In an exclusive interview with You! magazine, Hibah Rahmani, a Pakistani born Avionics Engineer at NASA, talks about her work and passion...
Hibah Rahmani obtained a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering, with Honors in the major from the University of Central Florida, graduating summa cum laude. After graduation, she accepted a position with The Boeing Company as a Systems Engineer working on the International Space Station processing at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). While working full-time for Boeing, Hibah earned a Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Tech. She is also a registered Professional Engineer (P.E) in the State of Florida. After working for Boeing for seven years, Hibah accepted a position with NASA as an Avionics and Flight Controls Engineer. Currently, she works in the Avionics Division of the Engineering and Technology Directorate. She is part of the Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELV) Avionics Branch, where she supports the NASA Launch Services Program (LSP), working on ELVs such as Pegasus and Falcon 9. While working at NASA, Hibah obtained a Graduate Certificate in Space Systems Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and also participated in the International Space University’s 2012 Space Studies Program. Hibah is the recipient of several awards including Pride-at-Boeing awards, NASA Group Achievement awards and NASA On-The-Spot awards.
Recently, Hibah was in Pakistan on a short visit. You! got an opportunity to talk to this brainy engineer regarding her work and passion...
You! How did you get started in the field?
Hibah Rahmani: I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and my family moved to Kuwait when I was a month old. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the beautiful night sky. My fondest memories while growing up is taking walks with my family at night, either in the desert or on the sidewalk by the Arabian Gulf; looking up at the sky to admire the moon and stars, and thinking about astronauts like Neil Armstrong who have stepped on the moon. It is around this time when I developed a passion for science, space and astronomy.
You! Did you always know that you wanted to do this?
HR: I always knew that I wanted to be an engineer since I was in grade eight. And that’s because I always loved Maths and Science. Whenever I solved a Math problem, it would give me a sense of accomplishment. And in my science text book, the chapter on solar system was always my favourite and also I loved looking at the moon and stars at night. After completing high school in Kuwait, I moved to the USA in 1997 where I pursued a degree in Computer Engineering, and started working at Kennedy Space Center.
You! They say Maths cannot be understood by everyone and very few are naturally good at it. Is it true?
HR: I believe that when it comes to Maths, practice makes perfect. It’s just a myth that only few minds are good at it, if you work hard and spend time practising problems, anyone can be great at Maths.
You! Have you ever lived in Pakistan?
HR: Actually when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, my family and I had to flee from Kuwait and we were in Pakistan for about a year and a half; spent some time in Lahore at that time. I moved back to Kuwait with my family in 1992.
You! How has your journey been from a Systems Engineer to work for NASA as an Avionics and Flight Controls Engineer?
HR: The journey has been fantastic. After I graduated from university of Florida with my degree in Computer Engineering, I started working for Boeing as a System Engineer, and the work was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I also had the opportunity to work on processing of the international space station. While I was working there, I had the opportunity to interact with astronauts. They would come to Kennedy Space Center and it was during that time I developed a desire to become an astronaut. I started applying to jobs at NASA and I was fortunate that I got accepted to the position that I have now.
You! Do you want to be an astronaut?
HR: I would love to become an astronaut one day. The way this works is that NASA puts out a call or announcement for astronauts, and when they do, people can apply. Whenever they put out the next call, I will definitely be applying.
You! What is the criterion for becoming an astronaut?
HR: I am not sure about the criterion but I think you don’t necessarily have to be an engineer; you can also be a biologist or geologist. Sometimes NASA takes medical doctors as astronauts. So, there are different types of astronauts like pilots astronauts, mission specialists astronauts etc.
You! What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
HR: Let me tell you something that was really challenging for me. I worked on a mission called Jason-3. The purpose of Jason-3 is to study the oceans on Earth. This was the first time that a NASA Satellite was going to be launched on a Falcon 9 rocket. I was part of the certification team. We had to certify the rocket. That was something I had never done before and it was bit of a challenge to me as I had to learn the certification process. That was one of the challenges.
You! What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
HR: The most rewarding aspect of my job is the launch day - years of hard work that my team and I have put in the mission all comes together in that one day. It’s so exciting when we are sitting in the launch control room, making sure that everything goes well with the mission.
Just to see the rocket launch is the highlight of what we do at NASA. Let me also clarify that we have different missions at NASA and we launch different rockets.
You! What is the best part of being an employee at NASA?
HR: The best part of working at the Kennedy Space Center is getting to see rocket launches with my own eyes. It’s an amazing feeling. All launches are beautiful but my favourite ones are the night launches because when we have a rocket launch at night time, it’s like a fire work in the middle of the night. Moreover, when I meet people and when they come to know that I work for NASA, they really get excited. And I happily share my experiences with them.
You! Have you ever flunked, if yes, how did you cope up?
HR: When I took physics class during engineering, I actually failed my first exam, I was very disappointed but I did not lose heart. I went to the library and spent hours and hours there, reading physics books and practicing problems. When I got my graded exam back, I could not believe that I received a 105% on the exam - I even got the five point bonus question right!
You! What’s your biggest accomplishment to-date?
HR: I feel very proud that I was part of the Jason-3 Mission. I was part of the certification process. The other thing that I am proud of is that I was working full-time when I pursued my Master’s degree. I was able to do that because of the support of my mom and family. But it was something I did not imagine I could do that - working full-time and pursuing a Master’s degree.
You! What has been your parents’ role in your achievements?
HR: My parents were very supportive. They played a very important role in my upbringing. My parents always emphasised the value of a good education and hard work. My mom made sure that my siblings and I learned English at a very young age as it is an international language. Maths and Science were my favourite subjects in school. Maths was my dad’s favourite subject and he used to tell me that I should try to get 100% marks on my Math tests. I give 100% credit to my parents for what I am today.
You! What are the challenges being faced by women today?
HR: One of the challenges is that women are under-represented in STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths). I think that if you are good at what you do, people will see you as a good engineer or a good scientist. They will not think that you are a male or female. So my message to women in Pakistan and all over the world is that if they want to go into a STEM field, they should go for it without any fear.
You! What do you think are the main ingredients or traits essential to attain success?
HR: Being passionate about what you do is essential. Also good communication skills and being a good team player are the main ingredients to become successful in your career.
You! What advice would you give to Pakistani young girls struggling to follow their own ambitions?
HR: Whatever field you choose, make sure you are passionate about it. I hope more Pakistani women will go into STEM field. One of the reasons of my visit to Pakistan was to encourage young girls to go into STEM field - don’t look at the obstacles, don’t look at the fact that there aren’t many women in the STEM field. Anything is possible with consistent hard work and dedication, so never give up on your goals and dreams.
You! Your philosophy of life:
HR: I have positive outlook on everything. I love people who are honest. Honesty, positivity, hard work, those are the three things that I try to follow in my life.
You! How do you unwind?
HR: I like to paint. I do water colour paintings. It’s a nice way to relax. It’s a therapeutic activity for me. I am also a certified scuba driver. I do scuba diving sometimes and it’s wonderful just to see ocean life from your own eyes. It’s amazing.
You! Are you involved in community work too?
HR: Yes, I also do volunteer work. I do lake restoration projects so we remove the invasive plants and we put in plants that are good for the environment around the lakes. I also volunteer for Education and Outreach activities such as speaking to students at local schools and providing updates to the LSP Twitter and Facebook page.
You! What’s your purpose of visit to Pakistan?
HR: I was invited by the State Department to come here and speak to students at local schools and universities. I went to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. In Lahore, I went to the Punjab University and FC College, and I also visited NED University, Karachi. The purpose of my visit was to share with the students what I do at work. I talked about some of the cool NASA missions, and I also encouraged students to pursue STEM career.
You! What does a typical day look like for you?
HR: Every day is different. But let me tell you what launch day looks like. On launch day, we sit in the launch control room, we monitor the rocket; we make sure that everything goes well with the rocket. We are asked by our chief engineer for a go or no-go on our system. I am privileged. I give him my input and again as I said earlier, seeing a launch is the highlight of my job. Usually we go from 8 am to 4:30 pm but sometimes if there is a testing going on, we stay back. It depends.
You! What’s next in your agenda?
HR: I would love to be an astronaut one day. So I am keeping an eye out so whenever NASA puts out a call for astronauts, I will definitely be applying for that. I would love to travel in space!