Find and Follow Your Passion

Sacramento Region, CA  |  Story by Trina L. Drotar
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Captain Carole List, Tom Jones, Rear Admiral Bonnie Potter. Photo by Trina Drotar

Celebrating Women in Aerospace

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) – Aerospace Museum of California Executive Director Tom Jones invited five women from across STEM careers to share their real world experience with young people, their families, and other interested parties in a STEM Education Day event, Celebrate Women in Aerospace. The morning kicked off with activities throughout the museum for children and their families which included a scavenger hunt, photo challenge, phonetic alphabet activity, but the most popular was the paper airplane table situated between some of the indoor display aircraft.

The weather also provided opportunities to view outside exhibits and look into some of the airplanes, including the FedEx classroom plane used by Sacramento City College Aviation students. Docents were on hand to share stories and history, and Warren Searles and his crew were helping aviators in training in the museum’s Flight Zone.

The event’s highlight was the panel talk which kicked off with keynote speaker, Rear Admiral Bonnie Potter.

 “I don’t fly,” said Potter, but that did not hinder her distinguished career which includes becoming the first female physician in the US Navy to be selected for flag rank.

 “My parents encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do.”

She wanted to be a veterinarian, a desire shared by panelist Chelsea Engberg, CEO and founder of Aviatrix LLC. Potter’s road led her to the US Navy where she received a scholarship through the US Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program. She quickly learned that Title 10 prevented her from serving her residency on a ship, as a flight surgeon because she would not be permitted to land on any ship, or on a submarine.

 “How you think is everything.” She was determined to become the best doctor she could be. In 1990, she was assigned to the USNS Comfort, a 1000 bed floating hospital that was deployed in support of Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Part of her responsibility was to set up the hospital, which meant unpacking crates, improvising when parts were not available, and developing an evacuation plan. She became certified as a Life Raft Commander.

“You can’t just wait for things to come to you. You have to go out and look for them,” she said. “Take chances. Test your ability.” These words and phrases were echoed by the panelists who highlighted their careers, challenges, and successes.

 “Live your life with honesty and integrity,” she said, reminding them that “the wrong post can keep you from getting the job you want,” referring to social media.

Following Potter’s address, Jones asked the panelists questions beginning with who their greatest supporters were or still are.

Captain Carola List, US Coast Guard Commanding Officer Air Station Sacramento, credited the support of Chief Petty Officers and her lifelong interest in flying.

 “If you don’t know your passion, try many things,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

Chelsea Engberg said that the film, Top Gun, was a huge inspiration.

 “I wanted to be a fighter pilot.” She wrote many unanswered letters to President Reagan asking why she could not be a fighter pilot.

 “I fell deeply in love with physics.” She also fell in love with flying and earned a master’s degree in aeronautical science. Her parents purchased her one hour of flight time with Sean Tucker, and that was the start of a lifelong career, leading to her becoming the school’s COO. “Don’t give up. It’s all about the journey.”

She is a tough woman, even by military standards, having spent fifteen hours in centrifuges. She is a flight instructor, aviation safety expert, movie and television consultant, and aerobatic pilot. She also credits the strong women in her life and a flight to Europe as a child when she was invited to sit in the cockpit with the pilot.

 “The journey will take you where it’s going to take you. Don’t close the door on finding your passion.” She dreams of solo hiking the John Muir Trail.

Sarah O’Meara is currently a Ph.D. student at UC Davis and intern at the Johnson Space Center focusing on human-robotics integration and physiology, and she is a Link Foundation Fellow who uses all aspects of STEM in her research.

 “Math is an everyday thing,” said the quiet young woman who dreams of someday ice diving in Antarctica.

She created, with several classmates, SOAR (STEM Outreach for Academic Reinforcement) Mentorship program.

 “I guess our parents all went to the same camp,” she said when asked about mentors. Her mother had a Ph.D. and encouraged her to follow her dream, with a twist. O’Meara was directed to pursue engineering for her undergraduate degree. After that, she was free to study whatever she wanted.

 “Stop being a perfectionist,” she said, adding that enjoying the process and not being afraid to share ideas are important.      

Shannon Sanders Swager owns Sanders Aviation in Ione and has her master’s degree in business administration.

 “I’ve got a pacifier in my pocket,” she said, a reminder that she is also a mom who, like many women, wears many hats. She also credits her grandmother as a role model and many of the men she encountered on the journey which took her from possible history teacher to working at Disney and returning to college.

“Don’t let people tear you down,” she said. “Look to people who build you up.”

She advised students to enjoy life because they never know where it will lead. “Don’t be afraid to try. If you don’t try, you may never find your passion,” she said.

Upcoming events include Rocket Appreciation Day on Saturday, March 30 and ACE Career Expo 2019 on Saturday, April 6 where interested students and others can learn about STEM career pathways and meet professionals in all of the STEM areas. 

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