Dr. Zoe Szajnfarber

Profile posted Jan 2012

Dr. Zoe Szajnfarber talks to the Division of Engineering Science about her path to graduate school and her current research as an Assistant Professor at The George Washington University (Washington, D.C.).

Like many Engineering Science students, Zoe Szajnfarber came into her first year with strong academic skills, but without a clear idea of what career path she wanted to pursue. The challenge offered by Engineering Science, paired with the opportunity to choose from diverse majors in third year appealed to Zoe. When it came time to choose her Option, Zoe still felt indecisive. It was then she received and decided to follow the classic advice, “Do what you enjoy and the rest will follow.”

As Zoe says, “So I picked Aerospace. Not because I was sure that it was my calling; or because it necessarily had the best career prospects; but because robots seemed cool and the ones that went into space were the coolest of all. I’ve never regretted that decision.”

It was her Professional Experience Year that guided Zoe to her current path. She worked at MDA Space Missions (then MDRobotics) in Brampton, best known for the development of the Canadarm. Like many PEY students, Zoe’s plan was, as she describes, “to prove myself to them and secure a post-graduation job doing what I loved – space robotics.”

However, that year completely changed Zoe’s perspective on what it means to be an engineer and what she wanted from a career:

“I had the fortune and misfortune to work on the post-Columbia return to flight certification verification. It exposed me to a wide range of technical engineering areas, but also to the complexity of the bureaucratic decision making process and its interaction with engineering assessments. I discovered that for all that I was good at math and engineering, I was never going to be the very best. My comparative advantage was in integrating, and finding patterns across, socio-technical domains and communicating those insights to decision makers.”

Through her PEY experience, Zoe discovered her passions lay not necessarily in traditional engineering, but in figuring out how organizations work, and making sure that good ideas and good policy survive and thrive. Upon graduating from EngSci, she commenced a dual master’s program at MIT in Aeronautics & Astronautics and Technology and Policy. This combination allowed her to continue studying aerospace engineering while using coursework and research in political economy, law and policy to supplement and develop her interest in technology management and policy.

When it came time to focus on a PhD topic, Zoe chose an area at the intersection of engineering and management. Her dissertation work sought to explain how innovation can, and should, be encouraged in technology intensive sectors with heavy government involvement:

“My current research context is NASA’s science directorate. I have been studying the innovation pathways taken by a selection of new technologies developed and implemented within NASAs science directorate. We define an innovation pathway as the sequence of events, actions and decisions that mature a new technology from initial conception to implementation on a flight system. By interviewing key participants about their decisions and motivations, and reviewing proposals and publications to establish a real-time snapshot of the technical evolution, I have been able to construct a bottom-up view of how the real organization works, and is managed. The process model that has emerged yields some interesting and counterintuitive insights about the relationship between strategic-level changes and their impact on the micro behaviors of individuals within the system, and consequently the technology that they developed. These insights provide both an empirical basis for refining some of the existing innovation theory as well as having direct implications for key contemporary space policy debates. In fact, they have been communicated (on an invitational basis) to decision-makers at NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency), CSA and the US DoD; this has been both a great outlet for our research results, while also providing an opportunity to experience space policy in practice.”

Zoe was hired as an Assistant Professor of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering at The George Washington University in 2011 after completing her PhD. She also has an appointment as a Research Affiliate in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT. Her research group at GWU continues to work in the area of innovation in Large-Scale Complex Engineered Systems. “Szajnlab” graduate students are attaching the problem from multiple perspectives: working on new theory about how market structure and product complexity change the fundamental dynamics of innovation; developing a broader empirical understanding of the phenomenon; building models of the observed process. The team is working towards the goal of developing what Zoe calls an “‘R&D management flight simulator’ that will allow senior decision makers to test the impact of different styles of intervention, be it investment, organizational design or cultural changes.”

Guided by formative experiences in the Aerospace Option of Engineering Science, and her PEY at MDA, Zoe Szajnfarber lives up to EngSci’s slogan – Engineers for the World. Through her fascinating interdisciplinary work, Zoe is forging a career that bridges technical engineering with innovative policy research. Her story exemplifies one of the many exciting, unique paths that Engineering Science students have pursued after graduating from the program.

To read more about Dr. Szajnfarber’s current research and check out the work her lab is doing, go to:http://www.seas.gwu.edu/~zszajnfa/

Additional quotes from interview with the Canadian Space Agency.

Profile by Erin Macnab