posted February 22, 2013
Rachel Morford, an electrical engineer and a senior member of the technical staff at Aerospace, was chosen as one of this year’s Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) five New Faces of Engineering.
New Faces award recipients are all under 30 years old, and the intent is to recognize engineers who have been working in the industry for less than 10 years. Another goal is to change the way the general public perceives engineers.
“The idea is to highlight that the stereotype of what engineers look like is not always true,” Morford said.
For Morford, it isn’t about the awards, though. Her considerable success comes from a hunger to help shape the world around her. She takes what she called “silent satisfaction” in her accomplishments.
“I do what I do to make a difference,” she said. “I might not always be able to talk about it; and you might not be able to see it. But the work I’ve done has had an impact on the world.
“You don’t do things to get awards, but it is nice to be recognized for the work that you do,” she added.
Of the numerous recognitions she’s received, Morford said the one that made the biggest impact on her was a trustee scholarship to attend the University of Southern California, her alma mater.
“It paid for half my master’s degree,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to USC without it, and I wouldn’t have had all the opportunities since that I’ve had.”
Morford’s path to engineering began as a young girl in Torrance, Calif., looking up at the stars. It helped that both of her parents have degrees in physics and helped fuel her ambitions.
“What drew me to science in the first place was space. I originally wanted to be an astrophysicist because I love space. But then I took an electronics class in junior year of high school.”
That one class helped shape her future more than she ever thought it would. By the time she started college, Morford was more interested in material science. She kept an open mind, and started her undergraduate work at USC as an undeclared engineering student.
“It gave me a great overview of all engineering disciplines,” she said.
She then tried her hand at chemical engineering, with an emphasis on material science.
“But it was all petroleum focused, and I didn’t really care for the focus on the petroleum industry,” she said. “Then I remembered that I loved the electronics in high school. From there, I just fell into satellite communications as an area of focus in my degree. I was so excited about it.”
Her moment of truth came years later, while brainstorming ideas for her Capstone project. She was tasked with creating a reliable and durable system for the U.S. government to communicate with sites ravaged by natural disasters, like hurricanes.
“This is going to sound really nerdy. There were so many things to consider; I had such a good time,” she said. “Once I figured out to use a dome to protect the antenna, everything just sort of fell into place. It was a perfect moment in time. And I knew I had picked the right field.”
Working Within The Aerospace Corporation
Morford, currently one of the corporation’s mission engineers, has been with the corporation for five years. During that time, she’s migrated between responsibilities. Now, she provides technical and programmatic analyses of issues on systems ranging from structures to propulsion and avionics on Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.
“I am responsible for all of the integration aspects; basically making sure everything works well together and all the parts function together the way they were intended to,” she said.
Although her job description has evolved, and in some cases, drastically changed, through the years, one aspect has remained a constant for her.
“I’ve been very lucky; the group I was hired into is the same group I’m in now, although I’ve had different roles within the organization.”
Morford’s resume includes having reviewed more than 400 engineering review board decisions for vehicle hardware, serving on a handful of post-launch investigation teams, assessing flight data and leading laboratory work that helped mitigate risk during missions. Her input also helped lead to the first Delta IV Heavy launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“Engineers solve problems,” she said. “Every day is different. Different challenges come up every day; it is never the same thing twice.”
Morford also makes sure she takes advantage of the unique opportunities her job affords her.
“I signed something that’s going to be attached to a satellite we’ll be launching. It’s really cool that my signature is going to be in space.”
Mentoring the Next Generation
Morford’s passion for engineering is one she tries to share with the world. It is a joy she wants to help others discover.
She spends much of her free time working on the SWE’s many educational projects, with STEM projects, and as a mentor to women studying engineering. She has been a member of SWE for nine years, since her freshman year of college.
“It’s important that engineers go out and talk to students, and provide that role model saying, ‘Yes, you can do this,’” she said. “We not only have to educate young kids (about engineering); we have to educate their parents that this is an opportunity for them. These kids need encouragement from the adult figures in their lives.”
Morford works with a variety of ages, from kindergarten to college kids. But it is the younger ones, she said, who keep her on her toes.
“It is surprising and energizing to work with younger students, to see what kind of ideas these kids can come up with. Some of them may not recognize that they have a knack for just knowing what’s going to work. They are so excited with what they are learning. They are so much more willing to make mistakes than some of the older students.
“It is a great reminder of how excited I was. They keep me excited about engineering in the same way witnessing rocket launches keeps me excited.”
Morford said she incorporates her relatively young age to help her strike a chord with her audience.
“I’m closer in age (to the college students). They can relate to me a little more.”
Morford’s open enthusiasm and dedication for her work, and her willingness to share that passion, is infectious. It is part of the reason she stands out and truly is one of the New Faces of Engineering. But the words she lives by are surprisingly simple.
“You have to be excited about the work that you’re doing, because then people are going to be excited you’re doing it,” she said. “And that’s true no matter what your job is.”