Meet Dr. Liselle Joseph, the first woman from the Eastern Caribbean to earn a PhD in aerospace engineering

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The Caribbean / April 23, 2019

“You should reflect on your true interests before making any career decisions.” These are words of wisdom shared by Dr. Liselle Joseph, the first woman from the eastern Caribbean to obtain a postdoctoral degree in aerospace engineering; a specialized mechanical engineering field. This type of engineering is arguably one of the most fascinating fields of engineering.

Like many other STEM professionals, Dr. Joseph has had a rewarding journey with challenges and adventures along the way. Her experiences range from leading projects to developing technologies for well-known American companies such as NASA, General Electric, the US Navy, Cummins, and the National Science Foundation. Let’s just say she’s lived the dreams of many budding American scientists and engineers. Although she is from a small island in the Caribbean, she’s made a name for herself globally with her postdoctoral research and making contributions to Fortune 500 companies.

For Dr. Joseph, it was not all about academics. In addition to completing internship programs with large American corporations, she was also a part of clubs and honour societies such as, the National Society of Black Engineers, Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Gamma Tau, and The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In the midst of her busy schedule, she always found time for volunteering, and continues to do so. She finds great reward and joy in mentoring aspiring engineers, especially women and minority engineers.

As a young girl growing up in Mt. Carmel, then later Marquis, St. Andrew in Grenada, Dr.Joseph always knew she’d eventually pursue an education in the sciences. Excelling at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels in school, she embodied the qualities of an engineer: diligent with a curious mind. Following her passion and curiosity, she obtained bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech. Her numerous awards including 11 CSEC distinctions, 4 CAPE distinctions, Island Scholar, and The Marryshow Cup Award, were all just part of a bigger puzzle. She believes that “essentially, it should never be about the title (degree or job or otherwise) but instead about what interests a person and sparks their curiosity.” Her goal in life is “… to work on exciting and innovative technologies.”

We are always delighted to hear the experiences of Caribbean STEM professionals and students. Below Dr. Joseph describes challenges, rewards, and how she went from being a student at the St. Joseph Convent, Grenville in Grenada, to working as an aerospace engineer for Pratt and Whitney.

When did you first decide that you wanted to become an engineer? What motivated you to make this decision?

Dr. Liselle Joseph

I didn’t decide on engineering until after TAMCC. I always knew I was going to further my education in sciences, in some field related to math and physics (I considered pure physics or math or something) but I hadn’t decided the exact field. Personally, I think that there is a lot of pressure on students to know exactly what they want to do at an early age, and there is subtle pressure to do something that sounds prestigious. Thankfully, being from a country school meant I was not well-known and there were more popular students who got more attention than I did. That meant that I could escape some of that pressure and really seek out what excited me. My philosophy in education (and life) is to follow my curiosity. I was curious about the mechanics of cars and aeroplanes and so I looked into Mechanical engineering and Aerospace engineering. After researching the topics I would learn about in each, I decided on Aerospace. I would love to say that this was some great calling, but it wasn’t. I did my research and went toward what I was interested in spending time learning. I think this approach is so important. Even today, I still follow my curiosity and seek out interesting and challenging problems, then I make decisions based on that. That is how I decided on my MS, PhD and eventually which job offer to accept. If I ever find that I am curious about something else and want to learn something new, then I will change careers. Essentially, it should never be about the title (degree or job or otherwise) but instead about what interests a person and sparks their curiosity. I also resist thetemptation to think about what other people will think about my decisions. For example, “if I quit my degree or change jobs will people think I was not smart enough to succeed? If I take 5 years to finish my degree instead of 3, will people think I am ‘dunce’ or that I am ‘playing bright’ ?” Thoughts like this only hold us back from being our best.

What was a rewarding and fulfilling experience you’ve had along your journey as a young student in Grenada to where you are now?

This is not a simple question. I have had several rewarding experiences in all aspects of my life, and all of these have guided my journey and the person I am today. Academically, I have been honored with several awards and scholarships. These are always nice. However, I most value my working experiences. In graduate school I have been privileged to lead projects for General Electric and other companies, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Navy. Apart from the excitement I find in developing technologies for these companies and being able to work on very different problems, I feel truly blessed to be in a position where my expertise is very valued. Being a young, black, woman with a Grenadian accent and being in the position of heading teams of engineers from all over the world, is not common. Professionally, I have been privileged to receive mentoring from tenured professors, high level industry executives and multi-millionaire executives. I have found those relationships to be extremely rewarding. Personally, my most rewarding experience has been mentoring younger students, especially minority and women engineers. I have learned so much from so many people so helping younger engineers gives me much joy. I have helped others through graduate school and even find careers.

Women around the world are still a minority in the aerospace engineering field. Why did you choose this field of engineering? What were some of the challenges you’ve faced?

I chose engineering without thinking about these obstacles facing women in STEM. I simply followed my curiosity. I never paid much attention to people who said “girls don’t do this and that” (like one of my TAMCC professors), because I had always done well academically so I wasn’t worried. It wasn’t until after I was in the program that I realized the nuances and subtle challenges women in STEM fields face. Being a woman, but also black and an immigrant in the USA all comes together to make things difficult at times. My challenges have ranged from being assigned to book rooms for my senior design group despite having the highest GPA in the group, to people walking into a meeting and on seeing me assume that I work in HR when the truth is I have a PhD and I am actually the engineer leading the project. Today people make more of an effort to catch their prejudices before they affect me, but when things are said/done that can possibly affect my career and development, I speak up. For example, in that senior design group where I was supposed to just book rooms like a secretary, I ended up leading the aerodynamics team and getting us to a great A+ design. Even today at work, sometimes men talk over me or try to explain my own work to me, and in those cases I just recognize that this is unconscious bias and assert myself. I don’t think I would have gotten this far if I listened to voices other than my own, or if I kept silent.

What professional goals would you like to achieve?

If you asked me this 10 year ago, I would have said I wanted the highest of degrees and a great job in engineering. Today, my goal is just to work on exciting and innovative technologies. That is a bit abstract but that is my true goal. I don’t care about being a CEO or executive or any specific job title or working at a specific company/institution. My life goal is to continue to contribute to the fundamental understanding of aerodynamics in Aerospace Engineering, and shed light on the toughest problems we are facing. In this way, I am not limited, and I have no idea what challenging new technology I will be working on in 10 years, which is exciting!

What do you like to do in your free time?

Free time is limited right now. At the end of the day working at Pratt and Whitney, I work on extra research for Virginia Tech. This is enjoyable because it is really interesting problems. In the little free time I have left, I find outdoor activities for my dog (hiking, swimming etc.), I read non-fiction books on self-development, and I watch documentaries to learn from the experiences of others and from history. I also volunteer when I can and attend church activities. It might sound boring, but I find this lifestyle quite fulfilling because it allows me to develop myself and others. There is nothing more satisfying than becoming a better version of yourself.

How do you balance your career with your everyday life?

In a traditional sense, I do not balance career and everyday life. Since I am young and developing my career, I am investing as much of my time and energy into my career now. I work long hours and volunteer for any extra projects I can. My strategy is to have exponential learning early in my career and develop a good reputation. This way, if I eventually start a family, I will be a in position to slow things down without halting my career growth, which is a serious concern for women. In order to maintain this high paced, successful technical career without getting burned out, I do have a few life philosophies and strategies, some of which are:

1. I wake up very early – 5am or earlier. This gives me time to invest in taking care of myself and my dog before work, rather than having to rush from one thing to another. This, and the quiet of the morning hours, is important in managing stress and maintaining balance when one has a high-pressure career. Waking up early also gives me a head start at work – by the time everyone else arrives I have already done 2 hours of very productive work.

2. I do my best to be fully involved in whatever I am doing. Multi-tasking is good and necessary, but I do my best to focus on one thing at a time, which is important for me since I have so many things happening at once. So, when I am playing with or walking my dog, I focus on that alone. When I am at home, I try not to think about the problem I am working on at work.

3. I surround myself with a good support system, just few good people who share my beliefs and values. These people are honest with me and constantly help me improve myself. Most importantly, they are not the kind of people who engage in petty quarrels, criticize anyone, compare people, and they do not introduce drama into my life.

What advice would you give to young aspiring aerospace engineers from the Caribbean?

Make sure your voice is not drowned out by external “noise.” I have found this idea to be useful in many situations. It is good advice for everyone, but for aspiring engineers it means that:

e1. You should reflect on your true interests before making any career decisions. Don’t let everyone’s opinion (“noise”) sway or pressure you into choosing a field of study that is not in linewith what you want (but still listen to sound advice!). In the end it is your career and life, and you are the one who needs to be fulfilled. Success is something you alone can define, because it is different for everyone. In the same way, failure is something you alone can define.

2. Listen to yourself when it comes to your well-being. If you start a program or career andfind that it is not right for you, don’t feel pressured to stay in order to “succeed”. As I said before,resist the temptation to consider what other people will think about your decisions and what the”gossip” will be. Take care of yourself physically and mentally before all else, and do not sacrifice your wellbeing to be “successful”. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and define success for yourself. Unfortunately, I have seen many promising colleagues give up on their careers because of the pressure they put on themselves to be perfect and do what everyone expects of them.

3. When anyone discourages or criticizes you (“noise”) during your studies or beyond, let yourvoice remind you of your purpose and capabilities. As a Caribbean person in a field dominated by Caucasians, you will be criticized or at the very least underestimated. Your voice will give you resilience and persistence in these times.

4. When you start your career, make your intellectual voice heard and be professionally assertive. Most engineers are incredibly intelligent and confident, and so quite a few think they are always right. This means that they can be very vocal when working in teams. Give your opinions and let your voice be heard with authority

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