Career Growth for Space Systems Engineer through Brooke Owens Fellowship Program

The Brooke Owens Fellowship Program provides paid internships and executive mentorship to undergraduate women in aerospace, including this systems engineer.

As a leading aerospace and defense contractor, Northrop Grumman is dedicated to supporting the career growth of those aspiring to be a part of the industry, including fellowship programs. One of its fellowship programs that brings bright students to the company is the Brooke Owens Fellowship, a program that provides paid internships and executive mentorship to undergraduate women in aerospace.

Each year, the program places two interns with the company to learn about the business and get hands-on experience. This year we will be welcoming back former fellow Sumayya Abukhalil as a full-time employee. Sumayya supported multiple programs during her fellowship as a systems engineer; the majority of her time was spent on the Commercial Infrastructure for Robotic Assembly and Services (CIRAS) Program, which matured robotic in-space assembly technologies for NASA.

Photo of Sumayya Abukhalil

As a now full-time engineer, Sumayya is most looking forward to making a lasting impact on the space industry. “Developing infrastructure in space to allow humanity to better and more efficiently explore the universe is my passion. I can't wait to contribute to that grand idea as a systems engineer,” she said.

We sat down with Sumayya to get some more insight into her experience at Northrop Grumman and why she decided to join the company as a full-time engineer.

What was your feeling when you were matched with Northrop Grumman?

When I found out I was matched with Northrop Grumman, I was ecstatic. Though, I have to admit, I hadn't realized the company was going to be such a good match for me until after I had my interview. I'm very grateful for how keen the team was on wanting to place me in a program that would suit my career interests, which are primarily related to in-space manufacturing and development. After I learned about some of the projects going on within the Civil and Commercial Business Unit, I was certain that was where I wanted to be.

Can you give us a little background on your systems engineer position here as a fellow?

My fellowship was at the company's location in Dulles. I worked as a Systems Engineer in APD on a project called CIRAS (Commercial Infrastructure for Robotic Assembly and Services). At the time, CIRAS was still in its early stages. So there was a lot to be done and a small team to do it, which I found really exciting.

My day-to-day work ranged greatly. Some days I was helping with trade studies or putting together a model in SysML. Part of my internship involved developing the foundation for CIRAS' computer vision system. At times, I was given glue-work tasks, like putting together a companywide presentation or working with the graphics department to create demo videos.

What was the most exciting part of your fellowship?

I don't think it was any particular instance that was most exciting; rather, it was the experience of being around so many other women who share a similar passion. It's something I hadn't thought about a lot before being a part of the fellowship, but I never really had a lot of friends in the space industry that are women. The women I met through the fellowship that summer gave me a sense of belonging in this industry that I had never felt before. I think that aspect of being a part of this cohort of like-minded women and being able to talk to them about anything, personal or professional, was the most rewarding part.

How did participating in the program with Northrop Grumman benefit you? Did the fellowship help you decide what path you want to take in your career?

This fellowship was my introduction to systems engineering, and I gained a ton of knowledge in just those couple of months. Aside from learning about the tasks I was assigned, my team encouraged me to attend meetings that didn't directly relate to my work so I could gain an understanding of other aspects of systems engineering that I otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to. Because of the internship, I realized that being a space systems engineer was what I wanted to do with my career.

I was also assigned a mentor within the company, and we met up every other week to catch up and talk about life and career goals. At one of our meetups, I professed to her that being a systems engineer was my ultimate goal. She then brought out her copy of the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook and proceeded to tell me everything I needed to know; well, as much as she could in the little bit of time we had. Her mentorship was one of the most valuable aspects of the fellowship.

What do you like about the culture here at Northrop Grumman?

The culture here at Northrop Grumman is a great balance of highly professional and laid-back. Everyone here is brilliant and hardworking, mostly because we all love what we do. We work at a pretty fast pace, especially here in APD, and it feels like there is always a new project that is just starting or being proposed. It's a very exciting environment, probably similar to a startup culture, just with more institutional knowledge.

Why did you decide to come back as a full-time employee?

Honestly, it was a really easy decision. I love the people I worked with, the projects are awesome, and the location is great. There's not a whole lot more I can ask for in a job.

What do you look forward to the most being here as a full-time employee?

I am most looking forward to making a lasting impact on the space industry. Developing infrastructure in space to allow humanity to better and more efficiently explore the universe is my passion. I can't wait to contribute to that grand idea as a systems engineer. Also, I'm really looking forward to inspiring the next generation of space explorers through mentorship.

What advice do you have for new employees just beginning their career in the industry?

I'm still pretty new to this, too, but if there is one thing I couldn't recommend more, it's to get involved in your local aerospace community. Whether it's going to company happy hours, participating in your local AIAA chapter or attending conferences, it is so important to get to know other people who are working toward the same vision as you. Not only is it enlightening to learn about what other people are working on, but also it's usually a reminder of how awesome our jobs are.

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