Musician, Propulsion Design Engineer - Lauren Swann
“Sometimes, I look back and think My Dad secretly groomed my brother and me to be engineers. On road trips we played games like how would we make the car safer or cooler. We eventually landed a novel idea that was patented involving sensors on the exterior of the vehicle to provide safer seat belt restraint systems.”
Name: Lauren Swann | Occupation: Propulsion Design Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: San Diego State University, BS 2013
Lauren and I first met a few years ago through mutual friends and playing kickball. And that was the only time we met. We actually hadn’t seen each other since then! Despite the time gap, our reunion was welcoming and felt extremely comfortable, as we settled down into our seats at Starbucks.
I’ve always seen Lauren as one of those people who knows everyone. She’s so friendly and extroverted, and I’ve always been curious as to how she is able to maintain so many relationships while taking part in a plethora of activities. She showed up to our meeting nonchalantly with her violin next to her side. I asked her if she played and she told me yes, along with a few other instruments. In fact, she plays in the Summerville Orchestra while working full time as a propulsion design engineer here in Charleston. Among that, she’s involved with a variety of different groups and hobbies that keep her busy. Her favorite is building connections with people. Lauren specifically mentioned that she loves learning about the passion of others and connecting them with whomever to help make their passion project reality.
“I was always teased in San Diego by family and friends, saying everywhere we go you find a friend or make a friend. My response always was that I enjoy connecting with people.”
So how did she develop into such go-getter? She explained to me that it stems from her large family: “Every summer, all of us cousins would go to our grandparents’ house for Kids Kamp. We mostly did DIY science projects or explored the beauty of the city. No matter what we did, they encouraged us to learn. Having a supportive family opened the door to endless possibilities. My Mom was a teacher speaking multiple languages, played music, and enjoyed creating art. My father was an engineer and partook in photography and glass lamp work on the side. Their passions rubbed off on my brother and me at a very young age. I began piano studies at five years old, teaching work ethic, subdivision, and appreciate for the arts. When I got to elementary school, my experiences gave me a head start in understanding math and science.”
But why engineering? I asked her. “Was anyone in your family an engineer?”
“Yes, many of my relatives are engineers, including my dad. My dad was a research and design engineer for an automotive company. Sometimes, I look back and think he secretly groomed my brother and me to be engineers. On road trips we played games like how would we make the car safer or cooler. We eventually landed a novel idea that was patented involving sensors on the exterior of the vehicle to provide safer seat belt restraint systems.”
I sat there in astonishment and couldn’t believe what I had just heard: “Wait, that was your idea?”
“Yeah, well the three of us. I admit, at the time I didn’t understand the significance, but now am very thankful for the early mentor ship.”
The fact that someone could accomplish so much in her life and be so modest about it is really refreshing. With the combination of hands-on learning and math, engineering seemed like the most plausible pathway for Lauren. With that being said, I wanted to know if she knew what she was getting herself into, because I think for a lot of women, they realize that being an engineer isn’t what they expect it to be once they start working.
“Yes and no. I attended ‘Take Your Child to Work Days’ and caught a glimpse of what my dad did. He was always good at making engineering look fun and bringing a creative side to it. As I got older, I considered music as a degree but engineering provided a technical challenge, better work life balance, and stability. I continued to play for enjoyment with the occasional paying gigs with the local symphonies. I knew I wanted to do engineering, but had no clue which field. I learned the beauty of mechanical engineering is that you can work in most engineering industries, and I liked that. So that’s why I chose it [mechanical].”
Mechanical engineering is probably second to computer/electrical engineering when it comes to having the fewest women. Lauren explained to me that there were only four women studying mechanical engineering freshmen year and one female professor. Because of this, and the fact that she commuted to school everyday, she lacked a support system of other women engineers at school.
“I really didn’t have too many engineering friends. My support from women came from the sorority and water polo team, but none were engineers. Being a local and commuting everyday made it difficult to make friends at first, but I always had family close by for support. I found that the peers I ended up approaching for help with homework or group projects were other commuters, mostly men due to gender ratio. It had nothing to do with gender. “The who” was based off skills and similar schedules.”
Lauren kept herself busy with work, school, social clubs and sports. In fact, she told me that she intentionally sought interests outside of engineering to diversify her day. It makes me look back on my college days and wish I had gotten involved with something that forced me to make friends outside of engineering.
“I know some people who are married to engineers or whose significant other shares their place of work. I imagine it would be challenging to separate work and at-home life. My boyfriend is a fireman. Hearing about his day is refreshing and exciting, because it is totally different than my world.” she said.
Lauren’s journey with engineering has presented both challenges and rewards; switching roles, industries, moving across country, and dealing with the effects of employment reductions. Having been through these things myself, I asked her how she is able to stay positive while navigating it all.
“When I first started out in engineering, I worked for a gas turbine engine company in San Diego and loved it. I moved on to a defense contracting role that was very ‘niched’ with much older peers, but it opened my eyes to how government projects are funded and brought to fruition. Los Angeles was my next stop, where I did quality engineering. The biggest challenge for me was adapting to many manager switches due to retirements and reorganizing groups due to major employee reductions just after my first year. I experienced the anxiety of ‘Will I have a job in six months?’ However, when it came down to it all, my company really went the extra mile to retain as many employees as possible by relocating them to other sites. Many peers, including myself, were sent on temporary special assignments through out the world until work statement increased. This was probably the most challenging - facing everything as a young twenty year-old being away from home. The best reward was having amazing mentors and management guidance to secure a design role at a new facility working on commercial airplanes in the Lowcountry. Moving to Charleston was amazing but also a culture shock. I was greeted by lush green oaks, a downtown time capsule of history, and churches on every corner, and had to adjust to both a new role and field within aerospace.”
With all of these experiences under her belt, I wondered if there was anything that she would do differently if she could go back in time to being 18 years-old. Would she have done it all over again?
“Honestly, I didn’t know a lot about college. I believe I limited myself to mechanical engineering before considering if other majors were a better fit. I would have taken a better look at majors such as pre-med or other engineering disciplines. A role involving working with people, environmental sustainability, or business of engineering would catch my fancy if I were starting over today. Also, I would advise my younger self to be more confident in my engineering abilities and seek internships earlier. This gives you more times to explore and understand the field you want to work in. I would also tell myself to slow down and don’t take yourself so seriously. Like many I hold myself to high expectations,” she said.
Lauren does hold herself to high expectations, but she does not let engineering define who she is. I think it has a lot to do with how she was raised.
“For me, I grew up with so many different outlets to enjoy life, and engineering was one part of it. I’ve never thought of myself as only an engineer. I’m a musician, French culture enthusiast, athlete, traveler, gardener, etc. My grandmothers, mom, and my aunt Samantha inspired me to embrace a multi-faceted lifestyle. My grandmothers were pioneers in their fields of mathematics and bilingual teaching in the 1950's. My mom is a bilingual teacher pursuing a PhD and is very talented in music and art. My aunt Samantha is a science teacher and can do almost anything from building structures to weaving wool fibers for shawls she knits. My family encouraged us to be well-rounded ‘Renaissance women.’ I remember as a kid, I had so many different interests. You are you as a person, not one thing about you.”
“Would you recommend engineering to a young girl who is still in school?” I asked her.
“Absolutely. If you enjoy STEM and curious about how things work, then definitely. I would encourage girls to attend a career shadow day. My boyfriend is a great example. He knew that he wanted to be a fireman since he was little and would volunteer and shadow people from a very young age. You don’t have to begin learning about it when you’re 18. Learn about things while you’re young.”
I asked Lauren if there was anything that she wanted people to know about female engineers. She was happy to answer.
“I think that the majority of women in engineering have very good interpersonal skills and are great multi-taskers. We are so well-rounded and can offer so much to the industry, it’s incredible!”