Be your STEM self

A highly inspiring conversation with an engineer who talks about her technical-professional path among factories and engines, and how this can be natural for a woman.

Oct 2019

Manuela is a mechanical engineer. When she was a child, she dreamed of traveling and learning about the world, or (influenced by TV series from the 1980s) becoming a policewoman "to protect the weak": becoming an engineer was furthest thing from her mind. Although she did show some signs of interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at the time, she loved to challenge her siblings racing cars, building with Legos and playing with model trains.

Today, Manuela works in Brindisi and leads the Repair Development and Technical Publications team, supporting the civil and military programs for which Avio Aero has Design Responsibility. The team's activities range from the research and development of repair additive technologies, to the design of repairs and operating limits for components and modules, through to their publication according to the requests of individual customers and the industrialization at the Avio Aero and GE Aviation sites that offer aircraft engine services.  

Manuela, who inspired and guided you along your educational/professional path?

"Let's say that I simply followed my instinct. I am very curious and always need to do different things so that I do not get bored. I went to a high school specialized in classical studies, because I was very fond of Italian and Greek, but then I let it go for fear of becoming bored with the idea of studying humanities, and I turned to STEM subjects. Physics seemed to be too theoretical for me: I saw research or teaching as the only professional outlets, and that did not excite me very much. So my choice fell to Engineering: a very concrete path, close to reality.  When I "discovered" combustion engines, transmissions and everything else during my driver education course, I understood that I would choose Mechanical Engineering: a passion for technology was ignited in me that has not been extinguished since. Today, in my job, I try to combine technology with in-depth studies on people management. I am convinced that companies' results are determined by people, that is, by each and every one of us."

What was your professional path before you reached your current position?

"At Avio Aero, my path began as a Design Engineer and Project Leader in the Engineering Department. Then I moved on to become a Repair Engineer, Focal for low-pressure turbines, and a Controlled Title Holder (one of the key roles in Engineering for sharing and disseminating technical skills through structured design practice and mentoring activities). Many of the activities I have been responsible for have allowed me to interact with production and various other functions within the company, on integrated teams as well as on teams abroad (US, Brazil, Turkey, Singapore, Poland, and Japan). This experience has greatly enriched me, even from a personal viewpoint. You realize just how different the context can be, the need to adapt to different visions/customs and you learn to appreciate the peculiarities of other cultures."

Have you worked in other business sectors, or have you become fond of aeronautics?

"I started out in the automotive industry in Turin. Specifically, I worked at a foundry where I was surprised to discover that the performance of female operators was better than that of their male colleagues. I met other women who, like me, were passionate about technology and enthusiastic about their work. It was both a confirmation and an important stimulus for my next steps. I had no specific passion for aeronautics. Today, I recognize its distinctive characteristics and I appreciate them greatly." 

What is the most challenging aspect of work and your primary mission?

"My primary mission is to guarantee the execution of the strategic activities for the growth of Avio Aero and GE Aviation, making sure that the people of my TEAM, and not only, are aware that they are doing something important, even critical, in terms of safety, and feel that they are main contributors." 

Tell us about your team...

"I think I have the honor (... and the burden) of leading one of GE Aviation's best engineering teams, which is also going through a period of development and significant change. They are focused on problem solving, open to discussion and effective collaboration, always ready to push their comfort zones. They devote themselves every day to their individual activities with a strong sense of ownership. In the field of Service activities, engine repair - both commercial and military, important development opportunities open up and there is a lot to build. I believe that soon this team will be called upon to play a leading role and we must be prepared, both technically and as leaders.

At work, what is a phrase that you don't like to hear and what is one that you often repeat?

"I don't like to hear: 'Last time we did this'... legacy is our starting point, but the new context has to be evaluated and further contributions attempted. I often say 'you have to be authoritative...' you have to be prepared and have a good level of technical awareness and method.

If you could go back in time, which illustrious person (STEM) would you like to meet?

"Margherita Hack!... 'It is so wonderful to stare up at the sky and realize that it is nothing more than a real immense laboratory of physics that unfolds above our heads.' op. cit."

"Do not conform to the most common attitudes in STEM - which are typically male - and persevere in being yourself even if it may seem to be counterproductive"

What advice do you have for a young student who wants to make an educational choice and explore a career in STEM?

"When I think of my teenage daughters, rather than giving advice I generally ask questions and invite them to ask themselves questions, so that they become people who are well aware of their abilities. The only suggestion I feel comfortable giving focuses on the method: do not conform to the most common attitudes in STEM - which are typically male - and persevere in being yourself even if it may seem to be counterproductive. Imitating men not only leads to failure, it also makes things difficult for us. We are most effective when we value our most distinctive characteristics (first and foremost, empathy).  And it is crucial to have a good deal of self-esteem - which can be strengthened by working hard on yourself - and be trustworthy."