Meet the New AIAA Diversity Working Group Chair, Sonya Smith

AIAA strives to be the voice of the aerospace profession through innovation, technical excellence, and global leadership in aeronautics, aerospace research and development, and space. This role can only be fulfilled if all voices, perspectives, and talents are included in the conversation. AIAA is committed to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility throughout the Institute and the greater aerospace community.

Sonya Smith is Professor and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Howard University. She was recently appointed as the executive director of the university’s Research Institute for Tactical Autonomy (RITA). In this role, she will be responsible for leading the center in pioneering transformative research and innovations in autonomy that bridge theoretical exploration with practical applications. She became chair of the AIAA Diversity Working Group (DWG) in May. Below she shares her involvement with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, as well as her vision for her term leading the DWG.

What’s your background? What led you to aerospace?
I have a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of Virginia. I have always been interested in space-related science, building model rockets as a child and exploring planetary science. As I matured, my passion for space and aeronautics grew, and I continued to learn more about it. My first job was at NASA Langley Research Center.

As the first tenured female faculty member in Howard University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering Department, what are you trying to accomplish? How do you try to guide your students?
I do my best to provide my students with opportunities outside of the classroom and beyond the university. I guide them toward critical internships in both industry and academia, and I also provide students opportunities for research in my lab. I believe that this is an effective way to teach students and reinforce concepts learned in class.

Why are you so committed to promoting DEI within AIAA and the greater aerospace community?
The United States is in a global competition, and we cannot afford to leave any talent behind.

Other than with AIAA, what DEI initiatives have you been a part of?
I led a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant to increase the number of women faculty in STEM fields at Howard University. We were very successful in tripling the number of female professors in these fields at Howard and also improving the family-friendly policies at the university to continue to attract top talent.

What is challenging about DEI?
DEI issues are complex. Solving them requires a multifaceted approach.

AIAA has the strategic goal of AIAA membership and leadership demographics reflecting society, how will the Diversity Working Group contribute to accomplishing this goal?
Success in achieving this goal would involve ensuring that the AIAA membership opportunity is accessible to all individuals interested in joining the aerospace industry. We need to establish student branches in various types of institutions and facilitate easier membership access across all educational establishments. For instance, individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are funding their own education may face constraints in terms of finances and time. These constraints could prevent their participation in AIAA, as they may not be able to afford the dues and event travel. I firmly believe that as an Institute, we can collaborate to reduce such barriers, and much progress has already been made in this regard.

How should AIAA cultivate / encourage DEI initiatives? Have we seen a benefit from past initiatives?  
Leadership at all levels should encourage and support the DWG initiatives, such as participating in membership cultivation events with diverse populations of students and professionals. Over the last three years, the percentage of female student members has increased from 18% to 20%, while the percentage of women leaders in AIAA’s Technical Activities Division has increased from 15% to 21% since 2021. This significant increase reflects AIAA’s commitment to advancing women in leadership roles.

In your recent Mary Jackson Named Lecture you discussed why women are not studying aerospace engineering. What did your research find?
In 2020, according to the NSF and the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), 23,598 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in aerospace engineering and only 1,926 (14.9%) were awarded to women. Also, according to NSF 49.2% of women who originally intend to major in science and engineering as a first-year switch to a non-STEM major, compared to 32.5% of men. There is clearly room for improvement. Encouraging more women to pursue and continue careers in aerospace engineering is crucial for the industry’s growth and innovation. By promoting diversity and inclusion, we can benefit from a wider range of perspectives and ideas. [View the lecture.]

A person with shoulder-length dark hair smiling, wearing a beige blazer and a light-colored scarf, against a white background.
Sonya Smith. Credit: Smith

Meet the New AIAA Diversity Working Group Chair, Sonya Smith