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Wendy Okolo: First Black Female To Obtain A PhD in Aerospace Engineering


Wendy A. Okolo is a Nigerian-American aerospace research engineer in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center. She is the first Black woman to obtain a PhD degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). She is also the Special Emphasis Programs Manager for Women at Ames.

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Okolo obtained her secondary education at Queen’s College, an all-girls school in Lagos, Nigeria. She then received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) in 2010. Okolo later became the first Black woman to obtain a PhD in aerospace engineering from UTA in 2015 at age 26. Her PhD studies were supervised by Atilla Dogan. During Okolo’s undergraduate years, she served as president of the Society of Women Engineers at the university.


Okolo started her career as an undergraduate intern for Lockheed Martin, working on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Over the course of two summers, she interned with the Requirements Management Office in Systems Engineering and the Hatch Mechanisms team in Mechanical Engineering. As a graduate student, Okolo later worked in the Control Design & Analysis Branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Okolo is a Sub-Project Manager in the Intelligent Systems Division of NASA Ames. She is a research engineer in the Discovery and Systems Health Technology (DaSH)

Overview Of Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace engineering is the primary field of engineering concerned with the development of aircraft and spacecraft. It has two major and overlapping branches: aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering. Avionics engineering is similar but deals with the electronics side of aerospace engineering. “Aeronautical engineering” was the original term for the field. As flight technology advanced to include vehicles operating in outer space, the broader term “aerospace engineering” has come into use.

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Aerospace engineering, particularly the astronautics branch, is often colloquially referred to as “rocket science”. Flight vehicles are subjected to demanding conditions such as those caused by changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, with structural loads applied upon vehicle components. Consequently, they are usually the products of various technological and engineering disciplines including aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics, materials science, structural analysis and manufacturing.

The interaction between these technologies is known as aerospace engineering. Because of the complexity and number of disciplines involved, aerospace engineering is carried out by teams of engineers, each having its own specialized area of expertise.


Okolo has the following awards to her name:

  • Amelia Earhart Fellowship (2012)
  • DoD National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship (2012)
  • Texas Space Grant Consortium (TSGC) Fellowship (2012, 2013)
  • AIAA John Leland Atwood Graduate Award (2013)
  • Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) for The Most Promising Engineer in the United States government.
  • Women in Aerospace Award for Initiative, Inspiration, & Impact (2019)
  • NASA Ames Early Career Researcher Award (2019)
  • The University of Texas at Arlington Distinguished Recent Graduate Award (2019)
  • NASA Ames Award for Researcher (2020)

Okolo says her sisters taught her the sciences with their day-to-day realities. She describes them as her heroes.



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Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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