Systems engineering Ph.D. student recognized by SWE for recent patent

Ricole Johnson, a Colorado State University systems engineering Ph.D. student, holds her “Patent Recognition Award” from the Society of Women Engineers.

In the eleventh grade, Ricole Johnson knew exactly what she wanted to do for a living: be an inventor and materials engineer.

Fast forward to the present moment: Johnson is a Ph.D. student in systems engineering, with four patents and two more on the way, and works as an engineering project lead for the airplane product development division at Boeing.

Johnson will be recognized at the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) WE20 conference in November for her most recent patent. The Patent Recognition Award is given to SWE members who have received patents in the previous 10 years from the award application. This patent involves the material used on the thin silver ring found on an airplane’s engine, referred to as the lip skin. Lip skins must be perfectly smooth to reduce fuel consumption and noise output.

Johnson is, in her own words, living the dream.

Expanding her knowledge from steel to timber to airplanes

Johnson grew up in New Jersey and attended Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering.

She worked as a materials research scientist for AK Steel after graduation where she received her first patent. While at AK Steel, Johnson completed a master’s in materials science and engineering from the University of Cincinnati.

The next stop in Johnson’s career involved moving to Wilmington, Delaware to work for DuPont – and earning an MBA in executive management from Drexel University.

“I wanted to broaden my engineering degree and learn about business, something that not a lot of engineers know about,” Johnson said.

Ultimately, Johnson moved across the country to Seattle, Washington. Before starting at Boeing, she worked at numerous companies including Honeywell Aerospace, Weyerhaeuser Company, and Starbucks Corporate.

Her experience at each of these companies expanded her expertise within materials engineering and project management. As a project manager, Johnson learned the importance of considering the entire system and not just one small part of it.

Applying systems-thinking to aerospace

This consideration of the bigger picture is what led Johnson to pursue her doctorate in systems engineering.

“I manage problems [at Boeing], and they are complex and big,” Johnson said. “I thought it was a good fit to go from materials engineering to [systems engineering] and thinking about big problems and the future.”

In aerospace, systems thinking plays a prominent role in managing each of the moving parts.

“Aerospace is a system of systems. I work on a little part of it [designing things], but it goes into this larger system,” Johnson said. “Systems thinking is huge in aerospace.”

Looking to the sky to reduce road congestion

Johnson’s dissertation research embodies the importance of systems thinking in aerospace. She is looking at the development of urban air mobility systems, more colloquially known as air taxis.

“Think of a small aircraft that uses vertical take off and landing technology and doesn’t need a runway,” Johnson said. “The point is to take small flights within cities and between cities to relieve road congestion. They are the next big thing in aerospace.”

While air taxis provide a possible solution to road traffic, there are numerous hurdles to overcome before they are used widely. These hurdles include having landing pads throughout cities, clearing these aircrafts with air traffic control, and widespread consumer acceptance, just to name a few.

“I’m focusing on the trust element of the system,” Johnson said. “What will it take for people to adopt this technology? Will people fly in an aircraft without a human pilot?”

Advice for future students and engineers

Johnson’s career has led to a wealth of knowledge and experiences. For those who are starting their journey towards an advanced degree, she recommends going easy on yourself at the beginning.

“Pace yourself. I mapped out my entire coursework path, so I didn’t overload myself,” Johnson said. “If you are working [and going to classes], do your best to manage your time.”

And for those who are just starting on a path to living their dream as an engineer?

“Engineering teaches you transferable skills,” Johnson said. “Don’t limit yourself and your opportunities.”