I knew I wanted to be in aerospace when I was seven years old and watched Toy Story with my dad – I fell in love with the character Buzz Lightyear. My dad, an electrical engineer, further instilled a passion for aerospace and STEM by taking me to science and space museums, showing me how to work on cars and letting me visit his work at an electrical powerplant. I decided to follow in his footsteps and pursue a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from Penn State University, his alma mater. However, my dream to become an engineer in the aerospace industry nearly came to a halt early on.
During my first semester in college, I felt out of place – I was one of only four females in my engineering program. I also observed that none of my professors or teaching assistants were women, making me feel like I did not belong in the field. Engineering classes were challenging from a technical perspective and feeling like I did not fit in made it even more difficult to be successful. The December of my first semester, I received my final grades: a 1.5 GPA and academic probation. I was so embarrassed to tell my family I had failed that I hid my grades for over a week. Facing failure and risk of being the first in three generations of Frohnerts to fail electrical engineering, I was on the verge of becoming a statistic that many women studying engineering face: over 32% of women switch out of STEM programs in college.
Despite my initial struggle in college, I was determined to pursue an aerospace career and started setting small goals for myself the following semester. In addition, I joined the Penn State Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter to meet other women like me that were pursuing the same career path or who were in other engineering majors – this helped build my confidence as a woman in STEM and made it easier for me to focus on my class goals. I dramatically improved my grades through the help of SWE and changed my study habits, yet still faced challenges during my early-career journey as a woman in STEM. I was the only woman on my engineering teams during each of my three internships.
Seeing so few women working in engineering and in leadership positions,
I became discouraged and worried that I would become another statistic: only 30% of women who earn bachelor's degrees in engineering work in the field 20 years later. Nearly one third of those women who leave the engineering field cite corporate climate as the reason for leaving.
The odds may have been against me, but I graduated Penn State Electrical Engineering with honors. Shortly after graduation I joined the aerospace industry as an electrical engineer, proud to have made it into the aerospace field – my long-awaited dream! I pursued a master's degree in Systems Engineering at Cornell University while working as an engineer in industry and continued developing my engineering career. Now that I have built a successful career, thanks to phenomenal mentors and champions along the way, I have started giving back to those who may be facing similar challenges.
Since joining the industry, I have started a personal Instagram page with 15k+ followers (@ReneeFrohnert) and use additional media platforms to support women and other underrepresented groups in STEM. The focus is to connect people to mentors and opportunities and help eliminate barriers when individuals may be facing imposter syndrome. I have been so fortunate to touch the lives of many students and professionals looking for additional guidance in navigating their own careers.
Seeing such a surge of interest in the topic from the STEM community led me to speak out publicly about diversity and inclusion in engineering. I believe I can help raise awareness of the challenges women face and create action plans to overcome these obstacles so everyone can feel comfortable bringing their full selves into the field. My speaking engagements have included NASA Kennedy Robotics Cup, Cornell Commencement, Purdue Society of Women Engineers Industry Day, Space Tech Expo, Boys and Girls Club STEM Day, and Stanford University Society of Women Engineers. I hope to expand and continue to inspire underrepresented communities to pursue STEM and aerospace.
I am fortunate to have recently been featured on Netflix's new engineering competition show Baking Impossible, being selected as a Project PoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut Candidate and Cornell University College of Engineering Visiting Lecturer. While these are great achievements, I have more work ahead to further promote women in STEM and progress toward real change.
From the seven-year-old girl whose passion for aerospace began with a Disney movie, to a professional working in the field, I've been on an incredible journey full of failures and successes. My failures in engineering do not define me – I believe failure is sometimes necessary for success because it helps us grow. I now feel empowered and driven to make positive movements within STEM and aerospace to help increase representation within the field.