UAH senior Krysta Blackerby leads test design automation team at Steelcase, Inc.

Krysta Blackerby served as team leader for a UAH undergraduate mechanical and aerospace engineering project at Steelcase, Inc. The senior student group graduates on Dec. 6. Teammates are: (l-r) Vish Ghimerey, Evan Whitten, Nathan Lawrence, Krysta Blackerby, and Austin Click.

Michael Mercier | UAH

As a post-traditional student attending The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s (UAH) College of Engineering Krysta Blackerby knew she would have to do two things to ensure a successful career: never allow herself to be intimidated and earn respect through hard work.

"When I started this journey, I knew as an older female student I would have to work harder to be respected as an engineer. I used this knowledge to create a higher standard for myself and it has really paid off," said Blackerby. She will graduate with honors from UAH on Thursday, Dec. 6, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE).

The Huntsville native is a 2001 graduate of Sparkman High School. When Blackerby began attending UAH in 2010, she was unsure what path she wanted to take. "I quickly rediscovered my love for math and science. I decided on engineering because it takes these two subjects to the next level by allowing you to harness them in creating amazing things that impact people’s everyday lives."

For the past year, Blackerby has served as team leader for a group of undergraduate mechanical and aerospace engineering students working on a Non-Destructive Delamination Testing System (NDDTS) project for the Steelcase, Inc. facility in Athens, AL. Headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, the furniture manufacturer is the largest in the world.

"The NDDTS will be used by quality engineers at Steelcase to test the adhesive strength of the glue bonds that binds fabric to cubicle panels," said Blackerby. "Results from these tests will aide company engineers in making decisions regarding manufacturing practices," she added.

UAH team members include Austin Click, Team Testing and Documentation Lead, and Nathan Lawrence, Team Technical Lead and CAD expert, both Aerospace Engineering majors; and Vish Ghimerey, Team Cost Analyst and Manufacturing, and Evan Whitten, Team Manufacturing Lead and Safety Lead, both Mechanical Engineering seniors.

"This team has been fantastic at working together and putting forth their best efforts. One of the most impressive things has been their ability to not get discouraged when hard issues arise," said Blackerby. "They are always optimistic about seeking solutions and I’m really lucky to have worked with this team."

"There is not a doubt in my mind that Krysta will be my boss someday," said Ken Newton, Senior Reliability Engineer at Steelcase. "Krysta is professional, courteous and has superb management skills. No matter what curveballs are thrown her way she will tackle the problem head-on. Krysta and her team have done a wonderful job on this Steelcase project," added Newton.

"Krysta is an exceptional student who embodies the qualities that every employer seeks. She is smart, dedicated, an excellent communicator, and a natural team leader," said Dr. Christina L. Carmen, Clinical Associate Professor, UAH Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). "Because I teach the Engineering Design Product Realization senior design class in MAE, I have the opportunity to get to know and observe students in a holistic manner — their work ethic is really brought to light. When I first met Krysta, last January, I was immediately impressed. She cares about details and excellence in her work, yet does so in a humble and sincere manner. Her goal is to be the best engineer she can possibly be. The fact that she elevates her team members to achieve the same is equally as impressive," said Carmen.

"These past two semesters, Krysta's team has designed and built an automated tensile testing apparatus (equipment subjected to controlled tension until failure) that will be utilized on the production floor at Steelcase. The device will allow engineers at Steelcase to rapidly test the adhesion quality of fabric-covered panels produced at the facility. This will be the second product delivered to Steelcase. The Steelcase customer has also been overwhelmingly impressed with Krysta and her entire team. Likewise, we value the opportunities Steelcase has provided to students like Krysta, whereby they gain real-world engineering design and manufacturing experience via the development of an industry needed product," Carmen added.

"Dr. Carmen has been both an advisor and mentor over the course of the last year," said Blackerby. "Her door has always been open and she has been more than willing to advise me on a wide range of issues, from technical to human-relations. Dr. Carmen’s excitement for and commitment to the program is very encouraging. She encourages us to be our best and take pride in our profession. I believe she is creating a better class of engineers for the future."

Although Blackerby has worked on other engineering assignments, the UAH/Steelcase project is her most extensive research work to date. "In my measurements and instrumentation course I worked with a team to design a model plane launcher. The purpose of the launcher was to launch a model plane above a certain speed. The launcher was equipped with sensors to confirm launch speeds.

"UAH is a research driven university. It makes a difference when you are sitting in a lecture and you know the professor is using everyday concepts in a real setting. There is always an experimental aspect to our courses. The labs we participate in, where we get to set up experiments, collect data, and draw conclusions from that data, have been the most influential. I have been lucky enough to translate this to my professional life to some degree and hope I can continue down that path."

Her advice for young girls and women interested in establishing careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is to never be intimidated.

"I would also encourage students to speak up and take initiative by accepting academic roles and tasks that you’ve never done before. I have found myself doing things I never imagined I could do and with each experience, pass or fail, my confidence and skill set has grown."

While it is still a few days before Blackerby officially claims her undergraduate degree, she is persistent in her academic and professional endeavors. She is enrolled in the university’s Joint Undergraduate Masters Program and plans to pursue a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Blackerby also works as a contractor in the defense industry at QuantiTech, Inc. "It is an amazing woman-owned small business based in Huntsville. I plan to stay and grow with them for the foreseeable future. I started there as an intern in May 2017 and they have allowed me so much room and opportunity to grow and try on a lot of different hats. The leadership is genuinely interested in fostering my professional growth and success. That kind of environment is really hard to come by and I am lucky to be there."