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Women Mean Business - Dr. Mary "Missy" Cummings

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Today’s extraordinary woman broke through the glass ceiling. Leisa Holland-Nelson visits with Missy Cummings, Duke University professor, former fighter pilot and uber-expert on drones.

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Leisa: Hello, I'm Leisa Holland-Nelson and welcome to another edition of Women Mean Business. Where we're going to take you up close and personal with extraordinary women doing extraordinary things. My guest today is Dr. Mary Missy Cummings. And for me to try to introduce her to you, I would just step all over it. She is so extraordinary. Mary, I'm gonna let you tell us what your title is and what you really do for a living.

Missy: Thank you, Leisa. So I'm a professor at Duke University right now. And I'm in the department of mechanical engineering and material science, electrical and computer engineering and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. And prior to my life in academic I few fighter jets for the navy.

Leisa: Okay. Were there a whole lot of women flying fighter jets while you were flying them?

Missy: I was in the first group of women in the United States to be transitioned into fighter aircraft.

Leisa: Can you tell us a little about that?

Missy: Well, you know it was both a goodtime and a bad time. So the time was in the mid 90s and the men were very, very unhappy that women were being allowed into the elite warrior class. And, you know my days of flying were really actually pretty quiet because nobody would talk to me. So this was a very difficult time. I'm sure the Tuskegee airmen had the same issue when they were integrated into the regular ranks. And but the trade off was I got to fly a war machine. Right. And I loved flying. I loved the dog fighting. I loved dropping bombs on ranges. I had my hair on fire. It's raw power. I don't care what gender you are. You know when you've got that kind of power at your fingertips I mean you just really, you really feel it surging through your body.

And so I did it for that, flying fighters for about three years. And then after about that time I'd had enough of the social ___ people and then I went back to academia to get my Ph.D.

Leisa: So tell us about what you actually are doing today.

Missy: Well, I was inspired. My research was inspired a lot by my time flying fighters. Because when I flew fighter planes I found out just how good automation was in terms of the F18 Hornet that I flew always landed itself better than I could and it always took off better than I could. And so when you see an aircraft start to do your mission without you, and in fact, you can only screw it up, then that starts to make you rethink where you, the human, sits in the cockpit. And so I was one of the early researchers to transition into unmanned aerial vehicles, UAV drone work. And so in about 2003 I started doing drone work. I was one of the very first researchers to look at that and say, well, how do we design these to work with or against humans? So I kind of caught the early wave. Timing is everything. And so since I was one of the first researchers to get into that space and because I'd been in the military and I knew a lot about the missions that they flew, then, you know no pun intended, but my career really took off once drones started to become more mainstream.

Leisa: I mean I would say it's one of the hottest topics on the news consistently right now. And you're right in the middle of it.

Missy: Very hot. It's very hot because it is both a international hot topic in terms of killer robots and who should we be allowed to fly these things and remotely dropping weapons. But at the same time we're seeing a huge upsurgence in commercial activity. Where we're about to see the aviation community and certainly many people in your area are gonna see drones doing every day jobs.

Leisa: it's really phenomenal to me. I have to ask you, when you were a young child, a little girl, did you think you'd be doing something like this when you grew up?

Missy: No. I knew that I was gonna do something in the science and technology world and certainly in the military. You know my dad was in the military and so that was kind of a natural progression for me. But always in the science and technology community. And then as I became older, I went to graduate school and got a Ph.D. In technology, and I think that that's - I think a lot of women just don't see the path forward because they're not exposed to it. But there are so many different avenues in science and technology that I think what's worth for most women to do is to go out and look around and see what's happening.

Leisa: So that leads to my very last question for you. And that is imagine that we have a young woman here today who would like to achieve your success in the field of science and technology, engineering and math and unmanned aerial vehicles. What advice would you give her?

Missy: Take the hardest classes that you can take in whatever program you're in. And you cannot take enough math. Math, math, math. You've gotta take those hard classes. And I know it's not fun to stay home and study when you're in college, but if you'll study the sciences, particularly the math and the engineering courses and you work really hard, there will be more doors open to you than you can possibly imagine.

Leisa: Thank you very much. There you have it. Another extraordinary woman doing extraordinary things. I'm Leisa Holland-Nelson, president and co-founder of Content Active, Houston's leading web and mobile technology design and development company. You can find me at or follow me on Twitter @LHNelson. We'll be back again next week with another edition of Women Mean Business.

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