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Erin Pettyjohn Knew Math Could Be Fun
Air Force Engineer Leads Space Technology Group

When Erin Pettyjohn went to work for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Kirtland Air Force Base in 2003, she quickly was able to enjoy the kind of access to equipment and resources that is unique to military labs. It was an experience that has remained consistent as her areas of research, and responsibility, have evolved. "I got to build lasers as tabletop experiments and then test them," Pettyjohn says. "I worked in lasers for a while, then switched to the space vehicle directorate where I got to design and build satellite components. Now I am in charge of the entire group that does this technology. I get to make the decisions on the kind of technology that will be researched -- what will help out the Air Force the best."

Pettyjohn says she wouldn't trade the experience for a job in the private sector. "I really enjoy it because I get to work with some great people and at a place where you are not just given a project and told 'do this,'" she says. "You actually come up with your own ideas and then follow through with them. So if you think something sounds really neat to do, you can do it. In an industry you are told to make something happen within very strict timelines. Here you are not forced to get a product out in six months. You can have a few years to work on a research idea that supports the Air Force mission and see where it takes you."

While always a good overall student, Pettyjohn's selection of mathematics as a profession seems predestined. "The first math memory I have was in third grade doing fractions. I had a lot of fun in doing fractions and it just went from there." 

Genetics may have played a part as well. On the surface Pettyjohn's educational choices were different from those of her fighter-pilot father. But when his daughter was deep into college on her way to a physics degree at Virginia Military Institute, dad made a confession: He, too, had pursued physics in college. "But he didn't have the help he needed from his professors, so he changed to business and history," Pettyjohn says.

The opposite was true for Pettyjohn.

"I had some very supportive teachers who were enthusiastic about science and math," she says. "That helped keep up my enthusiasm. It helps you focus on the subject and pay a little bit more attention at the end so you understand. Things you understand you end up liking."

Pettyjohn, who also has a master's degree in applied physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology, has not forgotten how important that support is for students. In her spare time, she volunteers at the La Luz Academy, an AFRL-sponsored science and engineering education program that works with students at schools throughout New Mexico.

The advice she gives to young math and science students is to "follow what they enjoy because then you can enjoy it all of your life," she says. "You get to use the science you learn and you get to meet people who have the same views as you. It is actually quite a bit of fun."

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