Aerospace Engineer Wanda Austin ’71 Delivers Keynote Address at 2020 Bronx Science Commencement Ceremony

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Photo provided courtesy of Dr. Wanda Austin '71

Wanda Austin ’71 is an American businesswoman who is internationally recognized for her work in aeronautics and systems engineering. She is presenting the Commencement Keynote Address at Bronx Science’s 92nd graduation ceremony on June 26, 2020 at 12 noon, which will be livestreamed to all graduating seniors and their families.

To watch Dr. Austin’s Keynote Address at 92nd Bronx Science Commencement Ceremony, click on the video above. 

Dr. Wanda Austin, renowned aerospace engineer and Bronx Science alumna, delivered the Keynote Address at this year’s 92nd Bronx Science Commencement Ceremony. Dr. Austin’s address was the first to be delivered virtually, as the class of 2020 celebrated their untraditional matriculation online due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Despite her preeminence in the world of science, Dr. Austin notes that she “started with humble beginnings.” As a young girl living in the projects in the Bronx, she recalls growing up unaware of the prospects that lay ahead of her. Though STEM-oriented coming into high school, she remembers Bronx Science as the first place where she was able to fully develop her passion for science and mathematics.

Today, Dr. Austin accredits much of her career success to the learning opportunities that Bronx Science granted her. “I had some phenomenal opportunities in the aerospace industry which was very much a function of having a math and science background [at Bronx Science],” she said.

Upon graduating from Bronx Science in 1971, Dr. Austin went on to earn her B.S. in mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College. After briefly working towards a teaching degree, Austin decided to continue pursuing her education in the field of mathematics and systems engineering. She earned her M.S. at the University of Pittsburgh in 1977 and her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California in 1988.

In 1979, Dr. Austin began working as a member of the technical staff at the Aerospace Corporation, a leading architect of the nation’s space program. Working her way up the corporate ladder, Dr. Austin became internationally recognized for her work in satellite and payload system acquisition, systems engineering, and system simulation — all of which are technical components of developing and maintaining satellites. When she was made president and C.E.O. of the company in 2008, she became the first woman and the first African American to hold the position in the 57 year history of the organization.

“The achievement for me was more about being a young kid who grew up in the Bronx and having absolutely no expectation that an achievement like that was within my reach,” she reflected. “I know that [achievement] made me a stand out for young women and for African Americans as a role model.”

In 2015, during  her tenure as president of the Aerospace Corporation, Dr. Austin was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a team of accomplished individuals who met with the president to advise him on national matters of science. During her time on the PCAST, Dr. Austin confronted problems ranging from the spread of Zika and the use of databases in the criminal justice system.

Working at the intersection of politics and science, Dr. Austin understood the value of an educated leader. “We have to keep making sure that our leaders get the facts in front of them,” she said. “You can interpret the facts in context …but you’re not entitled to your own set of facts.”

Though she never became a teacher, Dr. Austin has earned impressive accolades in the field of education throughout her career. She was the interim president of the University of Southern California for the 2019-2020 school year and led the school through a critical period of transition between administrations.

She is professedly dedicated to pioneering the intersection of science and education, inspiring younger generations to pursue STEM disciplines in school. Under Dr. Austin’s leadership, the Aerospace Corporation became involved with educational organizations like MathCounts, US FIRST Robotics, and Change the Equation. She also funds the Dr. Wanda M. Austin STEM Scholarship, which has allowed gifted individuals from Title 1 schools to pursue science and mathematics.

“Our society will excel if we can find a way to make sure that everybody gets to achieve their potential,” Dr. Austin said.

Dr. Austin is the author of Making Space: Strategic Leadership for a Complex World, a book that documents her journey as a leader in the aerospace industry and encourages the development of leaders from all walks of life. “It wasn’t a book for C.E.O.s or for executives,” she asserted. Rather, she contends that it was a book made for anyone with the backbone and skillset to lead.

“There was a societal assumption that an African American woman from the inner city in the 1960s could not be a leader,” says Dr. Austin in her book. “Leadership is not a birthright; it is a skill. Leaders can come from anywhere and in any form.”

As for her commencement speech, Dr. Austin aimed to make a leader out of all of us. She used her Keynote Address at Bronx Science’s 92nd Commencement Ceremony, which was livestreamed at 12 noon on Friday, June 26, 2020, as an opportunity to demonstrate that after any formidable challenge, the need for new leaders will arise. At a time when young people feel the burden of the future on their shoulders — perhaps more than ever before — her words came as an uplifting solace.

“Corona[virus] hit, but it hit the whole world. … There’s always going to be things that pop up that you’re not anticipating,” Dr. Austin said. “If you stay focused on the door that is closing or what you lost … you’ll miss the three new doors that are opening.”

“Corona[virus] hit, but it hit the whole world. … There’s always going to be things that pop up that you’re not anticipating,” Dr. Austin said. “If you stay focused on the door that is closing or what you lost … you’ll miss the three new doors that are opening.”

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