Meet your AIAA presidential candidates

“Shaping the future of aerospace” — that’s the goal of AIAA and the task given to each president-elect, chosen every two years by members to help guide the institute initially as a member of the Board of Trustees and then as president beginning a year later. Both candidates have ideas for how to help guide the institute out of the covid-19 pandemic and make the most of operational changes inspired by it. They also have big ideas for how the institute can recruit new members and better serve current ones. I interviewed each via video call for this special section. To read the full transcripts of my interviews with Laura McGill and George Nield, click on the candidates’ names.

MEMBERS VOTE: Jan. 27 through Feb. 19. See

THE STAKES: Winner begins a one-year term as president-elect on May 19, followed by two years as president starting in May 2022. Winner also becomes a member of the Board of Trustees.

Laura McGill

Why she wants to be president >>

Our membership thrives on innovation. We’re all in this industry because we love being at the leading edge of capability and performance for the systems that we work on, so I think that does translate to the institute and what we’re able to do and leverage what we’ve all learned about this new environment we’re in. It’s kind of an inflection point for us to go take all that and use it to evolve and invigorate the membership and our capabilities as an institute to continue to advance the industry as a whole and the working professionals to support it.

No. 1 priority >>

AIAA has been such a great aspect of my professional career but also has given me great personal satisfaction, going from the wonderful, incredibly smart and talented professionals that I’ve met and been able to work with over the years to the great new ideas and capabilities that it’s exposed to me. I value it so much and it’s been so much a part of my life, I want all our members to be able to experience that. I want our members to not just be members; I want them to be engaged, to be able to recognize that there’s all these benefits available to them. And I want to structure AIAA so it makes those resources more directly accessible and available to our members so they will realize all those benefits of membership. That’s why I’m going after increased engagement. Engagement will result in broader membership, but that’s not the goal. The goal is for our members to really get the same appreciation for their membership that I have had.

Staying relevant >>

There’s three aspects of that. The first is I want AIAA to be a great resource for our members to help them in their everyday work. It’s been really rewarding for me to be able to reach out to people I’ve worked with over the years through AIAA and be able to get information or bridge partnerships between organizations that have actually helped me in my everyday job. I want to be able to do that for members, make those resources more accessible and make them aware of what the opportunities are, to build on those aspects that make them more successful in their everyday work. The second element is to support their career advancement, by helping them recognize what their opportunities for career advancement are. A lot of us are engineers and scientists in AIAA, but that can evolve into numerous different career paths as technical experts, as chief engineers, program managers. All that builds on those technical foundations, and AIAA can take a better role in helping members to realize their career aspirations in any one of those different directions they might want to take. The third element is one that’s been greatly satisfying for me with AIAA: I have a lot of interest in aerospace and technologies that aren’t necessarily a key part of my everyday job. I love that I get exposed to those through forums, in exchanges with other members. I want our members to realize that benefit, that they could explore for their personal satisfaction all those technical and scientific interests that they have.

Lessons from the pandemic >>

One thing is our timelines have to be faster. If you have information that you want to convey through a briefing at a conference, key information that’s important today may wait until you submit an abstract, the abstract gets reviewed and then gets put into a conference program that’s a year away. We have to figure out how we accelerate that whole process so that we can get late-breaking information out to the community much faster in those forums. Another is using all the tools of technology and community, different communication forms and not thinking of those as disparate methods of communication, but really integrating all that together. Our workforce uses all those tools, so we want to be able to make it easy for our members to interact with each other. I think part of it is technological evolution, but also it’s how we engage as members. We do see a lot of members who engage at their local sections, levels and regional activities, and then there’s national activities. We don’t always connect those together, and I think there’s an opportunity to get more interactions between those two different types of events and integrate those much better than we have in the past.

Facilitate crowdsourcing >>

There’s a lot of resources available through AIAA that I don’t think the membership is universally aware of and taps into. Part of it is helping them to understand what those are and then continue to advance those and expand those offerings by having the community be directly involved. The analogy I’ll use is crowdsourcing, where instead of the old suggestion box where things would accumulate and somebody had to go through them all and then follow up and write responses, with the crowdsourcing type of platform you have the community directly engaged in problem solving. Somebody can put out a request, “Hey does anybody know how to do this?” and you can get immediate responses from the crowd. And not only that, the crowd vets the responses to questions. It also really engenders a lot of community engagement to solve problems that are relevant. The Engage platform is a great vehicle. I think it could be expanded for some additional capability, but it’s a great start and it shows AIAA is moving in the right direction to engage the broader community.

Demonstrating diversity >>

I think AIAA has a great power of our membership to demonstrate how we can be a very diverse and inclusive organization. It allows our members to see other members engaged in different ways and hold up those role models that we have within AIAA and the successes that those people have had. People seeing people who look like them in successful roles goes a great way toward them wanting to join the community. And we do struggle in all the tech fields, STEM fields, of getting more diverse people interested and going all the way. It’s what I love about AIAA; they really extended their K through 12 programs to really reach out to younger people who are thinking about their careers, to get them to see what a professional life could be, a STEM-type of career. I think AIAA has a great opportunity to continue to build on that and then build up a much more diverse aerospace workforce.

Bringing in new topics >>

Here’s where I think AIAA has an advantage over a lot of other professional societies. If you look at most of them, they’re focused on a discipline like mechanical or electrical or test engineering. But aerospace is about systems. That’s why it’s so exciting to work in this industry and be part of AIAA; because we work on systems, we all in our home organizations interact with people who are working through all those hundreds of science and engineering disciplines that all go into making our systems. The key is how do we bring that into AIAA and expand the content of our forums to include all those other aspects? It’s not even just technical: There’s the programmatics and understanding what’s going on in regulatory environments and being compliant to regulations. All those are other aspects that we have to deal with in developing our systems, so that should be part of the content in a society that is for aerospace professionals. We should be looking at all those aspects, because those all add to the resources that we can then bring back to our home organizations. It gets back to crowdsourcing. The crowd will tell you where you need to go, and I think we can use that as part of our guidance.

Metrics for success >>

There are ways to track engagement and increase membership as a result, but the real goal is engagement. I want our members to feel like they are engaged in the society and taking advantage of all the resources available to them. Participation in conferences is one metric that we’ve always tracked: how many people come to our conferences, our various forums. But that’s just one element. As we expand our communications platforms, we can even track how people are engaging in the Twitter community for AIAA. Crowdsourcing platforms are another great way to measure how many people submit questions or how many people engage in that community. It’s kind of like citations in the academic world. On a crowdsourcing platform, you also get your ideas rated, likes and dislikes. All those are great ways for us to get in and track our engagement. What I really want to see is: Are people jumping from a forum where they’re talking about some technical subject and breaking out to do public policy and start engaging in those platforms?

Regional and national events >>

I’m really interested in tying the national discussions to the regional discussions. Are the people who participate in the sections getting engaged in some of the national forums as well? That’s an area where I’d really like to see the engagement grow. I think a lot of people who want to engage at both levels just run out of bandwidth. We’re still going full speed in spite of everything else going on around us. We are continuing to advance our systems, develop new technologies, explore new capabilities in performance. People in our industry work very hard, work very long days. So how much time do you have left after all that, and your families and other responsibilities? Do you have time to engage at both levels? Where AIAA can help is make it easier and being able to have all forums tied together so they’re not having to go engage separately. Get them interlinked so that it doesn’t take so much of a time commitment. I think that’s the only thing holding us back.

George Nield

Why he wants to be president >>

The opportunity exists for us to shape the future of aerospace rather than just stepping back and letting it happen, good or bad, right or wrong, at its own pace. We can be leading it. That to me is the key as I think back on my many years in the AIAA. It’s enabled me to get information not only about the latest technical developments, but the status of launch vehicles and aircraft designs and so forth. It’s enabled me to really become a lifelong learner many years after I left school. AIAA is an outstanding organization, and it has the potential to really make a difference in the aerospace community and for society as a whole.

Top-level goals >>

First would be: advance the aerospace profession. Push the state of the art, expand the envelope, discover, explore, use new technologies to deliver benefits to society. Second would be: engage and support our members. Grow our membership and then help them to become lifelong learners. Offer career development advice, recommendations and opportunities. Provide recognition for their accomplishments and enable the development of a network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Third would be: educate the general public. Communicate with the media; local, state, federal and international government officials; and the public at large to assist them in understanding the importance of aerospace. And then finally, inspire the next generation. I’d like to see us use the wonder of flight and the captivating nature of space exploration to gain the attention of students and to assist teachers and educators in order to make sure that we will have a motivated and capable aerospace workforce in the future.

Making membership a must-have >>

I would love to see us double our membership in the next five years, which would be very challenging, but I think it’s possible. If you look at the largest aerospace manufacturing companies in the world today — Boeing, Airbus, Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp. — altogether, those five companies employ more than 691,000 people. If we could convince just 10% of the workforce at those five companies to fill out an application, AIAA would more than double overnight. One of the other aspects of this is: What really is the target market for AIAA? Somehow I think people have gotten the impression that AIAA is primarily intended for aerospace engineers. That’s part of the answer, but if instead we were to think of AIAA as being the professional society for people that know about, work in or are interested in aviation and space, it could significantly change how we operate. That would be a really major shift in how we’ve thought about ourselves, but it could open up a lot of opportunities.

Building a post-covid world >>

Already we’ve been successful at being able to engage a much larger number of people in our meetings, in our ceremonies, in our gatherings than we ever could have before. There’s always going to be something to be said for the in-person interaction, but I think this is offering us an opportunity to change how we do business, to offer different kinds of products and services, to really accelerate the capability of offering online products and services to people all around the world that we might not have thought about doing before, or at least this quickly. I’m interested in seeing if we can knock down some of those obstacles that are either preventing someone from being a member in the beginning, or we’re teaching them a new habit that says, “This is a lifelong learning opportunity.” It is an opportunity to help your career and to continue to advance in something that they probably really are interested in, which is why they signed up in the first place.

Moving faster >>

What we’re seeing in the world of entrepreneurial activities, in the aerospace community and other areas, is the world is not waiting anymore. If we want to be out there in front of the parade, we’re going to have to figure out how to make decisions and implement things more quickly than we’ve ever done before. It’s basically going to come down to lowering the bars of granting permission, of trusting the different parts of the institute. We’ve got sections, we’ve got regions, we’ve got technical committees and program committees and so forth. One of the challenges that the government has had lately is if you try to work your way through bureaucracy, it takes forever, and so there’s all these different people at different levels that have the ability to say no to something, but there’s nobody that can say yes and have it happen. Maybe not all these ideas are going to work for an organization like AIAA, but I really think we have a lot of flexibility, and so with energy and goodwill among all the participants, if we just consciously decide “we’re going to try to do a lot of different things,” some of them will work really well, some might need some midcourse corrections, and some of them frankly won’t work, and that’s OK.

Expanding expertise >>

Our technical reputation is first class, and regardless of whether as many people as we think should join actually do, we have a great reputation for doing good work and having high-quality journals and conferences and information. That’s great. We don’t want to mess with that. At the same time, with new technologies, new discoveries, we might consider how to accommodate new pieces of the puzzle, subjects that we haven’t really dealt with in the past, including the whole idea of urban air mobility vehicles or megaconstellations, space traffic management, drones. I know we’ve been thinking about how AIAA could contribute in those areas for a number of years. There’s a lot of work to do, so why shouldn’t AIAA be part of writing the standards and working with the government and companies and academia to really make progress in a much more timely fashion?

Building new relationships, strengthening old ones >>

I’d start with entities that we have strong relationships with already. So our AIAA corporate members, is that relationship all that it can be? For instance, why don’t we have a full 144,000 people from Boeing? They’re in the middle of aerospace; they’re building airplanes. They’re making spacecraft; they’re launching things. We want that whole community, so let’s figure out what kind of relationship would be mutually beneficial to the company in terms of giving experience and opportunities to their employees to become leaders and volunteers and make a difference in technical conferences and running papers and so forth, but also to AIAA by having more people in the tent that represent all different parts of aerospace. Next group would be the government entities. People who work for NASA, people who are in the Space Force, people who are employed by the FAA or other similar government organizations have this natural affiliate organization, the AIAA, that they can be a part of. Then there’s all kinds of other groups like those for pilots, aircraft mechanics and technicians, hobbyists, people who belong to these other interest groups — those are not professional societies, but they have to do with aircraft and space. There’s some potential mutual benefit. Maybe they have access to some of our activities and our products and services, and potentially they become part of our membership pool as well. It can be a real win-win in situations that have previously been competitive: “I only belong to one thing and I have to decide which it is.” Let’s change our thinking on that.

Measuring impact >>

This is a membership organization, so that’s an excellent metric in terms of not only how healthy the organization is, but also what kind of influence it can have and what it can accomplish. We certainly want to be financially responsible, but I think there’s a real danger in looking at how much profit are we making or how much do we have in the bank — that to me is not what AIAA is all about. You can measure our impact by the feedback from members and how many members we have; we can measure our influence and impact and success by how often we are asked for our opinion and advice by Congress, by the White House; the kinds of events that we’re able to hold internationally and the stature that we are held in in the rest of the world community. All those things are ways to measure our success as opposed to just how much money do we have in the bank.

Building a more diverse AIAA >>

We need to do a better job of gathering information first. I don’t think we completely know all the stats on all of our members, but to the extent that we do have data available, a couple things jump out to me. As of now, 91% of AIAA members are male; 9% are female. Something’s wrong there, so what do we need to do to fix that? It can go back to the pipelines; it can go back to having a welcoming and supportive introduction to the organization at the very beginning, and it doesn’t even have to start in college. So how can we make sure they are part of AIAA and that they feel supported and embraced and welcomed in our organization? You can organize it different ways, but to me it all comes back to membership. We want more people, and we want all kinds of people, and how are we going to do that? There might be certain things we do to address having more women members, certain things we do to address having more minorities, certain things we do for young people versus people later in their careers, but that’s all part of “how do we reach out to the community and welcome them in the tent?”

Candidates’ biographical information

Meet your AIAA presidential candidates