Young A&D Professional: Sarah McClain

Manufacturing Engineer
LAI International
B.S., University of Southern Maine

“Before coming to LAI, I spent two years as an undergraduate research assistant, one year as a machinist in the university’s engineer shop, and 20 years building with LEGOs!”

When did you first decide to take STEM courses and/or pursue a career in engineering?

In high school, I really enjoyed chemistry because all the experiments we did explained how things worked on a microscopic level. Halfway through my second year in college, studying chemistry, I realized I wasn’t interested in the job opportunities that would be available to me. After talking to a few classmates and doing research, I decided to try engineering. I always loved building with my hands and using tools and was interested in learning how things worked on a larger, mechanical level.

Who was most influential in your decision making?

I was most influenced by myself. Understanding my love for creating and for seeing how things worked since I was young made STEM a clear decision for a future career.

What do you do in your job?

In my job, I develop processes and programs for machining parts. Processes are like a how-to instruction for people to make parts, and programs are instructions for machines. I also help troubleshoot any issues that come up as the parts are being created or inspected. Lastly, I work closely with customers to develop new parts, communicating with them to generate solutions that yield the best results.

Why do you like your job?

I like my job because I am given a chance to see my programs come to life. I get to see the machines create the part right in front of my eyes. The process development is fun, because I get to work with a variety of people and see how everything comes together to make a high-quality part. I am always learning on-the-job and get to experience machining technology first hand.

Any advice to young students wanting to pursue a career in engineering and enter the aerospace industry?

My advice is to work in a machine or wood shop as an assistant or as someone just learning basic skills. Working in a shop helps increase your knowledge of the tools you use and benefits your design capability with parts, programs, and processes. As a machinist, I learned how to use a variety of tools, from drills and hand saws, to milling machines and welding equipment.  I also used the shop to teach younger students about STEM by creating pistons out of cardboard, and taught college freshman how to research, design and build catapults to launch pumpkins across the school.

Ultimately, you learn to understand how to make a blueprint into a physical part. (I also advise taking a blueprint reading class or computer-aided design (CAD) model class if they are available at your school).  The knowledge of how to design and build will allow you to succeed in industry and help build the industry and future of aerospace.