A Balancing Act

Lockheed engineer Teresa Olson juggles work and home but still leaves time for herself

4 min read

It's not every cheerleader who grows up to be a missile designer, but Teresa Olson doesn't see anything odd about it. Not that the Lockheed Martin Corp. engineer tries to break stereotypes--it's just her personality, she insists.

Being a woman in a male-dominated field is just one way Olson stands out. When the honor society Eta Kappa Nu awarded Olson its Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer Award in 2001, it cited not only her numerous professional achievements but also her skill as a sketch artist and photographer. "People suggest that you're either really creative and artistic or very logical and organized and scientific," Olson says. "I don't hold to that philosophy--actually, the creativity helps to stimulate the scientific nature."

Growing up in Ohio , Olson says she was interested in anything having to do with math and science. She credits her father with getting her thinking about engineering. A Vietnam vet who earned a degree in mechanical engineering while holding down a full-time job, he worked for a number of engineering firms and also received several patents for airplane propellers and inkjet printers.

Olson didn't follow exactly in her dad's footsteps, though. When she enrolled at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, she opted instead to study electrical engineering--"I guess that's the rebel in me," she jokes. Though she was an honor student, she also left plenty of time for extracurriculars. "I was involved in everything. I was a cheerleader. I was president of the student honor society. I was in all kinds of different clubs."

Photo: Jon Hammerstein

Vital Statistics

Name: Teresa L.P. Olson (M)

Age: 36

Job: Systems Engineering Integration and Test Lead, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, Orlando, Fla.

Education: BSEE, Wright State University; Ph.D. EE, Pennsylvania State University

Family: Husband, Carl Sanford; children Jared, Jacob and Jessica

Favorite Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Upon graduation in 1989, Olson didn't have a clear idea of how she'd use her education. But having recently gotten engaged, she decided to follow her fiancé to Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, where he was a grad student. It occurred to Olson that she might also get a master's degree while she was there, so she applied to the EE program. The department came back with an offer for a three-year teaching fellowship if she got her Ph.D.

"I hadn't thought of getting a Ph.D., so I was thrilled," Olson recalls. "And I had no idea what it entailed."

Olson assumed she'd finish in three years, since the fellowship lasted that long. It came as a shock, then, to learn that most students take much longer. A more pleasant surprise came when she began working at Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory. Through that research she got her first real taste of engineering. "We actually built torpedoes and tested them against real subs," she says. "I loved the application of the science and math."

After she got her Ph.D. in 1994, Olson stayed on at the lab for three more years, working on shallow-water sonar. "We were interested in the detection and classification of submarines from the torpedo's perspective," she explains. "In shallow water, you have lots of reverberation from the ocean floor and other objects, so it's a very interesting problem." As a sideline, she applied some of the same signal-processing techniques to medical applications, using them to detect anomalies in mammograms and analyze electroencephalographs.

In 1997, Olson joined Lockheed Martin's branch in Orlando, Fla., and the focus of her work shifted from torpedoes to missiles. "I'm moving up in the world," she joked to friends. Olson started off developing algorithms for image-based target recognition and tracking for various missile systems.

In addition to missiles, the Orlando facility designs fire control systems for aircraft. "That's the system that allows pilots to see what's going on, as well as detect, identify, and track targets," Olson explains. Various types of data are used to create useful images for the pilot even when visibility is low. Radar and infrared typically yield a two-dimensional image, while ladar--which stands for laser Doppler and ranging--adds depth. Ladar uses light much as radar uses radio waves, bouncing laser pulses off areas of interest and measuring the time of flight of the returning photons.

A new assignment last year has given Olson a broader perspective on the work. "I oversee a variety of specialties, not just image and signal processing but guidance, aerodynamics, software, integration, and test," she says. "My job is making sure all the specialty groups are working together. You may have designed the best widget for a particular aspect of a missile, but if it doesn't fit into the whole package, it'll cost a lot of money to redo."

Most of her Colleagues may be men, but that's rarely given Olson pause. "I was the only woman in my class [at college], and even now, I'm often the only woman in a meeting," she says. "But it's never seemed to make a difference for me. Yes, there've been a couple of times when people didn't know how to react to me. But I'm not one to hold back. And I like people and I enjoy what I do, and I think the comfort level comes from that." Lockheed's main customer, the U.S. government, has a number of women in high-level positions, she notes. "They're starting to diversify, and the aerospace companies are starting to mirror that."

Olson advises anyone interested in doing military research and development to talk to people in the field, to get an understanding of what their jobs are like. "One thing I find in junior engineers is that their expectations don't match reality," she says. "Being able to work on things that explode is exciting, but it's not every day that you're testing a live bomb. A lot of preparation goes into making the ideas work."

As a Wife and Mother of three, Olson says juggling the demands of work and home can be tough. "Lockheed is good about that, but you also have to be willing to stand your ground. There are times when people say, 'You need to work on your off day.' On the other hand, if your child is sick, you take off and take care of them." When necessary, Olson does put in 12-hour days, and sometimes even longer ones. During a recent business trip to conduct wind tunnel tests on a new aircraft-mounted weapons system, the team had to work 16-hour days. "You just do it," she says.

Making time for yourself is also key, she says. Olson enjoys drawing and has entered her work in local competitions; she's also been teaching herself woodcarving and guitar. "Whether you have kids, or dogs, or you like to golf, it's important to be balanced."

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions