Racing to space

Jill Lewis

Jill Lewis’ experience on the Global Formula Racing team led her to SpaceX

Jill Lewis (’11 B.S., Mechanical Engineering) didn’t set out to work at SpaceX, or even work in aerospace, but her experiences at Oregon State led her there.

Like many engineers, Lewis had an early interest in technology. As a child, she got her parents to take her to garage sales, where she found items like tripods and radios to play with. So, science and engineering were on her mind when she was planning for college.

“But it wasn’t until I actually toured Oregon State and saw the machine shop in Rogers Hall that I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be hands-on.’ And that’s when I solidified my decision to do engineering, and mechanical engineering in particular,” Lewis said.

The machine shop class turned out to be one of the most valuable for her career.

Students part taking in the Global Formula racing

Photo by Robert Story

“Any good engineer is not only going to know how to design their hardware, but understand what it takes to build their hardware,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of nuances that you won’t understand if you’ve never spent the time on a mill or a lathe, or if you haven’t tried to put two pieces of hardware together.”

She also had plenty of hands-on experiences outside the classroom, including internships at Intel and Sure Power Industries. But it was her experience on Oregon State’s Global Formula Racing team that led her to work as a composite engineer at SpaceX.

Lewis spent over two years on the Formula team, where she became the lead for composites and manufactured two carbon fiber composite chassis and peripheral components for the race car. In her senior year, the team took first place at Formula SAE Michigan, Formula Student Germany, and Formula Student Austria.

“The Formula team was critical for learning all of my composite skills. That was possible because of the commitment of Professor (Bob) Paasch, the other team members, and the support of the College of Engineering,” she said.

Lewis minored in psychology, which helped her develop communication and negotiation skills that are important in her current role as a certification lead.

“I don’t think that would have been possible at other universities where you are on an engineering path that doesn’t leave room for other areas. It was definitely a big help to me and was critical in getting me into my current people-facing role,” she said.

Just walking through SpaceX is inspiring for Lewis, who likes being so close to the hardware every day. And she still maintains her childhood excitement for technology and the impact she can have in solving difficult problems.

“Some days I think, ‘Oh, I just did something that child-Jill would be so excited to do,’” she said. “So, I like to step back and look at the opportunities I’ve been given and appreciate where I’m at and the people I get to interact with.”

Header photo courtesy of SpaceX

Sept. 14, 2021