In celebration of Black History Month, the Department of Aerospace Engineering is highlighting some of our talented and diverse alumni through a series of stories sharing their journeys and advice for aspiring aerospace engineers.
James Lankford (M.S. ‘14, Ph.D. '18) is currently an aerodynamicist working for Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary. While at Aurora, James has had the opportunity to perform aerodynamic analysis on both fixed-wing as well as rotary-wing aircraft.
Prior to working at Aurora, Lankford was a graduate researcher at the University of Maryland (UMD) where he received both his masters’ and doctoral degrees for his research on flapping-wing micro-air vehicles. His dissertation topic was “Experimental and Coupled CFD/CSD Investigation of Flexible MAV-Scale Flapping Wings in Hover.”
When not focused on various things related to aerospace, Lankford likes to spend time hanging out with his wife Bianca, his daughter Nya and their dog Daisy.
How did you get started on your aerospace engineering journey?
I got into aerospace partly because of my time as a military brat. Living on base, it wasn’t uncommon to see helicopters flying overhead throughout the day. One day, when I was in elementary school, one of the helicopters landed in the field behind our school and all the students were allowed to step inside and walk around it. Ever since I saw a helicopter up close that day, I’ve been fascinated with aerospace and have been on my aerospace engineering journey ever since.
What inspires you?
Lately, all of the recent innovation and emerging technologies in aerospace have been an inspiration to me. A host of new programs and companies are exploring different types of air and space craft, and it’s a really exciting time to be in aerospace.
From eVTOL aircraft and the budding urban air mobility field to the rise in unmanned systems, there is pretty much something of interest for everyone in aerospace. Seeing all of these changes inspires me to continue learning and developing my skills as an engineer.
What has helped you succeed in your aerospace engineering journey?
What’s helped me succeed on my aerospace engineering journey has been my family and the amazing friends I’ve met along the way. My family is always there to support me in my career as well as life in general. They help to keep me grounded and give me something outside of aerospace and my career to work for.
Also, the friends who I’ve met along the way have been great to share this experience. They’ve helped to learn a lot as I’ve moved forward through this journey and continue to provide guidance and direction.
What advice would you offer current students?
I would offer current students three pieces of advice.
1) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most great or difficult things anyone accomplishes in their life require the assistance of others. You’re only doing yourself a disservice and potentially slowing down your progress if you don’t ask for help out of pride or a fear of being a burden to people. There are tons of resources out there to help you on your academic journey and you shouldn’t hesitate in using them. Plus, in life, most people that see you really trying and heading in a positive direction don’t mind helping you out.
2) Network with your peers. The people you are around now are most likely going to be in the aerospace field with you as you continue through your career, and you never know when you may be able to reach out and help them or vice versa. One thing you’ll notice is that as you progress in your career, the aerospace world gets surprisingly smaller and smaller. Don’t neglect getting to know the people around you now.
3) Enjoy the journey. I know that is easier said than done with classes or research to worry about. But now that I’m on the other side, I have to say being a student was one of the best times of my life. I got to meet a lot of amazing people, some that I’m still in contact with today. I had the opportunity to study a field that I love and set myself up to keep doing something I enjoy for a living. So, even if it’s something small, try to find the joy in it.
What have been some of your greatest personal and professional successes?
One of my greatest professional successes was graduating with my Ph.D.
To this day it was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. I went from really not knowing anything about a subject to understanding it well enough to actually contribute to the field. It taught me a lot about how capable I am if I truly apply myself and really boosted my confidence as an engineer.
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