Nigeria’s ability to make global headlines for producing some of the most brilliant minds to have ever walked the planet is both a strength and a weakness.
Wendy Okolo is the world’s first black woman to earn a doctorate — not an honorary degree — in aerospace engineering.
Born into a family of six in southeastern Nigeria, Okolo credits her sisters, Jennifer and Phyllis, with teaching her biology and other sciences through their everyday experiences.
Okolo earned a B.Sc. in aerospace engineering and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2010 and 2015, respectively.
She was a member of the African Student Society at the University of Texas at Arlington during her undergraduate studies. She was also the president of the university’s society of female engineers.
Okolo’s career took off at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United States agency in charge of the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.
She was only 26 years old when she became the first black woman to obtain a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington.
During her undergraduate studies, she interned with Lockheed Martin for two summers, first in the requirements management office in systems engineering and then with the Hatch Mechanisms team in mechanical engineering, on NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
She worked as a summer researcher in the Control Design & Analysis Branch at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright Patterson Air Force Base, as a graduate student from 2010 to 2012.
She was part of the team that flew the world’s fastest manned aircraft from coast to coast in 67 minutes — a feat that would normally take over five hours in some of the fastest jets.
Okolo said she had to battle impostor’s syndrome when she found out she would be working with such a great team.
“I was like I am sure these guys are so smart, what am I going to bring in,” she said. She went on an error in the code in the systems and she fixed that and “that fixed the impostor syndrome for a while”.
Now, Okolo is an aerospace research engineer at the Ames Research Center, a major NASA research centre in California’s Silicon Valley.
In 2019, she won the BEYA Global Competitiveness Conference award for the most promising engineer in the United States government.
She encourages young girls to pursue their dreams in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Her previous research has been recognized and funded by the Department of Defense’s National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, Zonta International’s Amelia Earhart Fellowship, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ John Leland Atwood Graduate Fellowship.
Okolo is currently a special emphasis programs manager in NASA’s Ames Research Center’s Intelligent Systems Division.
At the Ames Research Center, she is working on the System-Wide Safety (SWS) project as well as the Space Technology Mission Directorate Early Career Initiative (STMD-ECI).
She was in charge of predicting GPS faults in unmanned aerial systems, or drones, for the SWS project.
Okolo collaborated with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to investigate flight data and facilitate data exchange between NASA centers.
She leads the controls team on the STMD-ECI project, which is developing unconventional control techniques for deployable vehicles in order to enable precision landing and improve maneuverability during the entry, descent, and landing phases of spaceflight.
The STMD-ECI project, worth $2.5 million, was proposed and won by her as part of a six-member early-career scientist team.