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Kathy Philpot is the director of propulsion systems process engineering at ATK and recent recipient of the Technology Innovator award presented by the Women Tech Council. During a decorated career spanning 30 years, Philpot was a member of the team earning TIME magazine’s Top Invention of the Year in 2009. She also serves on Utah State University’s Brigham City campus advisory board.
At what age did you realize you wanted to become an engineer?
Probably in my 20s. As a child I had no aspirations to become an engineer. Growing up in Magna, I didn’t even know what an engineer did. I had an interest in science and math; it wasn’t until I got into college and was exposed to what was available to me.
What has it been like working as a female in a male-dominated industry?
When you’re in college taking chemistry, calculus and physic classes, women are still the minority. I knew and expected that to be the environment. I didn’t over analyze it—I just focused on my classes. On the other hand, we all find ourselves in situations like that. There is always a feeling of trying to gauge your independence with trying to fit in. It’s not a unique thing that any of us face in the long run in life.
Has there been any aspect of gender disparity in the engineering field that has changed over the years?
The U.S. government does a really nice job focusing on diversity. I’m 30 years into this career; until I worked on the NASA program I was always a minority. With the customers at NASA, it was the first time I was working with a majority, or a more equal distribution of women leaders.
How can parents encourage their daughters to seriously consider a STEM field?
My father was a chemist and my mother a registered nurse. We were an active family of five girls and one boy. One of the things that I think has served me really well in this career is being involved in sports. That’s one of the recommendations I make to parents. I encourage young girls to get involved in sports—it builds confidence.
Is a focus on STEM education going to bring more women into these fields?
Yes, I think it will.
Are universities meeting the needs of business in STEM fields?
I’d like to turn that question a little bit. We can focus forever on STEM fields, but if there’s not interesting jobs to drive people to study the sciences to lead to an exciting career, that may be an impediment. There needs to be a draw out there for a career in these fields.
You helped to create TIME magazine’s Top Invention of the Year in 2009. What are you working on now?
Along with hundreds of other people in my company alone, I’m working on the space launch systems for NASA’s next exploration vehicle. We continue to support our national defense with a number of programs for strategic defense. We also do a number of small research and development tasks to look for new technology for products we build. There’s a great range of diversity for our projects.