At 23, Paige Kassalen has the kind of resume that most engineers dream about. She’s been featured in everything from Forbes to Glamour for her work on the world’s first solar powered plane. Kassalen was the only female engineer on the plane’s round-world trip, and her achievements were honored with a place on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list earlier this year.
Recently, we sat down with Paige to discuss her achievements, her inspirations, her passion for engineering and her IEEE membership.
IEEE-USA InSight: When did you start working for Solar Impulse?
Paige Kassalen (PK): To answer this question, I have to backtrack a bit. After graduating from Virginia Tech in 2015, I started working for the company Covestro. They are a material science company that provides high-tech polymer chemistry lightweight materials. They are a partner of Solar Impulse, because they are the inventors of that lightweight solar material that went into the insulation of the cockpit of the Solar Impulse airplane. So from that, Covestro was able to further their partnership and allow an electrical engineer from the company to become an embedded member on the Solar Impulse ground crew. So that’s how I was able to have my opportunity with Solar Impulse, it was through me being the liaison between Covestro and Solar Impulse. That started in February of 2016.
IEEE-USA InSight: What really interested you in the job? Was it the work, was it just the opportunity?
PK: I think anytime that you are offered the opportunity to do anything as crazy as being an electrical engineer, flying around the world with this solar powered airplane, there’s no way that you can say no! I remember the day that this notice came out in the Covestro News saying that they were looking for an electrical engineer with a background in public relations who was willing to spend four to six months traveling around the world with the airplane. My heart totally stopped. This is an opportunity that you never think, waking up in the morning, that you’ll get an email and tell yourself ‘oh, maybe I’ll do something as crazy as that.’ I remember that day, my mind was set. I knew that I didn’t even have to look into anything. I was going to apply for this, and I was going to hope to get it. One of the interesting things is that so many people ask me ‘what do your parents think? What did your friends think?’ And, you know, the support that I got, especially from my family and friends and also from Covestro, was amazing. And there is nothing that was standing in my way, nobody saying that I couldn’t do this. So I think the adventure and everything outweighed any fearfulness or nervousness I had in joining a project like this.
IEEE-USA InSight: Where was the most interesting place that you traveled while you were working with Solar Impulse?
PK: That was definitely when the plane was in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt is something that you learn about in textbooks growing up, you learn about the pyramids, but you never really think ‘okay, I’ll have the opportunity to go there at some point.’ Let alone go there with an amazing project like this. There were different aspects that made it so interesting, like the culture, and that would be the culture of walking down the street around four, and also the culture of working. Working in airports across the United States on this project was pretty familiar to me. But in Egypt, working in that type of a culture where we had more military security, and a lot more regulations that we had to follow, it was a pretty interesting opportunity for me to gain international business experience.
IEEE-USA InSight: You were just included in the Forbes 30 under 30 list. I know it hasn’t been long, but how has your inclusion in the Forbes 30 under 30 list changed your life so far?
PK: It’s changed my life very similarly to how the Solar Impulse opportunity changed my life, and that’s because you hear about these things that you don’t think that you could ever accomplish. But then it happens. And you kind of think ‘Oh My God. I didn’t think that was even possible.’ And both these experiences made me realize that the boundaries between what is possible and what is impossible is something that we set ourselves. And sometimes we can set that boundary way too low. So I don’t want to be limited by those boundaries at all. After these experiences, I am taking it out of my equation. And I’m going to push further and dream bigger to ensure that I am building the brightest future possible. And along with that, a large part of it is going to be sharing the story and what I learned, because I understand that this is just such a unique opportunity that everybody can’t take six months to fly around the world in a solar airplane to have this kind of realization that anything is really possible. So, as much as I can spread the journey, the mission, everything, I am going to do that.
IEEE-USA InSight: That’s fantastic. So I know that you were the youngest woman, and the only American woman, on the team. Did you ever think about that? Did that ever kind of factor in for you when you were just on the team?
PK: Yes. I feel like now in 2017, things have progressed so much. Engineering has progressed so much from where it was ten years ago or twenty years ago or thirty years ago for a woman. And I think being the only female engineer on the ground crew in a group of engineers is so powerful because you have a presence. And something that I do all the time is reflect on what I think my top five strengths are, and how I think that I can bring those to a team. Sometimes, we all get frustrated with our technical abilities, or if we don’t understand something, but I think realizing what those strengths are and what makes you a really strong team member makes you always remember how you are bringing value to the team, even if you are confused and even if you need more clarification. I think that is how I really got through four years of engineering in college, being one of the few girls in electrical engineering and being faced with all these challenges, being the youngest member of the ground crew, being the only American, being the only female engineer.
IEEE-USA InSight: So, tell me, why engineering?
PK: Growing up I always loved to be creative, and I loved to take those creativity skills and use them on whatever project I was working on one step further than the requirements. I loved using that creativity that I had a passion for to solve problems. And as I got older, I realized that engineering is exactly that, except on a larger scale. And what you learn from engineering is that toolbox of knowledge to take you where you need, from that elementary school day projects to actual real-life solutions. I specifically chose electrical engineering because I love to see that direct result. I did a couple of engineering camps throughout high school to make sure that this was what I was passionate about. Every time I learned about electrical engineering, it would be plugging in different things, and a light would go on. And just how powerful that makes you feel whenever you are able to do that stuff? It’s just amazing. I think that relates back to what I said when I answered the first question. You don’t think that you could ever build a video game or make something light up, but then you get to college and you take these classes, and at twenty years old, you’re able to do some of those things and you think to yourself, wow, this stuff is within my reach.
IEEE-USA InSight: What advice would you give to other young women who are thinking about pursuing engineering?
PK: I would say that the biggest advice I have is to support each other. I learned through Solar Impulse that it is so much harder to keep pushing yourself and keep trying and putting yourself out there if you don’t have a team behind you saying that you can do it. Young girls, especially, need to surround themselves with a strong support system of friends, of family, of companies, anything that will show them that they can do it, because, yeah, sometimes you do lose confidence and you need that support system. I also think that another thing, I recently watched that movie Hidden Figures, and one of the biggest things that stuck out to me there was a part where one of the female computers on the project, she had to leave for forty minutes to go to the Colored Bathroom. And one day she had a breakdown, saying ‘Oh, I’m spending so much time doing that.’ And then after she had that breakdown, her boss made a change. So, something that I think is so important is for women in engineering to speak up. Because we all have a voice, and if you don’t use your voice, people might not even know that there’s a problem. And that’s what the situation was there. Once she spoke up, people were willing to help her. So, yes, speak up and have a strong support system.
IEEE-USA InSight: Who are some of your Engineering role models?
PK: One of the most recent additions to my role model list is Dr. Karen Panetta, who is an IEEE fellow. I remember the first time I heard her speak was at an IEEE Women In Engineering Summit. And I just remember hearing her stories about the craziest things ,like going to the White House and going to meet people in the Czech Republic. All these things that I thought were impossible for my life, but then there she is up there saying, ‘yeah, I do this and this.’ And it makes me think, yeah, this is possible. So she’s been an awesome role model. Also, I think that, not specifically engineering, but Mark Cuban, who actually went to my high school. And I watch his show and I think that all the people on that show are just able to get things done. That is something that I aspire to be someday.
IEEE-USA InSight: How do you think IEEE has helped your career and what would you say to a young professional thinking about joining?
PK: During my college career, IEEE really gave me that support system to translate ideas to reality. Again, going back to that support network. There are so many times that I heard my friends say ‘oh, I really wish we could do this.’ IEEE was the vehicle that allowed us to not just say ‘I wish’ and to actually make it happen. And I think that was instrumental in developing who I am today. And I think that, going back to role models, I want to be able to be a person who can get things done. And I don’t think, without IEEE, I would have had the confidence or the support system to get things done, to make things happen. And now, moving into the real world, I immediately joined the Pittsburgh Chapter of IEEE, and stepped up to be the Women in Engineering chair. And so just that, the thing that I really get from that is staying connected. Technology is increasing exponentially, getting better, quicker and faster, and being able to have a society, a network of people who are motivated and inspired by the same things that you are, is completely invaluable.
Victoria Bannon is IEEE-USA’s social media associate.