Q & A with Alumna Joan Wada ‘85

Joan WadaA systems engineer and technical fellow at the Boeing Co., Joan Wada has had an extensive engineering career in the defense industry. She has 17 awarded patents and was recognized as the Asian American Engineer of the Year in 2007 by the Chinese Institute of Engineering. Wada received her bachelor’s in electrical engineering from UC Irvine and went on to earn her MBA at Cal State San Bernardino. Today, she leads a team that produces training equipment for the U.S. Navy, which helps prepare pilots for deployment on P-8A antisubmarine aircraft. Wada was inducted into the Samueli School's 2017 Engineering Hall of Fame.

How and when did you know you wanted to be an engineer? 

I found out that I was good in math and science at a young age. It wasn’t until high school, when I was applying to colleges, that I realized there was even an engineering major!  Before that, I thought I wanted to go into architecture or something along those lines.

Why did you choose UCI for your college education?

Location was a big reason. I grew up in Southern California, so I didn’t have to stray too far. I was able to enjoy the experiences of living on (or near) campus, yet be close enough to family. It was a small, but reputable UC school, where I thought I would not “get lost in the crowd.” It offered the opportunity for more personal interactions with professors and other students. It was all I thought it would be and more!

Who were your mentors at UCI and how did they help you?

Definitely Professor Mulligan!  He stood out as a person who desired to help outside of the classroom. He had his own idiosyncrasies, but he had a real passion for engineering. He was so accomplished, and I respected him so much. He gave me inspiration to become an electrical engineer, and provided much appreciated help along the way.

Any favorite memories from your days as an Anteater?

I have many memories from the lectures, labs and projects. But my favorite memories come from the friendships I made along the way – from dorm-mates (if that’s a word) to roommates to student peers to my best friend. Those memories will last long after I retire from the engineering profession.

Describe your role at Boeing.

I am a systems engineer, and I lead a team that develops acoustic processing training equipment for the P-8A Poseidon Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft, used by the U.S. Navy to get crews mission-ready. My team takes flight-worthy software and incorporates it into a ground-based P-8A simulator. We perform all stages of development, from defining requirements that detail what the Navy wants, to designing and integrating the software in our lab, to installing and verifying it at our customer sites. It’s a great feeling to see a product that you’ve worked on for months being deployed to our customer and seeing the looks of satisfaction.

What are some of your challenges and rewards working in the defense industry?

Being an engineer, I would say the challenges are not technical. Our challenges lie in keeping our program running. That means dealing with contracts, funding and work scope. But once that is worked out, the biggest rewards are the final deliveries to our customer. That represents a team accomplishment that marks how we overcame technical challenges and worked closely with our customer to provide a product with superior performance, now and in future years.

What has been your proudest moment as an engineer?

While I am proud of my own accomplishments, my proudest moments come from seeing my mentees succeed. For example, I am proud to say that I was able help grow the career of a young engineer, from a new employee to a lead position as an airline support engineer who oversees the European region. The fact that he is comfortable interacting with international customers and executives on a regular basis shows his considerable growth. I’m happy to say that he is paying it forward as well, by mentoring others to success.

You have 17 patents to date; what are your innovations?

These are for innovative instruments in the area of guidance and control. I developed these while I was working on the Minuteman III program, developing Next Generation Inertial Measurement Unit (NGIMU) components. The inventions include accelerometers, leveling devices and other guidance components, which are useful in standard IMUs, or autopilot subsystems.

You serve as a mentor for UCI students; what advice do you like to give them?

Keep the passion that you have, and believe in yourself. They are all so capable, but the “real-world” sometimes seems intimidating to them. I encourage them to explore opportunities. Think of yourself as the company owner, put yourself in their shoes, and learn how to do many jobs. Having that mentality can help you advance. I also encourage them to embrace continuous learning to avoid professional obsolescence.

We understand you compete in adult figure skating, how did you get started and what motivates you?

I guess you can describe it as an epiphany. I had a realization that I wanted to do it and I could do it. Here I was telling my mentees that they could do anything … so I put my money where my mouth is. It’s difficult as an adult, but I keep at it. There is so much to learn about edges, balance, flow and artistry. It’s a physical sport that blends in artistry. It teaches persistence, and as I tell people – I can use both my right brain and left brain as I exercise.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

There are so many opportunities for both men and women in the field of engineering. Get involved early and often. Keep being involved and remember to pay it forward.

– Lori Brandt