Kelley Hashemi's research has been supported by NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Graduate Fellowship which encourages diversity in STEM.
Kelley Hashemi's research has been supported by a NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Graduate Fellowship which encourages diversity in STEM.

Aerospace engineering Ph.D. student Kelley Hashemi, under the guidance of Professor Maruthi Akella, is working on solving a problem — how can aircraft wings be more flexible without vibrating? Answering this question could make drones more fuel-efficient and less costly. For Hashemi, her work on this problem has led to a research position with NASA and a fellowship.

“It’s an exciting problem that needs a more sophisticated solution than what we have,” Hashemi said. “To me, as an engineer, that’s an interesting area to pursue.”

Hashemi is working at NASA Armstrong in Southern California this summer. She plans on graduating from UT Austin this August and then going to work at NASA Ames in San Jose, where she will continue her research. Hashemi said that the reputation of UT’s aerospace engineering graduate program, currently ranked No. 7 in the nation, helped her get where she is now.

In 2013, Hashemi won a NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Graduate Fellowship for her research. The fellowship is a collaborative effort between NASA and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) to encourage diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Recently, SREB featured Hashemi in a publication about the fellowship winners.

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2013 about 15 percent of engineers were women. Still, this number is an improvement since 1993, when only 8.6 percent of engineers were women.

“I’ve definitely had classes where I’ve been the only woman,” Hashemi said. “I applied for a job recently at a company where I’d be the only woman working there, but you don’t think about it that much. It feels normal at a certain point.”

Hashemi said that, while she sometimes has to assert herself more than her male counterparts to be heard, being underrepresented can make her stand out more, such as in the case of this fellowship.

Hashemi believes women are more reluctant than men to go into aerospace engineering because they tend to feel that if they’re not good at math and science, they shouldn’t pursue it. In contrast, men tend to pursue regardless of their skills, as long as the interest is there. But Hashemi believes this has been changing, especially in the undergraduate levels, during the 10 years she has been in the field.

The numbers support Hashemi’s observations. In the Cockrell School of Engineering, the percentage of freshmen women enrolling in aerospace engineering has increased from 10.3 percent in 2010 to 22.3 percent in 2015.

Programs like Hashemi’s fellowship encourage women to enter into aerospace engineering. The Cockrell School’s Women in Engineering Program (WEP) has worked closely with the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics department to implement similar initiatives, such as research opportunities, program participation scholarships and leadership experiences, to encourage female enrollment. Last fall, women made up 17.6 percent of aerospace engineering undergraduate students, up from 11.3 percent in 2010.

“As one of the leading diversity programs in the country reaching over 8,000 precollege students and 2,000 college students annually, WEP has definitely set the standard,” said Tricia Berry, a Cockrell School alumna (B.S. Chemical Engineering '93) who was a student when WEP was created and has served as WEP’s director since 2001. “Hopefully we’ve created a blueprint that programs at other universities can use, and we encourage them to join in this nationwide effort.”

But there is still room for improvement. Hashemi said that, although she has seen the number of women entering the aerospace engineering field increase, women are still outnumbered. She thinks emphasizing the practical implications of aerospace engineering, rather than the technical side, would encourage more women to enter the field.

“You need to make the applications resonate with the crowd you’re wanting to attract,” Hashemi said. “Yes, I can come to work and build a plane, but what does that plane do? It can’t just stand with building a good engineering product. Aerospace needs to start thinking a little bit more about what that product does.”