This is a reprint of an article from my "Voices of Scientists in Industry" series published on LinkedIn.
Tanya Ramond is Director of Product Management at BridgeSat in Denver, Colorado where she develops space-based optical communication systems. She has an AB in Physics from Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Tanya grew with science all around her. Her father is Pierre Ramond, a distinguished professor at the University of Florida, so Tanya was exposed to science from an early age. Although she found physics very intuitive, she did not feel the life of a professor would fit her well. After struggling to find a niche, she has found that using her skill at big picture thinking has brought her a very rewarding career in industry.
I spoke with Tanya back in 2010 when she was a Senior Optical Engineer at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp (BATC), where she was developing Light Imaging, Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) systems for space based atmospheric sensing applications.
Q. How did you first become interested in science?
A. I came from a science family. My father is an internationally known physics professor, and my mom was an electrical engineer. Because of my father, I grew up around physicists. When he worked at Caltech we would have Richard Feynman over for dinner. I babysat for Ed Witten, and I've seen Steven Hawking a number of times. I grew up around all these people.
As is typical for a lot of married couples where both have academic careers, one person’s career eventually takes over. When they moved to Florida, where my dad is working now, my mom never found work and became a stay-at-home mom.
I knew my father was a physicist from a very young age, but I never knew much about it until I started taking physics classes in high school. Physics and calculus just made sense to me. I didn’t struggle the way many of my classmates did, so I knew this was where I wanted to be.
I came to the University of Colorado Boulder for graduate school in part because they had degrees in both Physics and Astronomy, and I was interested in space. I worked for an astronomy professor for two years, but then I decided that I wanted to work in a lab and do something that was more hands-on, so I switched to an advisor who was a chemical physicist. I knew back in high school that I didn’t find chemistry very intuitive, but my advisor convinced me that it was all just physics anyway. I liked the experimental aspect of the new field, but the chemistry aspect just didn’t click at all.
By the time I got to the end of my PhD, I knew I wasn’t going to be a chemistry professor, so I got a postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder working on pulsed lasers, which was much more physics than chemistry. I really enjoyed the work, but there were no permanent positions available at the time. I was married by then, and I didn’t want to move to another city for work, so I decided to look locally for a job.
I knew a number of other PhDs who had found a job at Ball Aerospace here in Boulder after they completed NIST postdocs. They seemed very happy and felt their work was challenging and meaningful, so I applied. Twice. Ultimately, I got a job as an Optical Engineer based on my expertise with lasers and optics.
Q. So, despite the fact that math and physics seemed very intuitive for you, it didn’t work very well to follow the traditional path into academia.
A. That’s right. Initially that’s what I wanted, but 10 years in I was feeling like it wasn’t for me. By then I’d learned what it took to be successful in academia, and I knew that I didn’t have those skills.
The problem is that I didn’t know what I did have the skills for. People would ask me what I did for a career and I couldn’t answer with confidence or pride. I felt kind of dumb because I’d chosen the path that led me to that point. When you invest in earning a PhD, you want to love what you do and show some excitement for it.
Now I realize that academia was only one possible path, and I’ve found one that fits me much better.
Q. What do you do for your job?
A. I work in a group that develops Laser Imaging, Detection, and Ranging (LIDAR) systems for remote sensing applications. In the last two years we have developed two systems from just an idea on paper to prototype systems that were tested on aircraft. These are systems that will ultimately be marketed to NASA for profiling vegetation from a satellite. I do all the day-to-day management of our projects, and it’s been very challenging, and a great role for a physicist.
Q. What about it makes it such a great fit for you?
A. There are several aspects of this job that fit strengths I have – strengths that I never found a way to exercise earlier in my career. I like bringing in the big picture view to compliment the detailed view, and in my current role that’s an asset. I have people working for me that are very talented at the detail work, but there is a need for someone to organize the group so that they all work efficiently together. That’s one of my strengths. I can do the detailed calculations if needed, but there are a lot of people who can do that. It is less common to find someone who can understand enough of the big picture to move everyone forward in a constructive way. It has been great to discover that I can make a positive contribution, even though I didn’t fit into an academic mold.
Another reason why industry is a better fit for me is the overall balance with my non-work life. I know a number of people at BATC who live in two-career households, where neither person is a stay-at-home spouse. Both spouses are working full time, so they both may have to leave occasionally to pick up the kids or stay home because a child is sick. For me that worked better than the sacrifice-everything-for-the-other-spouse’s-career kind of thing. I saw a lot of that growing up and it never sat well with me. I think a lot of other women feel that way as well.
Q. What has been the most challenging about the transition from academia?
A. Everything about it was a challenge. I didn’t know anything about aerospace, or the processes involved in developing aerospace hardware. I spent a lot of time not sure exactly where I wanted my career path to go here at BATC. I stumbled around a bit, and it wasn’t until after a few years here that I realized that system engineering and project management are what I want to be doing.
Q. What is your biggest career accomplishment so far?
A. That would be what I’ve achieved with my current project. I have ten people working on my team, all working on different aspects of the design, and I’ve managed to help them produce a high-quality product together. We’ve delivered data to the customer and they are very happy. That’s very rewarding.
Q. What are some of the specific skills or talents that have led to this success?
A. It’s been very useful to have hands-on experience with lasers, opto-mechanics, electronics, and even vacuum systems, and I got that experience working as a research scientist. My hardware knowledge isn’t as deep as some of the people that I work with, but it’s deep enough that I can ask the right questions to understand the problem and how important it is to the scope of what we are doing. It is very important to be able to filter the really crucial items from those that are not so important, so you can decide whether you need to take action or not.
Organization skills are also very important. I am really good at organizing people and projects, in terms of defining tasks, creating a schedule, and then staying on top of the details. People work much better when you can help them clearly understand the tasks at hand. I also really enjoy translating between scientists and engineers, who tend to describe the same technology using different language. These are very useful skills for a project manager.
Q. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career so far?
A. The most rewarding thing for me is that I finally found something that I love and can do well. I love my work, I have the strengths to do it well, and it’s related to space and astronomy, which have been an interest of mine for a long time.
What I do at work has a great analogy in one of my hobbies. I’ve played violin since I was five and have played in orchestras and performed a lot of chamber music. One of the great things about playing in a string quartet is that you have to intimately understand how everybody fits with everybody else. It’s a team that needs to move together and execute together. There is no I; there is only the ensemble. If your first violinist speeds up, you go with them. It’s a synergy and there’s no absolute that you follow.
It’s different playing in an orchestra because you have the conductor, but you are still listening to everybody else, and you are all moving together as a group. The conductor is a musician as well, but they need to know enough about a violin, a cello, a flute, an oboe, and all of the other instruments to help each musician listen to all of the others and play well with them.
I find this concept very enjoyable in the same way I enjoy what I do here at work. Not only do you have to be familiar with each part by itself, but you have to know how all the parts fit together in a very detailed way. That’s how you build an orchestra composition, and that’s how you build a LIDAR system.
Q. That’s a great analogy. It’s very much like a hardware development team.
A. Exactly. The violinist and the cellist are very skilled and are much better at playing their parts than the conductor would be. But the conductor understands enough of all the different parts to know how to make them fit together into a great composition.
Back when I was considering a career in music I was thinking I might like to be a conductor. It’s the same type of focus on the big picture and helping people work together, rather than developing expertise in a specific skill.
I didn’t understand what systems engineering was until a few years ago, but if somebody had told me, “A systems engineer is like the conductor of an orchestra.” It would have made sense right away.
Q. Can you describe how your perspective on your career has changed since you were in school?
A. I now realize that you can be very successful at your job without getting straight A’s in all of your classes. I have many strengths that are valuable in my career, but that I was never graded on in school. In academia you tend to perceive that there is one type of intelligence and that is how you are graded. In industry, there are many different roles, and different types of intelligence are needed for each.
I remember an early step in this realization happened back in graduate school, when I realized that not getting A’s on my homework meant that I’d be an experimentalist and not a theorist. That was a huge revelation in my life because I realized it didn’t mean I was unemployable, just that a different career path would fit me better.
I am always very interested in how people end up in the jobs that they do. There are professions such as doctors and lawyers and university professors who typically follow a very well-defined path to build their careers. But then there are people who work in roles like quality assurance that don’t have a well-defined path. There’s no quality assurance major in college to begin that career path, so how do people end up in that role?
Q. Now that you have found a great career path, where do you see yourself 10 years?
A. I have two very young children, so life is a little bit crazy right now, and I don’t see myself advancing greatly in my career in the next few years. However, I would one day like to be a project leader on a big flight program. I would like to see an instrument from a team I led go up into space. That would be amazing.