Lidya Rezene Elias is a young aerospace engineer. She has been noted for having been involved in the development of Ethiopia’s historic National Space Policy. She shares with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on her adventurous career, her involvement with the African Drone and Data Academy, her nomination for the African Space Industry Top 10 Under-30 Class of 2020, inspiring others to follow her footsteps and more.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I am passionate about aerospace engineering. I have a strong academic and technical background in aerospace engineering, and completed my Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.) in Aeronautical Engineering at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It was during my 2nd and 3rd year of study that I gained valuable industry experience as an intern at Ethiopian Airlines. I gained further working experience as a researcher at the Space Engineering department of the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute, where I was part of the team that developed the first micro satellite which was launched in December 2019.
During that time, I actively participated in and contributed to the development of Ethiopia’s First National Space policy. I also completed two highly competitive satellite training programs in China and Russia that greatly enhanced my knowledge in modern aerospace engineering.
On the education front, I am currently pursuing an online Master of Business Administration course with the University of South Wales, UK.
You are in a competitive profession that has relatively few women in it but is slowly changing. How did you become an Aerospace Engineer?
As a woman, born and raised in a very conservative Ethiopian culture, I have had to overcome challenges and encounters that often undermined rather than build my confidence, resulting in many lost opportunities.
My time studying abroad in two different countries brought with it different challenges for me as a young woman, but also presented opportunities for me to grow in my field of interest. I was able to demonstrate my great commitment, passion and diligence in all my endeavors, resulting in me being one of the few successful women in a sector disproportionately represented by men.
I chose the aerospace engineering course to study as I have always been interested in an engineering course that would satisfy my curiosity about space, and I believed that I had the character and qualities necessary to forge a successful career in this area. I have been inspired, in pursuing my career path, by my high school director who believed in my potential to reach great heights and is the director of a successful school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
I was given a scholarship at the age of 16 at the Cyprus International University to study energy system engineering; I have always been fascinated by the implementation of cutting-edge technologies in the aerospace industry. After careful consideration, I was able to transfer all my credits to Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China to study Aeronautical Engineering.
I remain passionately committed to developing myself professionally for continuing professional growth. I always try to take up opportunities to attend various trainings that I consider invaluable to me and I believe would help me grow rapidly in the field of aerospace in Ethiopia and the region. I want to harness every opportunity I get to learn and share the knowledge I gain back in my home country, Ethiopia. Additionally, as a woman in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Math), I would like to lead by example and show my fellow women that this field is accessible to each and every one, regardless of where we come from.
Tell us about your project with the European Space Agency?
Recently, I got certified in drone technology from the first cohort of the African Drone and Data Academy, which is supported by UNICEF and run by Virginia Tech as the lead organization, becoming the first Ethiopian woman to receive this achievement. I am currently working on a project as a Chief Technology officer for air UTM in partnership with a German company to build the first airUTM Unmanned aerial vehicles traffic Management system, as a solution for African skies. airUTM has been awarded a contract from the European Space Agency (ESA). This project is going to take place in Malawi in collaboration with UNICEF, GIZ, Wingcopter and DCA.
You were recently nominated one of the African Space Industry Top 10 under-30-Class of 2020. Tell us about that.
I am honored by the nomination which I believe is in recognition of my various achievements within the African Space Industry which include: being part of the team at the Space Engineering Department of the Ethiopian Space and Science Institute that developed the first micro satellite in Ethiopia, launched in December 2019. Contributing to the development of Ethiopia’s first National Space policy, and my successful participation in two highly competitive satellite training programs in China and Russia is something that have enriched me as a person.
I have also played various supporting roles in multiple projects, including in the development of Cube Satellites and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Ethiopia. While my main responsibility was in designing the structural and communication systems of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), I also provided project support in the design of the Altitude Control System of Cube Satellites.
As a researcher, I recognized an opportunity in designing drone materials and have published two journal articles relating to composite materials and structural analysis of satellites. We developed material made from recyclable banana fibers instead of the ordinary carbon fibers, and I was able to obtain higher strength material, making this suitable in the application of structural design of drones.
I believe that it is through these and other contributions to the Space Industry, both in my country and Africa, that I was nominated as one of the African Space Industry Top 10 under-30-Class of 2020.
What do you think needs to be done in Ethiopia, in fact in Africa, to encourage more women to enter the aerospace engineering field?
There are societies and centers that work in creating awareness about the aerospace industry, and some have been doing this for about 10 years now. I believe that in addition to raising awareness of the aerospace industry among women, we also need to offer support to those who are interested in studying the field, and demonstrate the many fields of application of the space technologies within our lives, communities and country to allay any fears around usefulness. The societies and centers could also consider raising funds for the development and implementation of technologies that present solutions to everyday problems. This may lead to job-creation for our youth with interest in the field while also demonstrating its practical usefulness and changing lives for the better in the developing countries of Africa like Ethiopia.
Furthermore, women like me who have been given great opportunities to grow in this industry need to find a way to bring the power of their knowledge, skills and experience to contribute to developing technology-based engineering solutions which, I believe, will go a long way to inspire, encourage and provide opportunities for more women interested in or within the field.
There also needs to be organizations which initiate different programs that work to address the various social and economic problems that disempower women in our societies, some of which include: financial aid to girls pursuing higher education and helping primary schools with further expansion of STEM.
How far do you think we have come to ensure that the local or perhaps the African aerospace field is moving in the right direction?
I believe that Ethiopia and Africa have come a long way in developing the aerospace field, but I also believe that we have a long way to go and need great leadership, creative, ambitious, determined and dedicated women and men in Africa to not only play a role in the aerospace field, but also make aerospace technologies relevant, appropriate and accessible in addressing Africa’s many challenges.
I personally believe studying the space above Africa, the stars and the moons, is something that is really exciting and fascinating and that is one of the reasons why I joined this field. But given, as I indicated, the social and economic development challenges and issues that our countries face, I would like to see us focus more on the cutting-edge technologies that could be implemented on the ground to change people’s lives.
They don’t need to start big; a cube satellite was developed in a university setting by a professor and few students but has been applied to address various problems throughout the world by different countries. Africa has the largest young population and amazing brain power to make aerospace technologies work for us and our communities. A consolidated effort from the African space industries could see the mobilization of funds to initiate and facilitate projects than make a difference on the continent; what is needed is the desire and action to harness aerospace engineering technologies at the political, public and private sector levels.