I started out in industrial manufacturing, which can be colorful as a young woman in engineering. There’s a real fear of being labelled as “bossy” and feeling like you can’t show any signs of distress, less a coworker thinks you’re mad at them and not the completely unrelated problem you’re working on. I think having and maintaining an open dialogue on internal biases we all have could help with this. Having women in upper level and management positions is critical as well.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Cassie Todd of Capella Space. Cassie is an electrical engineer working at aerospace and information services company, Capella Space, where she designs electronics on their bus avionics team. She’s been at Capella Space for three years, where her initial role was as the Integration and Test Lead driving the build of their R&D satellite Denali. Wanting to focus on design work and take on a more traditional technical role, she transitioned onto the electrical team a year and a half ago. Cassie grew up in South Florida and later moved to Orlando where she graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2014 with a BS in electrical engineering. After graduation she worked for Texas Instruments in Dallas, TX as a quality reliability assurance engineer within their fabrication sites. Later she transferred to their business group Mobile, Lighting and Power in Santa Clara, CA to support customer returns as a customer quality engineer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Cassie! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in South Florida in West Boca Raton. Most of my childhood was spent either at baseball fields watching my older brother’s games, in the water (be it the pool or beach), or at the horse farm my dad managed. It was a pretty typical suburban upbringing.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One that stands out is the graphic novel series Promethea by Allen Moore. For much of college I was having a hard time with imposter syndrome and reconciling my identity as an engineer and an artist. I’ve never looked like people’s definition of an academic or “smart,” let alone an engineer. By reading Promethea I felt empowered by the strong female lead, which is rare in comics, and by the concept that we can shape our own paths in life. I didn’t need to pay attention to cultural constructs.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Louisa May Alcott’s “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship” reminds me to tamper my fear of the unknown and of making mistakes.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
Space has always been a constant in my life. My grandfather worked on the shuttle programs and in elementary school I was obsessed with Galileo and all things Jupiter. To this day Cassini is one of my favorite missions because of its images of Jupiter and Saturn’s rings. Ultimately, I think what inspired me to make the jump from childhood interests to career was meeting people who were working in the space industry and seeing their level of passion for it. I wanted to immerse myself in that type of environment, to be continuously inspired by my work and colleagues.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
It was great to be able to be part of the design kickoff, build, test, and integration in New Zealand of our most recent spacecraft Sequoia. It’s not common as engineers that we get to see and be part of the big picture of a project, normally it’s about focusing on your own piece of the puzzle. Being able to see the rocket and launch site in Mahia was really special.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In college I had a horrible habit of forgetting to enable the channels on my oscilloscope. It got so bad that my analog circuits professor wouldn’t even ask me what my question was, he would just walk up, enable the channel and walk away. It helped me learn early on to ask for outside perspective, sometimes you’re too close to the problem you miss the glaringly obvious. That and always double checking your test setup.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
If it hadn’t have been for my Uncle Larry, I probably would have switched out of STEM my sophomore year of college. While I enjoyed my classes, I couldn’t see what my life would look like afterwards. What I did imagine wasn’t very groundbreaking or as exciting as the idea of backpacking around Europe. That winter Larry introduced me to the Research Experience for Undergraduates through National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network and that summer I was accepted into their program at Cornell working at the Cornell Nanoscale Facility. It was the first time I had autonomy to build and conduct experiments and it happened to be in a world class clean room. I fell in love with the lab that summer. There’s an anecdote about EE’s getting really excited over a blinking LED. This was my first blinking LED moment.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Currently we’re working on building out Capella Space’s constellation of satellites. There’s a lot of work and unique challenges that go into the transition from R&D to manufacturing. By being a commercial company, we’re leveling the playing field when it comes to access to SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) data. I think what excites me the most is the change detection capabilities and being able to provide the world with information for disaster relief efforts and the prospect of early detection of critical infrastructure collapsing. No one should have to live in fear of their home being destroyed by a dam breaking or their building collapsing.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
Commercialization, space travel and exploration. In the last five years, we’ve seen a commercial company launch astronauts from the U.S. for the first time after the shuttle program was ended in 2011; JAXA land multiple rovers on an asteroid from their satellite Hayabusa2; and the first interplanetary cubesats with JPLs MarCo. The barrier to entry for space has gotten lower with how widely available and advanced technology has become. You no longer need satellites the size of busses that cost upwards of a billion dollars to accomplish the same tasks that can now be done by small satellites.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
Commercialization, space debris and the monopolization of access to space. With the lower barrier of entry and the lack of regulatory control on items launched, there are real ethical concerns around new emergent technologies and collision avoidance control of varying spacecraft.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No. Tech companies need to make an incentive to hire more minorities in general. That means making it a priority to find the candidates and to ensure the work environment is a safe and welcoming space for them. There also needs to be more representation in media and pop culture of women in STEM so that young girls can see examples of themselves in those fields.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
In my experience, these issues aren’t unique to the space industry. I also started out in industrial manufacturing, which can be colorful as a young woman in engineering. There’s a real fear of being labelled as “bossy” and feeling like you can’t show any signs of distress, less a coworker thinks you’re mad at them and not the completely unrelated problem you’re working on. I think having and maintaining an open dialogue on internal biases we all have could help with this. Having women in upper level and management positions is critical as well.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
There’s this myth that if you’re in tech then you must not have a technical role or you’re there to fill a diversity quota.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why?
Ask what their career aspirations are for the next 1–5 years. The biggest advocates I’ve had have been my managers. Foster mentor relationships both within and outside the company. Support employees moving between different teams and roles. Not every job is going to be the perfect fit for someone. I wouldn’t have been able to have the success that I’ve had without the support of my managers throughout the years — even if it meant I was leaving their team or even company. Enable people to take on more responsibility. If travel is required, do the due diligence to ask your employee if she’s comfortable with the travel arrangements if a company policy isn’t in place or the destination makes it difficult to follow.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The idea of permanence and sustainability. It goes from investing in those dishes because they’ll last you decades to companies investing in their communities to support local job growth and education of younger generations. We’re quick to throw away broken items and buy cheap to keep up with passing fads while there’s an actual trash vortex in the Pacific that spans from Japan to Hawaii and Hawaii to California.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I think Michelle Obama is such an intelligent and fierce woman! She’s been a role model of mine since high school.