Associate Mechanical/Aerospace Engineer, Ampaire, Inc.
Dahlia’s routine varies drastically, with no two days alike! She reports to Russell Newman (Lead Engineer for Vehicle Engineering) and works alongside colleague Kamran (Mechanical Design Engineer.) Dahlia’s responsibilities include, but are not limited to, designing structural components, prototyping parts, writing and debugging flight test instrumentation code, communicating with vendors and suppliers on parts she’s designed and preparing and analyzing flight test data. At Ampaire, Dahlia and her team work towards pioneering innovations in electric flight, and given the small but highly efficient staff, she has crucial responsibilities across everything involved with their planes.
Dahlia has simplified her morning routine down to a swift roll out of bed and a hard-boiled egg on the way out the door.
An easy morning routine saves more mental capacity to be reserved for her upcoming daily, and often strenuous, tasks!
On her commute to Ampaire, Dahlia listens to music while she drives. This is also prime time to mentally review her schedule for the day.
Dahlia’s workstation is a nested office and lab space within a hangar. There is a room with about eight cubicle units for each of her coworkers and of course, a fantastic view of the airplanes. She reports to Russell Newman, the Lead Engineer for Vehicle Engineering and works alongside colleague Kamran, the Mechanical Design Engineer.
Dahlia spent time in the morning answering emails, writing her to-do list for the daily scrum and following up with various resources to brief herself on any unfamiliar tasks. The scrum methodology is an agile development framework that helps STEM teams, like Dahlia’s, break down stories, or tasks, to work on in every given sprint—a defined period of time to accomplish a project. Lately, the team has been working on a flight testing sprint.
Emails Dahlia receives include details of new tasks assigned to her, communication threads with suppliers or reports sent by contractors. With Dahlia and her team’s NASA contract, for example, contractors would send long powerpoints and reports of data analysis for Dahlia to read through. She has the shared responsibility of determining if the report is complete with achieved objectives, or if more work and testing should be completed—Dahlia and her colleague Kamran work together on report reviews often.
Before beginning a new task, Dahlia will utilize various resources to understand what is entailed or to learn useful background information to support the processes. The current flight testing—flying baseline aircraft with test equipment while gathering data—involves arriving at the hangar by 7:00 AM and meeting with the test pilot by 7:30 AM. At this point, the aircraft is evaluated by Dahlia and the rest of her team for flight readiness. They check for parts needing repairs to forward to the mechanic, recalibrate any necessary instruments and determine anything else that needs to be done before the plane is in the air. This thorough inspection is crucial given the pilot’s life is at stake.
The team then debriefs the plan with the test pilot, takes notes and grasps what exactly will happen, once flying, that will correspond with the data needing to be collected. Once the plane is in flight, Dahlia and Russell are on standby listening in on the radio for notes from the pilot. After this is complete, the collected data is organized into folders and post-processed. Dahlia utilizes flight test manuals, written by the Airforce or Academics to understand how to post-process the data to adhere to what the team is looking for.
When considering the organization of data, Dahlia thinks about the important metrics to focus on. The includes the ideal speed for the rate of climb and how to operate the plane at the best temperatures and altitudes. Ensuring instruments are calibrated properly here, is crucial as the information comes right from these tools. The data is best organized in folders and noise is filtered out with data acquisition software and plenty of spreadsheets. Before the start of each test, the team highlights objectives to better understand what to look for in the data along with categorizing reference materials for support.
On days without flight testing, Dahlia spends time debugging code.
Dahlia has gained coding experience at Ampaire having worked with Matlab, Visual Basic and Python to integrate flight test instrumentation by programming the way the data acquisition starts and collects data from different channels. She debugs the code from the DAQ (data acquisition system) and how it intakes data while flying. Common issues Dahlia works to address include sampling rate errors, problems with the data coming in and out or filtering noise.
Dahlia checked on the order status of a part she designed while also taking time to fabricate any that have already arrived.
Dahlia has designed many parts such as instrumentation panels for the pilot to interface with and mounts for the instruments that collect data and are needed for the flight testing. Each different component to the parts requires justification and an understanding of what it’s purpose will entail, or force it might support along with where exactly it will go on the plane. Analysis spreadsheets are crafted to build the dimensions and the software, NX, is then used to turn the design into a 3D visual on a computer. One iteration of the design is ideal, however two to three are common although not usually exceeded.
“It’s important to adapt as you learn new things, but always go into a design like it’s your last one.”
Once the part is designed in full, Dahlia will outsource the building process to vendors or pre–established partnerships. More than one vendor is often contacted for quotes and then Dahlia will decide the best to move forward with. Occasionally, parts are delivered that need to be fabricated as a stage of the prototype process.
The team refrains from anything too custom, as that complicates the build by requiring certifications. The focus is more on the retrofit of an already existing aircraft. To make the fabrication less extensive, Dahlia will often put together a mockup to properly fit the part before ordering. If new cables or brackets need to be built in conjunction, this will also be done in the fabrication stage—it’s time-consuming, but necessary.
Dahlia spent time in the late afternoon helping their A&P (Airframe and Propulsion) mechanic.
The A&P mechanic is certified to work on the plane and engine, fixing anything in need. Dahlia is never afraid to get her hands dirty, standing by to help where she can by putting on or taking off parts, figuring out what needs to be ordered next or even washing the plane.
At the end of Dahlia’s day, she continued to debug any problems with the flight test software and designed a few new parts in CAD.
CAD (computer-aided design) is software with many tools to design a 3D object. Dahlia utilizes CAD to visualize her designs before she sends them to contractors who will build the part. The process is similar to the work of a graphic designer, with different features and an organized, intuitive interface.
For Dahlia, a successful day at work is defined by accomplishing major tasks or making sufficient progress. Inevitably, there will be days where this isn’t achieved and Dahlia has learned to recognize when her individual mental capacity has been reached, warranting rest. Stepping back, even without everything complete, can help to avoid perpetuating mistakes.
Dahlia typically works from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM but longer hours are not uncommon. She finds it difficult to leave anything unsolved or a project unfinished and her work tends to be all consuming, depending on the nature of the problem. Ampaire manages deadlines by completing work months in advance, to allow for flexible adaptability should issues arise at a later date.
Although passionate about remaining “on” and engaged until the work is fully completed, Dahlia is equally passionate about the “work hard, rest hard” mentality. With her days off, she takes the physical and mental time to recuperate and rejuvenate by laying low. This relaxation is crucial to keeping her productivity high during the week and preventing burnout.
“If you’re going to work yourself in extremes, you have to rest yourself in extremes.”
Dahlia’s hard work is also matched with grave humility and appreciation for her team.
“My teammates are some of the most interesting and engaging people I have ever met… I am still learning every day. I have a great job… it’s fun, unique and pushes me out of my comfort zone.”
Dahlia’s hobbies include long walks, occasional gardening, playing with her cat, writing, reading and drawing funny comics. She reads comics from various parts of the world and watches animated cartoons, while also trying to find a way to make those things sound better on paper.
A long term hobby of hers is making memes and sharing them on the Internet. Dahlia keeps her usernames under wraps, but does confess to having quite the audience enjoying her memes. This hobby began in college when she ran the meme page for her major. It grew and became popular, expanding past her peers and outside of the department. While not yet considering herself a “meme expert,” she is a self-proclaimed hobbyist with a rather eclectic taste in style. Her newest creations come from recent surreal concepts that make her laugh, as she admits to being easy to humor.
Dahlia’s interest in engineering evolved from an early age. Initially, feelings of slight intimidation of the industry surfaced and Dahlia put the idea of pursuing a career in the field of engineering on the back burner. Having come from a family of healthcare and business professionals, Dahlia entered college working towards an English degree. She then made a pivot to study mechanical and aerospace engineering after deciding not to ignore her underlying passion for the science behind flying planes and understanding the mechanics of how things worked. She worked tenaciously, pushing through self-doubt and tedious studies, moving forward to land a life-changing internship as a mechanical design intern for Tesla.
Dahlia’s offer to intern at Tesla was unexpected and her very first dose of engineering experience. An interest in Tesla’s Gigafactory led her to apply to the internship online. She reached out to a recruiter, landed an interview and was shuffled towards another (and more advanced) role to interview for. She completed what she recalls to be the most challenging interview of her life and was offered a spot at the Tesla headquarters three months later. Dahlia decided to seize the opportunity and take time away from school to gain the experience Tesla would provide. She encountered engaged and invaluable mentorships, worked through continued imposter syndrome and succeeded with dedication and hard work. She returned to school six months later, graduating with two B.S degrees from the University of California, Davis in 2019, becoming the first member of her Vietnamese immigrant family to become an engineer.
During her time as an undergraduate at UC Davis, Dahlia was the team captain for the first place U.S team for the 2018-2019 NASA/DLR Aeronautics University Design Challenge, participated in research pertaining to vehicle design and computational aerodynamics and was an officer for the university AIAA branch. These experiences allowed for Dahlia to step more confidently into her leadership capabilities.
While looking at electric aviation and researching green and sustainable technology, Dahlia came across Cory (Co-founder and CTO of Ampaire.) She reached out to speak about her interests and was recruited to interview afterwards with Cory and Kevin (CEO.) Her remarkable achievements, strong interest for vehicle design and love of aeronautics led her to her full-time job at Ampaire in July of 2019, only shortly after graduating, where she has been contributing to the revolution of aircraft ever since and supporting the flight test program.
“Engineering is inherently competitive but you can’t allow the experience of others to daunt you. What’s important is to think about your own progress… not what other people are doing, unless you’re looking for good inspiration.”
If you were to take a step back and meet your 18-year-old self, what would you tell her?
Dahlia reflected on how different things were when she was an 18-year-old English major with little life direction. She would tell herself to continue with engineering, even though the curriculum was daunting, and push through feelings of not belonging. She would also offer practical advice, to her younger self, about refraining from honing in on inevitable difficulties and rather embrace the failures as learning opportunities.
“Approach failure with an open mind because when you face a setback, you learn ten more things than you would after succeeding.”
Look at it this way—when things don’t work out, there is plenty to think about and improve upon for the better while less reflection is involved from straight success. Dahlia advises not to allow fear discourage someone from taking risks, but to always sensibly assess what the risks entail.
What would you advise to those intimidated by engineering or aerospace?
Dahlia openly acknowledges imposter syndrome sometimes crept in her mind early in her career due to lack of experience. As time progressed, she grew to defeat this concept and groom her confidence by understanding that the personal journey of engineering takes precedence over examining the experience of someone else. She believes those who are willing to work hard, pilot their own learning and face adversity is capable of a successful career in the field. She believes this to be especially true for both women and the BIPOC community, as these individuals are seen less in the field of aerospace.