I grew up in a small town in Utah. Although my public high school had great AP math and science programs, there weren’t very many girls who seemed to be interested in becoming engineers. Annika was one of the exceptions. She knew she wanted to be an engineer from a young age, and she wasn’t afraid to say it! She rocked it in college and became a mechanical engineer and was the president of the Society of Women Engineers at Utah State University. Right now, she’s a stay-at-home mom to two adorable children and she recently started a hugely successful science and engineering camp for kids. Read more to hear about how she became an engineer and what it’s like to be a stay-at-home mom.
The summer after fourth grade I started attending a space and physics camp, Astro Camp, in Ogden, UT. I spent the next ten years hoping to become an astronaut. That camp ended up shaping my entire future. I learned the basics of science in school, but spending my summers at Astro Camp I discovered how to apply it and I learned that science is just super cool! I also made some awesome, life-long friends, who have become an important part of my support group. Eventually I decided that if I'm not the first person on Mars, I will at least be in the control room when the first person walks on Mars.
And how about engineering? When did you learn that it was a thing?
One day when I was nine or ten years old, I was once again fixing the vacuum cleaner. With five girls in the house, hair happened. I had the vacuum taken apart, and was detangling various parts, when my mom walked past, paused for a moment, and said, "Annika, you should be an engineer." I had no idea what that meant, and I'm not sure my mom even really understood, but the seed had been planted, and it was never uprooted. By the time I was fourteen I knew enough about engineering to know that I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer.
What was your college experience like?
I did not realize it was such a big deal to be a female engineer until I got to college and everyone started making a big deal out of it. Every time I told someone my major, their jaw would drop. I noticed boys would say the same thing and the reactions would tend to be, "Oh, that's cool," and then people moved on. I was encouraged to take the "Women in Engineering" seminar taught by the Associate Dean of Engineering, Dr. Chris Hailey. She has become one of my favorite people and one of my strongest mentors. I did not understand at the time, though, why everyone was encouraging me to find mentors and support. They said I would need it as a female engineer, but I didn't think it was all that different from my life so far. I'd always been in the minority as a girl involved in the math and science clubs, but I didn't think it was weird or hard. It just meant I hung out with a lot of smart boys who could help me with my math homework. I'm glad I listened to the advice in that seminar, though, because I ended up in a graduating class of mechanical engineers that was about 5% female. Actually, my best friends and mentors for the next four and a half years came out of that seminar.
The best thing that I did in college as a female engineering student was join the Society of Women Engineers. Vicki Ragsdale, who I'd met several years before at Astro Camp, ran into me at a social during the second week of school my freshman year. She took me by the arm and guided me over to the SWE sign-up table and invited me to the first meeting a few days later, which she was in charge of. I was the only one at that meeting to sign up for a committee, and suddenly I was the Publicity officer. I went on to be the Outreach Coordinator, Secretary, and President, and Fundraising Chair. I also got involved at the region level and was a Region Collegiate Representative, representing over 30 collegiate SWE sections to the region governing council. I later joined the Collegiate Leadership Coaching Committee, and traveled around the country giving leadership workshops to other SWE members and sections for four years. I just stepped down as the West Coast Deputy Chair for that national committee this summer. SWE did a lot for me. It was a great break from the rigorous coursework, but I was surrounded by people who understood what I was going through.
Nina Glaittli, the USU SWE advisor and counselor, was my mentor in the real world. I always knew I wanted to be an engineer and a mom, and before college I never figured out how those were going to jive. In college, I mostly met women who had sacrificed things on the family side to pursue their careers, and that was not ever something I wanted to do. It was, and still is, hard for me to find women in SWE who have similar family goals to me. I'm often surrounded by women who are trying to prove they can have it all. Nina taught and showed me that, "You can have it all. You just can't have it all at the same time." I could talk about SWE forever, but I'll stop myself here. I hope I've done the SWE experience justice. My advice to any girl entering college and considering a STEM major is to JOIN SWE!!
You can have it all. You just can't have it all at the same time."
Another great opportunity I had was to work at the Space Dynamics Laboratory, a small satellite company in Logan, UT, for three years. As a student engineer, I was treated similarly to an entry-level engineer, but with more flexible hours. I got to work on a lot of different projects in a lot of different roles. I worked as a designer (assisting, and some of my own work), drafter, technician, and data analyst. They rarely let students actually touch the flight hardware, but when someone messed up on a tape job, I spent two weeks cleaning the baffle of a satellite that was launched a few months later.
I got married after my second year of college, which I suppose made my experience a little unique to people outside of Utah. The idea that I would not finish for some reason after getting married never even crossed our minds. Ryan was there at my conferences and competitions. He would pick me up from school at midnight and drive me back to campus at 5 a.m. He sent me off on a study abroad, and he stayed up late nights helping my team assemble a rocket during Spring Break. He even joined SWE for a few years. Nobody thinks twice about people marrying so young in Utah, but I found as I traveled around the country that it was something that really set me apart. In my last semester, I was about six months pregnant when I attended a SWE conference in Chicago. I gave a presentation to some collegians, and I found out later that a bunch of them had spent the whole time feeling sorry for me because I'd gone and gotten myself pregnant. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or be offended.
What's it like being a stay at home mom? We haven't interviewed a stay at home mom yet, so any details you could provide would be very interesting!
This is a good week for me to answer this question. I've been particularly in love with my adorable kiddos this week.
"What's it like being a stay-at-home mom" is a question I used to ask all the time. I wanted to be one, but I really wondered what they did all day. I've been home with my kids for three and a half years now, and I still have days where I ask this of myself! It can be an emotionally, psychologically, physically draining job that requires nonstop vigilance. Sometimes I get to the end of the day and feel like all I've managed to accomplish is that my kids are still alive. I spend a lot of time fishing my 16 month old out of the toilet while wiping the three-year old's bottom. But it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done or ever will do. That part of the job is harder to understand until you've experienced it yourself. It's impossible to adequately describe the joy and fulfillment that comes from seeing my babies' smiles, or watching them achieve a goal, or from hearing their squeals of wild laughter as we chase each other through the house like wild monkeys. I love to teach my children and I love it even more when they teach me. Those moments of pure joy and happiness, which are sometimes more frequent than others, make all of the messes and screaming and sleepless nights absolutely worth it.
The decision for me to be a stay-at-home mom was a choice that my husband and I very consciously made together. Our daughter was born two months after I graduated, so I turned down companies that were interested in me. I walked away from a job I loved and had been doing for three years, working on satellites. That was harder than I expected it to be, since I thought I'd made the decision about being a stay at home parent years earlier. I had a lot of people, including dear friends and mentors, tell me that I would be wasting my engineering education if I stayed at home with my kids. I feel like that was an unfair assumption. I was particularly discouraged and annoyed when I heard that from other women in the field. I have always thought the whole point of the women's movement was so we could have opportunity and choice without judgment or hindrance. My education is a part of me, and I am a better me and a better mom because I chose to get a college degree. Lessons I learned in and out of the classroom are things I use every day.
I had a lot of people, including dear friends and mentors, tell me that I would be wasting my engineering education if I stayed at home with my kids. I have always thought the whole point of the women's movement was so we could have opportunity and choice without judgement or hindrance."
My husband graduated in 2013 and we moved to Houston, TX, for his job. I spent a year adjusting, having a baby, and then moving again when we bought a house. Once things finally settled down, I was talking one day at a play group with other stay at home moms about what we'd studied in college and to what degree we've used those educations. I mentioned my love for outreach, and Amy Spencer said, "Why don't you do a science camp? People around here love that kind of thing." The seed was planted, and it shot right up. I really wanted to keep it affordable, while creating a memorable, fun experience for the kids, and have it be something parents felt was worth the money. I advertised primarily through Facebook. Through just social media and word of mouth, I had so much interest I ended up turning people away.
I wanted the kids to see how broad and encompassing science is, but I'm pretty sure I ended up with an emphasis on physical sciences because that's my favorite. All of the lessons included demonstrations and hands-on experiments. The Kiddie Camp (5-8 year olds) was three days of groups rotating through a total of nine interactive lessons. They dyed flowers, cracked geodes, built foil boats, designed spacesuits, experimented with UV, and learned the science of ice cream.
I definitely think we need more female engineers. I don't think rigorous math and science curriculum in school is the way to get kids excited about STEM. Kids, girls and boys, need to see how fun and broad science is! I hear so many people, especially girls, say that engineering doesn't interest them. I don't even understand how that's possible when engineering is a part of everything! I like to play a game with the kids I teach called, "Stump the Engineer." I ask them to think of something in the world that isn't or can't be affected by engineering. In eight years, I have yet to be stumped. I think people just don't understand what engineering is. If girls can be exposed to the excitement of science at a young age, and then never encounter the idea that they can't or shouldn't pursue it, I think a lot of doors will be automatically opened for more girls becoming engineers.
What are you passionate about?
I'm passionate about science, obviously. I love engineering so much, and I really love talking to people, especially young people, about what engineering is. The world we live in is so awesome, and I love that no matter how much I learn about it, there's still more!
I'm passionate about being a good wife and mother. My family is everything to me. I am always the happiest when we are spending time together. I feel like I've had a successful day if at the end of it my kids are happy and I completed at least one chore. Sometimes eating chocolate has to count as a chore for that to work out.
I'm passionate about my faith and religion. I would be completely lost without the scriptures and the power of prayer in my life. The one thing I love teaching my children more than science is about God and His plan for us. A lot of people think that science and religion don't mix, but the more I learn about both of them, the more I realize that there's no way they won't always eventually converge.
A lot of people think that science and religion don't mix, but the more I learn about both of them, the more I realize that there's no way they won't always eventually converge."
My full life comes from living the things I am passionate about. If you don't care about the things you are doing, it's not going to be a very fulfilling life. My priorities are my family and my faith. I love service. I find that when I have low days, or get caught up too much in negativity of whatever form, doing an act or two of service will always pull me out of it. I've recently figured out, finally, that taking time for myself is important. I mentioned before that being a stay-at-home mom can be all-consuming. Starting this science camp helped me to restore balance in my life. I didn't stop having interests outside my family when I started having kids, I just have to force myself to remember to cultivate those interests and talents sometimes.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
I hope in 20 years that my kids see me as a good mom and a great friend. You know what is stressful about this question? I just realized that if my daughter has a kid at the same age I did, I will be becoming a grandmother in 20 years! Yep. Now I'm freaking out a little bit.
I would like to see how far I can take my science programs. I have a lot of ideas and plans for the camp. I don't know if I will continue for 20 years, but part of me really hopes it turns into something that can continue to grow. Like most people, I hope I can spend the next two decades as a positive influence on the crazy world around me.
People ask me all the time if I will go back to work as an engineer when my kids are in school, or they assume I will. I don't have plans to do so right now, but if that changes, I would like to work for NASA or Boeing. I became a mechanical engineering to work with airplanes. Then I found out that mechanical engineers can build rockets and send people into space. If I end up back in the industry, that's what I will be doing in 20 years: Working in mission control when the first people walk on Mars.