Mechanical Engineer, Northrop Grumman
What’s the coolest thing you can do with an engineering degree? Laura Ahmetaj, who earned her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, summa cum laude, in 2018, might argue that it’s riding in the chase car following Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk during a test flight and watching it, up close, as it touches down on the runway. Ahmetaj, who minored in Aerospace Engineering, relates the tale in her “A Day in the Life of an Engineer” video, part of a series created by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Now a Mechanical Engineer in Northrop Grumman’s California-based Space Sector, she explains in the video that FAA regulations do not allow the company’s unmanned air vehicles to be tested in civilian air space unless human eyes are on them at all times — a requirement that necessitates a chase plane and a chase car — and discusses the rewards and challenges of her work.
We caught up with her to chat about her time at Tandon and her path to a career so fulfilling she can hardly imagine doing anything else.
We know from the video about the most thrilling moment of your professional career. What was a thrilling moment at Tandon?
I was on the school’s very first Baja SAE team, now known as NYU Tandon Motorsports. Each year the team designs, builds, and races an actual off-road vehicle. I had completed an internship that provided me with a lot of experience in production processes, so I spent every Friday and Saturday at the MakerGarage on Gold Street overseeing determining how we would use our resources, assessing skillsets, creating informal manufacturing flows, and delegating tasks. You can probably imagine how thrilling it was to navigate Brooklyn streets with an off-road vehicle on the occasions we moved it.
You mentioned an internship; can you tell us a little more about it?
Thanks to a family friend, I was hired one summer at a company called TarpStop, which designed and manufactured collapsible tarps for semitrucks. Being able to collapse certain portions at a time, makes loading and unloading more efficient. My specific task was to observe each step of the manufacturing process and document it in an accurate way so it could be replicated. A lightbulb went off in my head that this was a vital and interesting part of dealing with hardware. Now, almost all three years of my career at Northrop have been in production!
I later had an internship at LGS Innovations, a small defense contractor, where I helped design and manufacture a Radio Frequency (RF) transparent test stand prototype that had to meet stringent requirements and I also designed, 3D modeled, and manufactured several electronic enclosures used in field testing. This experienced opened my eyes to the possibilities of working in defense. An aspiring civil engineer sees buildings and bridges every day but it’s not as though most of us are familiar with technology that is developed for the U.S. Defense Industry, so it really hadn’t been on my radar before then.
Were you always interested in a STEM career though?
My parents came from Albania to the U.S., and like many new immigrants they dreamed my siblings and I would find good careers, which in their mind meant doctor or lawyer. I first considered engineering when a high school physics teacher recommended it as a good profession for anyone who liked science and math, which I did. I was also the kind of teenager who loved cars and spent her spare time watching the Motor Trend Channel, so Mechanical Engineering seemed like a logical course of study.
Do you see the aerospace industry as a solid destination for anyone just deciding upon engineering school?
Definitely! Large, iconic companies like Northrup Grumman are doing a lot of innovating, and there’s been a boom in aerospace startups in recent years. Everyone knows Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but there are many others as well. We’re living at a time when Relativity Space, one of those startups, is discussing doing additive manufacturing on Mars; how exciting is that?
Not to mention that Aerospace companies require all types of engineers: electrical, chemical, computer etc.
What advice would you give to a graduating high school student?
First of all, I’d say to consider NYU. One of my younger sisters is at Tandon right now and my other younger sister just got accepted to Stern for her master’s degree. My younger brother, who’s just getting ready to graduate high school, is considering NYU as well.
Next, I’d say to join as many extracurricular activities and clubs as possible. Besides the Baja team, I was active in the student chapter of ASME and served as president of Pi Tau Sigma, the national mechanical engineering honor society. I also participated on a team in NYU Stern’s $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge. I co-founded a company coined Curtain Call which is a live music discovery platform that sells ticket at or below face value. This didn’t utilize the concepts I learned while studying mechanical engineering, but it not only let me hone my soft skills through participating in pitches but also refined my critical thinking skills. It gave me an edge in job interviews since in addition to my tech skills, I had an understanding of markets and customer discovery.
Finally, I would say find a mentor. The importance of mentorship dawned on me during my sophomore year, which was very difficult academically. I received a lot of support from Professor Joseph Borowiec, who also happens to be an alum of the school, so he has a lot of relevant experience to pass down. I’m now excited about becoming a mentor myself!