qualities. She was president of the Society of women engineers and also worked as summer researcher from 2010 to 2012 in the Control Design & Analysis Branch at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in the US. Here she worked closely with the team that flew the world fastest manned aircraft from coast to coast at an incredible speed of 67 minutes, a trip that would ordinarily take some of the world’s fastest aircrafts over five hours to complete.
Dr Okolo’s accomplishments and continued academic success attracted more funding from different organisations such as the
- Department of Defence
- Engineering Graduate Fellowship
- Zonta International, through the Amelia Earhart Fellowship and
- American Institute for Aeronautics through a John Leland Atwood Graduate Fellowship.
Dr Okolo says she also finds it personally fulfilling to work with student interns. “For many of them it’s their first experience of doing research. I’ve guided undergraduate mechanical engineering students from Puerto Rico and Haiti, who now want to pursue PhD’s in aerospace engineering,” she says.
Her advice to those who want to follow in her footsteps is that they should keep going back to an issue until they have figured it out before going forward. “There’s lots of free information and people out there who can help you. That approach worked well for me in my aerodynamics research and as a result I was able to climb over anything that seemed like a road block!”