Q&A with Alumna Elizabeth San Miguel ‘02

Elizabeth San Miguel ’02, director of the vehicle engineering team at Northrop Grumman, is a Samueli School 2022 Engineering Hall of Fame inductee.

Nov. 10, 2022 - Elizabeth San Miguel has worked in numerous capacities at Northrop Grumman for nearly 18 years. She devotes herself as equally to her career in aerospace engineering as to supporting young women in the field. She was selected as a Northrop Grumman Corporate Technology Council Protege in 2017, and as an emerging leader by the Society of Women Engineers in 2018. San Miguel’s work focuses on applied research for future airplane concepts, and she has developed enabling stealth technologies for next-generation military aircraft. She has led several integrated product teams over the years, including a multimillion-dollar portfolio of technology development, and coordinated a corporation-wide technology review with the industry's customer base. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from UCI in 2002. As an undergraduate, she was heavily involved in engineering student government with a desire to advocate for and empower students. She continues to advocate for future engineering leaders through involvement in SWE and as an advocate of STEM outreach. In May of this year, San Miguel was inducted into the Samueli School’s 2022 Engineering Hall of Fame.

What inspired you to become an engineer?

I have known that I wanted to be an engineer since I was young. I’m from an engineering family. Both of my parents were chemical engineers. My dad is the second youngest of seven children and five of the seven studied engineering. Each of the seven siblings had at least one child who went into a STEM field. We talk to each other about engineering and science as readily as we talk about the latest Marvel movie. So, I’ve always been acutely aware of the impact that engineers can have on anything from the smallest but most essential aspects of our daily lives to the technologies that extend the reaches of human understanding and our place in the universe. Many engineers are involved in making it happen when you flip a light switch at home to find your shoes or study the light collected from a space-based telescope to find new life on other planets. The desire to be a part of something bigger than myself is what motivated me to become an engineer, and it still motivates me today.

Why did you choose UCI?

There were a few reasons: I’m a “weather wimp.” I love Southern California. I wanted to limit my student debt. The cost of publicly funded universities was more appealing than private institutions. I knew I wanted to go into the UC system with its theory and research focus. And really, I didn’t want to live in the dorms or on my own just yet. My mom’s cooking is that good!

Do you have any favorite Anteater memories?

I have a lot of special memories from my time at UCI. My mom worked as a process control engineer for Fluor Corporation. Back then it was right up the street from the UCI campus, so she and I would have lunch together often. I have fond memories of late nights spent planning events with the Engineering Student Council (ESC). We also used to stay late in the ESC room studying for exams together, or take snowboarding trips to Mammoth. My time with ESC forged lifelong friendships. I also used to enjoy the concerts at the Student Center. Before the renovation, there was a grass hill and room for a stage on the Ring Road side below what used to be the cafeteria. Students could sit on the grass hill and watch concerts. We would watch from the balcony of the Anthill Pub. There was one quarter where I was able to move my class schedule around so that one day a week, my friends and I could go snowboarding in Big Bear after our 7 a.m. class.  Finally, I took lots of fun classes through the Anteater Recreation Center including rock climbing, sailing and golf.

Were there any special mentors you had at UCI?

The school of engineering staff were highly involved mentors in our lives as undergraduates and active members of the ESC, especially Bob Cassidy, Iris Adam and Robin Jeffers (currently director of Undergraduate Student Affairs). They encouraged me to be the ESC student representative on the Engineering Undergraduate Committee. The title alone sounded scary. But they explained that it would mean sharing information back and forth between the organizations: providing students with awareness of the committee’s work, and sharing ESC’s thoughts, questions and concerns with the committee. It sounded easy enough. Fortunately, Professor Derek Dunn-Rankin, known by many as DDR, and Professor Farghali Mohammed were so welcoming during my time in this role. I got to see them and other faculty members through a different lens in those meetings. Many of these conversations shaped my perspective as an adult, engineer, mentor and leader.

One such example was a conversation with Robin Jeffers when she was deep in the admissions process and reading countless college application essays. She was trying so hard to divine which students really were the best fit for engineering and UCI, not which students were good enough, as many of us felt we were trying to prove in our essays. I think about that when I’ve hired engineers to work for my company and my own team. If I only knew these things when I was the applicant on the other side!

As undergrads, many of us see the faculty as the arbiters of our worthiness to have successful careers – it’s intimidating. I recall one series of discussions we had on whether to move the first-year programming class that the electrical engineering and computer science majors took. We debated the pros and cons such as the rigorous habits that good C++ required versus the approachability of Python. In the end, we thought Python would make a better first-year class because we believed fewer students would become discouraged and leave their engineering majors. Out of discussions like these, I realized that our professors are not intimidating arbiters, but people compelled to prepare us for our own careers, rooting for us to succeed. The experience changed how I viewed and interacted with people who have tried to teach me anything, including professors in school, technical leads at work and mentors. It’s less difficult for me to be vulnerable and admit where I’m struggling when I know this person just wants to help me be successful.

Can you describe your role at Northrop Grumman, and the projects you’ve worked on?

I am currently the director over an integrated product team for a military program. At approximately 160 members, our vehicle engineering team is comprised of a variety of technical disciplines from just about every engineering major except for civil engineering.

It takes all our specialized skillsets to develop, build, test and field any product that Northrop Grumman provides. For example, I studied computer engineering while I was at UCI. I later got a master’s degree in electrical engineering with an emphasis in applied electro-physics, meaning I study electromagnetic wave propagation through various media and applications. For most of my career, I applied this specialized knowledge to design aircraft and develop various technologies to make aircraft difficult to detect by radar. One of the very first projects I worked on was the U.S. Navy’s X-47B, an experimental aircraft meant to demonstrate carrier-based launch and recovery of a large, stealthy, unmanned jet for the first time in naval aviation history. What made the project especially difficult was that the jet did not have stabilizing surfaces like a vertical stabilizer such as a tail. My role was to develop finite element analysis models (FEM) to predict the radar cross-section of the aircraft and various aircraft components. While I didn’t take any FEM classes in school, I learned these skills on the job, applying my understanding of semiconductor materials and electromagnetics that I had learned in school. On proceeding projects where I worked closely with aerodynamicists and other specialists, I used FEM models of electromagnetic behavior to influence aircraft design.

Later in my career, I worked as a systems engineer on an intercontinental ballistic missile program called Sentinel. What’s challenging about that project was that while it’s a system we all hope we never actually have to use, it needs to be so well-designed and so reliable that it will work perfectly should our nation’s leaders ever have to use it. I then worked on Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infra-Red (OPIR) Polar, a satellite that is being designed for a polar, or sun-synchronous, orbit. Unlike the geosynchronous orbits that communications satellites are often given, a polar orbit satellite experiences a far harsher space environment. This makes the design, fabrication and qualification of these types of systems that much more challenging. In both projects, I lead a team of engineers whose job was to understand the systems’ various environmental, safety and reliability requirements and show how various aspects of the systems’ design came together to meet these overall requirements.

What are some of the current challenges and opportunities in the aerospace and defense industry?

There are so many! In a lot of ways, aerospace and defense have many of the same challenges and opportunities that other industries have. The systems that we put on various platforms, whether undersea, on the sea, on the ground, in the air, or in space have become increasingly complex and autonomous. It’s impressive to me what increased embedded computer processing has enabled. Multiple computers perform many of the functions previously performed by the system’s human operators. Advances in power systems, ranging from battery technologies to hybrid and electric propulsion, are changing how platforms can be used and how we must design them. Advances in materials science and computing have created sensors that give us more information than we’ve ever had, and thereby more opportunities to understand and harness this information in new and exciting ways. Ideas that were considered science fiction only 10 years ago are now becoming reality. For example, aircraft pilots have more situational awareness and system data available to them to the point of information overload. So, one challenge created by the opportunity of more data is creating the sophisticated data interrogation and resulting functions to automate and therefore offload lower-level processes. It’s easy to draw parallels to everyday products that you and I use, like the increasingly smart cars coming to market. Another application of the similar problem and solution approach would be studying hundreds or thousands of hours of multispectral wildlife data. We can automate the lower-level processes to identify wildlife of importance to the study, or even trends in the data, then provide that focused information to the researchers. But isn’t that why we study engineering? It’s so broadly applicable!

Tell us about your volunteer and outreach activities and why they are important to you.

Outside of work, I am involved with the Society of Women Engineers. SWE's mission is to empower women to achieve their full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expand the image of the engineering and technology professions as a positive force in improving the quality of life and demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion. SWE spans many industries and serves all generations of women in STEM.

It wasn’t too long ago that women did not have the legal protections to pursue these types of careers. In 1969, my mother came to the U.S. as an immigrant from the Philippines. She already had a degree in chemical engineering but did not get her first job as an engineer until the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. Before these laws, women in the U.S. could get engineering degrees but were unlikely to find jobs as engineers. Like my mother, they could instead be well-educated technicians. By the time she retired, my mother had contributed to engineering projects that made a huge impact all over the world. She was one of the engineers who first automated the Panama Canal. She used her knowledge of chemistry and environmental process control to lead the environmental impact studies for storing nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain in the mid-90s. She worked with oil refineries to implement some of their first applications of optimization algorithms to project which fuel blends the refineries should produce while I was at UCI taking my first computer engineering courses in the late 90s. When you read her story, it’s not hard to imagine the wasted potential of any person who has the brains and passion to pursue a career in engineering but lacks the support, legal or otherwise, to make it a reality.

My career path has been far easier than hers and the women before me. I’m grateful for all the work they had to do as trailblazers. Today, 50 years later, the work to bring equity and inclusion to the workplace is hardly done. While some of that work is in public policy, some of it comes from developing and sustaining support systems like the ones SWE provides. Women in STEM need advocacy and support throughout their entire careers. STEM outreach to girls and young women is just one piece. To some extent, I give my time to SWE out of gratitude to the women who came before me. More selfishly, SWE is my support system.

What advice would you give to first-year Anteater engineers?

Remember that engineering school isn’t about grades. Rather, it’s about fundamental understanding and application. It’s okay if you struggle with your coursework. I certainly did. But go back and make yourself learn anything you didn’t feel you learned well in class. The exams should tell you where you need to go back and take a second look at the material. Focus on learning the material, not getting the grade. Good grades usually follow. 

Even though you’ve got a prescribed course curriculum for your degree program, consider taking additional classes that you are interested in or genuinely curious about. Don’t be so focused on finishing in as short a time as possible. Think twice about taking classes for an “easy A.” I was an EECS major but I took upper division electromagnetics and the monolithic microwave integrated circuit courses just because I was curious and had room in my schedule. They were hard classes. Little did I know they would eventually lead me toward my career path in the aerospace industry.

Learn to be self-reflective and honest with yourself. Your classes, research projects and/or internships will tell you what you like and don’t like. Share those observations with the people who are trying to help you develop your career or steer you toward a career that you will find fulfilling. I had three different internships in three different industries: financial services, information services for an engineering construction company, and public utility. Each internship taught me as much about myself as I learned about engineering in those fields. I learned that I wouldn’t be happy pursuing any of those careers. They helped me understand what to look for in the industry and what types of jobs I wanted to pursue.

Join a professional or social advocacy organization that expands your opportunities for learning, exposure and networking – even as a freshman. You are going to need more than what you learn in textbooks to advance your career. Over the years, as a professional member, SWE provided me with a myriad of resources to develop my leadership skills, build a network of friends, mentors and role models, and learn about industry cultures and practices outside of my own. Without a doubt, SWE helped me grow into the leader I am today. If I could go back and do college again, I would get involved with SWE as a freshman.

Finally, what advice have you received that has stuck with you over the years?

I participated in Northrop Grumman’s program for Women in Leadership that was started by Gene Fraser. He was a U.S. Marine Corps test pilot, fighter squadron commander and, when he retired, the corporate vice president of programs, quality and engineering at Northrop Grumman. On the first day of the program, he looked at our cohort and said something like, “This is a sea of exceptional, technical women and practically all of you are wearing black suits. You’re so concerned with fitting in that none of you will stand out. How much is this fear of standing out holding you back?” His point was never about the suits, but well-illustrated by the scene. There’s something about each of us that makes us different – whether it’s our technical area of expertise, how we approach and solve a problem, or how we encourage, challenge, protect, defend or grow the people around us. It’s something to be embraced. It’s something to be empowered.

– Rachel Karas