The Science Survey

Wanda Austin ’71

Inspiration for Current and Future Students in STEM

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Wanda Austin ’71

Wanda Austin offers her 
knowledge and experiences in a one-on-one student interview.

Wanda Austin offers her knowledge and experiences in a one-on-one student interview.

Johan Wichterle

Wanda Austin offers her knowledge and experiences in a one-on-one student interview.

Johan Wichterle

Johan Wichterle

Wanda Austin offers her knowledge and experiences in a one-on-one student interview.

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Wanda Austin, an internationally celebrated aerospace engineer and graduate of Bronx Science, Class of 1971, is most notable for her former position as president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation. On April 13, 2018, she returned to the school to be inducted into the Bronx Science Hall of Fame and share her knowledge and experience with students and faculty.

Austin credits much of her career to her time at Science, when she was offered the necessary math and science courses to encourage her pursuit of engineering. “It gave me a very strong foundation and a lot of discipline. I learned to think about hard problems and to not be daunted by the fact that you wouldn’t find a simple answer in the back of the book,” Austin recalled.

Aside from academics, Austin was a member of the volleyball team, a cheerleader, and a representative of her senior class. Regarding these activities, she spoke about the value of being a well-rounded student and developing a sense of leadership. “In order to use those skills to better society and work on the hardest problems, you also need to be well balanced as an individual,” Austin said. “You need to have had outside interests and you need to keep yourself physically fit.” She claims that it’s not enough to simply have scientific ideas, but that it’s just as necessary to learn how to communicate with others to implement change.

Although Austin began studying mathematics at Franklin and Marshall College to pursue a teaching career, she found that teaching didn’t challenge her as much as she had hoped. Luckily, she was able to explore many other fields that she had never thought of before. “One of the values of college is that you’re able to explore career options. You might have an idea about what you want to do, but there are so many things that you don’t know anything about,” Austin said. She discovered that she enjoyed engineering, and she eventually went on to obtain her PhD in engineering at the University of Southern California.

At the start of her career at The Aerospace Corporation, Austin had no knowledge regarding the aerospace industry. However, she was given the opportunity to help to develop a software development for uploading instructions to GPS satellites, and eventually got the chance to work in the MILSAC (Military Satellite Communications) Program. Austin eventually became the President and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, which she believes is her greatest success career-wise. “Giving approval for national security space missions is a pretty big responsibility and a wonderful opportunity. In guiding almost a billion dollars of our research and development facility, I got to make decisions about the next big thing, what we should be investing in, what we need to be prepared for for the future,” said Austin. “I really enjoyed leading the team through those missions and having the opportunity to be critical for national security.”

In 2015, Austin was appointed by former President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, otherwise known as PCAST, a team of fifteen to sixteen people who meet with the president every other month to discuss the progress on science-related issues. Some topics that Austin addressed during her time on the PCAST included combating resistance to antibiotics, confronting the Zika virus spread, and using fact bases in order to convict people in the criminal justice system.

Since her junior year in college and all throughout her career, Austin has had the opportunity to travel internationally, an aspect of her work that she enjoys greatly. “I had the opportunity to see some very interesting sights, and engage with scientists of all different backgrounds and interests, and so I felt like I was always learning,” said Austin. She believes that if given the chance, students in college should all embrace the opportunity to travel abroad and expand their horizons.

As an African American woman, Austin explained that though it was uncommon for her to hold many of the roles that she did, she was not deterred in pursuing the opportunities that she was given.

“One of the things that I liked about The Aerospace Corporation, which I did not find in some other places, was an openness to judging people based on their contributions, not on how they looked,” expressed Austin

“I don’t think that it deterred me in the sense that I don’t think that there were things I couldn’t do or didn’t do because of it, but I certainly recognized that people were not always open and equal to everybody.” For this very reason, one of her goals as President of Aerospace was to expand diversity among those who worked there.

Austin’s work did not conclude after Aerospace; she is now a trustee for USC and is serving as a board member at Chevron and Amgen. She also funds a STEM scholarship to encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math in college. This will be the third year that the Dr. Wanda M. Austin STEM Scholarship will be awarded to a student with high potential who attends a Title 1 school in the Los Angeles area.

Austin concluded her visit with a few words for the students of Bronx Science as they move forward in their education to pursue their dreams: have confidence, recognize that you’re a leader, and ask good questions.

“You have to recognize that just being at Bronx Science makes you a leader; it makes you stand out in a group, it means that you have skills and capabilities that other people at your age don’t have. That’s a gift, and you have to appreciate it, but you also have to use it,” Austin advised. “Be someone who thinks about things and asks ‘why not?’ or ‘what else?’ or ‘what’s missing?’ because other people may have those questions in the back of their heads, but are just not asking them. Make sure you get to the whole truth and then do the critical thinking to figure out answers for yourself.”

Johan Wichterle
Wanda Austin and a student ambassador speak with a class inside the library multipurpose room.

Johan Wichterle
Wanda Austin poses in front of the Hall of Fame with Bronx Science student ambassadors and her husband (far left).

Johan Wichterle
Wanda Austin speaks to students as she has lunch with them.

Johan Wichterle
Wanda Austin signs her name in the Hall of Fame book.

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Wanda Austin ’71