Honoring Women in STEM: Jacqueline O'Connor

What is your area of expertise and what is your research focus? 

My research focuses on unsteady combustion phenomena in power and propulsion devices. I'm really interested in the intersection of fluid mechanics and reacting flows, understanding complex phenomena that drive the efficiency, performance, and emissions of systems like aircraft engines, power-generation gas turbines, industrial furnaces, and large reciprocating engines. Another dimension of my research focuses on renewable fuels and how replacing traditional fossil-derived fuels with renewables fuels can impact the performance of these combustion systems.

How did you end up in STEM?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved anything related to space and airplanes, and I was fortunate to have parents and grandparents who really encouraged me to learn more. I also excelled at math and science, and decided I wanted to go into science by the time I was eight years old. When I started thinking about college, my two grandfathers (both engineers) suggested I think about engineering. I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for Aerospace Engineering and loved every minute of it! I found my current interest areas -- aircraft engines, combustion, and fluid mechanics -- through a series of internships.

What hurdles or challenges (big or small) did you find as you pursued your career in STEM? What challenges do you face today?

It was a bit lonely being one of the only girls in my advanced math and science classes in middle and high school, but I was extremely fortunate to find a large number of like-minded women in engineering when I went to college. It's the network of friends and colleagues who make this a fantastic job.

What or who was an inspiration or support for you? 

My first role models were Sally Ride and Mae Jemison -- it was so exciting to see American women doing amazing work in space when I was little. I also had amazing support from my family. Now, I have great colleagues who inspire me, particularly other women in STEM. I've had a number of critical mentors that continue to provide support for my career and me as a person.

Why is it important for women to be in STEM and specifically your field? 

Plenty of studies have shown that diverse teams come up with better engineering solutions. One thing I've also found is that diverse teams are a lot more fun to work on! Having other women in your field creates a supportive atmosphere, and people who feel supported and happy in their communities have the freedom to do great work.

What can be done to recruit more women into STEM? 

Having a diverse set of role models is a critical first step in recruiting the next generation of women in STEM. I had very few women as professors in college and graduate school, and so I didn't have a model for what a successful "future me" would look like. At Penn State, I have so many successful colleagues who I can look up to and learn from their successes.

What advice would you give to girls and young women going into STEM? 

My advice: have fun! Working on engineering problems is really important and extremely fulfilling, but it can also be really fun. Bring your whole self to you career because all the different talents across your personality can make you a critical part of a team.