Alumna Shares Government Research Insights, Tips for Career Success

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Article by Emma Ryan

Teaching yourself about thermal systems might sound like a daunting task. But, thanks to skills learned as a student at Georgia Tech, Scottie-Beth Fleming welcomes this type of challenge.   

"Years ago, I was working as a co-op at NASA in the thermal engineering department — when I knew very little about thermal systems,” said Fleming, who received her bachelor’s (2009), master’s (2013), and Ph.D. (2016) in Aerospace Engineering from Tech. “Instead of panicking, I started reading a textbook on the topic that I had sitting on my desk. At Tech, I learned how to break problems down and then solve them with the resources I have available. So even though I didn’t have the formal training in this area, I was able to apply the lessons I learned in school to understand it.”

Fleming’s ability to adapt to new environments continued to serve her once she graduated. Although all of her degrees are in aerospace engineering, post-graduation she accepted a position as a research and development engineer with Sandia National Labs. 

“I spent 12 years in school learning aerospace engineering, and I’m not an aerospace engineer anymore,” Fleming said. “But the common thread through all my experiences is a systems-based approach. Whether I’m looking at an aircraft or a nuclear power plant, I love seeing a snapshot of how the entire system operates.” 

Read on to learn about how Fleming’s time at Tech led to where she is today and her advice for professional success. 

Tell me a little bit about your time at Tech. 
I was a co-op at NASA from 2005-2010 and worked with several different organizations, including engineering propulsion, mission control, and imaging analysis. I worked in thermal engineering for three semesters, and that helped me see how a design goes from testing and evaluation all the way to implementation. 

I loved that work but wasn’t ready to commit my whole life to it, so I chose to go back to school. My advisor was researching how human and machine interactions can be improved, and I was fascinated by what she was doing. Rather than take the traditional approach of viewing the human as a perfect user, she looked at the human as an imperfect user, which means that you can’t always predict how they’re going to make decisions. Her work drew me back to Tech for my master’s and Ph.D.

How did you arrive in your current position?
During my undergraduate degree, I studied how the different elements of an aircraft work together to allow it to fly. Then, when I was working on my master’s and Ph.D., I looked at what happens when a human interacts with that aircraft. For example, if a pilot is flying the aircraft, they become a new, unpredictable component of the system. So then I have to ask, “How do I design for something when I can’t predict how it’s going to make decisions?”

After I graduated with my Ph.D., I went directly to Sandia. Now, I’m not just looking at an aircraft. I’m examining human interactions with any complex system, whether it’s a nuclear power plant or the electric grid. I want to understand how this entire system is operating with that human component in mind. 

I am a senior member of the technical staff for Sandia, a federally funded research and development lab. Sandia works to solve national security problems using creative, scientific approaches. We take a system — it might be a defense system, or an infrastructure system like border security — and think about how humans are interacting with them. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?
My coworkers. My team has a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences. In my department, half of us have engineering degrees, and half of us have degrees in fields like psychology. It’s really fun to hear the different solutions we bring based on our various backgrounds. For example, if we’re trying to improve a human operator’s performance within the electric grid, I would consider how to model their tasks computationally. On the other hand, a colleague with a background in psychology might propose a data visualization tool to understand their cognition and decision-making. Together, we create a more cohesive view of the human.

I also love the diverse work, and how challenging these problems can be. They’ve made my brain stretch so far. Currently, I’m learning about nuclear physics — an area that is completely new to me. I’m taking a course in nuclear nonproliferation, which is about preventing weapons of mass destruction from getting into the hands of the wrong people. And in order to understand that, I have to learn the science that goes into creating those weapons. 

What is one thing you think people should know about pursuing a career in government research?
It’s the best of all career worlds. If you’re considering whether you should go into academia or industry, a national lab gives you aspects of both. You get to conduct research without any of the funding struggles that academic research faces, and you can tackle real-life problems, like minimizing the safety risks of nuclear reactors. Because I work for the government, I also have job security. Plus, we get paid as much as workers in private industry, which is nice.

What should students do to prepare for their careers while still working on their degrees?
Eventually you’re going to have to come out into the real world and apply your research. Don’t lose track of why the research you’re doing matters, what its applications are, and why people (other than yourself) should care about it. Take advantage of opportunities to talk through your work with other people. You could present at a conference or attend a research symposium like Tech’s Career, Research, and Innovation Development Conference (CRIDC). I was involved with the School of Aerospace Engineering Student Advisory Council and the American Society for Engineering Education while I was in school; you could seek out the equivalent professional societies in your field. 

Graduate students also forget that there’s life outside of school. You need to make sure you come home, eat a decent meal, move your body, and do things like make time to see your friends on the weekend. In order for you to achieve your academic and research goals, you need to get out and do other stuff to refill your mental tank. 

What advice do you have for students after they’ve graduated? 
Don’t be scared of constructive criticism. If I’m not getting feedback, then I’m not growing. One piece of feedback that I’ve gotten consistently has been to apply my work in different directions, and that has pushed me to expand my research into the energy grid and nuclear nonproliferation. If I’m proposing new research, I’ll send it to a colleague who’s had success with their proposals so that they can give me feedback on how to frame the problem and construct a meaningful project. 

Also, never assume you’re the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you — and learn from them. Be honest with yourself about where you can grow. For example, today a colleague messaged me to ask if she could join one of my projects. She felt like she was in a rut and she wanted to add to her skill set. That was one good way of saying, “I’m not good in this area, but I want to be good in this area.” 


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: eryan32
  • Created: 04/27/2021
  • Modified By: Amelia Pavlik
  • Modified: 05/03/2021

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