From Intern to Mechanical Design Engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope

Mei-Li joined Northrop Grumman in 2016 as an intern. Today, she’s a mechanical design engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope, working on the mechanical ground systems engineering team.

Tell us about your role on Webb.

My team is in charge of designing all of the Webb equipment that’s not going to space, called mechanical ground support equipment — this includes deployment fixtures, the fixtures that simulate zero gravity and any of the test equipment.

At what point in your life did you decide to become an engineer?

Back when I was picking my college major, I was on the fence between studying fine arts — sculpting, specifically — and engineering, because I liked math. My dad, who is also an engineer, suggested mechanical design engineering, because it sounded like a nice blend of my passions. My heart has been always in creating things, and design is my favorite part of engineering.

How did you end up at Northrop Grumman working on Webb?

I started out as a test engineering intern on Webb. When I first accepted the internship, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what project I was going to be on. Getting put on Webb was a dream come true. While interning, I asked my manager what roles would be a good fit for me, knowing my passion for design, and he introduced me to the design engineering manager, who offered me a full-time role.

What’s the best part of your job?

We get to do something new every single day. The main reason that I chose to work at Northrop Grumman is because of Webb — looking around at other companies and programs, I couldn’t find another project that is going to make as big of an impact on society as Webb. We’re making history.

How do you feel that you contribute to the success of the program every day?

Everybody has a pretty big impact here. Even though it’s a big project with a lot of people, I feel like I know just about everyone, from the vice president to the new technicians. And every single one of us has to do our part for it to really come together; everybody doing their best is the only way that it’s going to get done.

Tell us about your team.

The people on the project really make it. For everybody on Webb, this project is their passion; they come in every day and work as hard as they possibly can. That intensity translates into teamwork, because we all know that nothing less than everybody’s best and everybody working together is going to get us to the finish line.

I get a lot of support — whether it’s a test engineer offering to help with my design or a manager offering to pick up lunch for me when they know I’m going to be working on something for a while. These are some of the most compassionate people that I’ve ever met and their dedication to this is what amazes me the most.  

What was one of your favorite moments on Webb?

We had a malfunction with one of our parts and needed to do emergency testing, but both of my bosses were out of town — and I’d only been working on Webb for a year. Working with a different lead, I was about to figure out a design and produce successful results in four days. Normally, a design like that could take months.

Before that point, I had a bit of imposter syndrome, thinking I couldn’t possibly be working alongside all of these intelligent people. But, after that week of working so hard on that one project, I thought, “Wow, I can do this. I really like it here, and I belong.”

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