Engineering Technology grad finds her tribe and career

Mary Ngo and her capstone project at the Engineering Technology Expo in fall 2022.

As a nursing student at Pennsylvania State University, Mary Ngo was at a crossroads. Like many young people, she had graduated high school with one career path in mind, only to discover that she didn’t like where it was leading. It was time to summon up the courage to dig deeper, defy family expectations and find her true calling.

So began Ngo’s journey to graduating this fall from Palm Beach State College with an Associate in Science degree in Engineering Technology and starting her new career at Pratt & Whitney, a world leader in the design, manufacture and service of aircraft engines and auxiliary power units.

“Nursing is great, but it wasn’t for me. I feel at home when I’m in engineering groups. I’ve found my tribe,” Ngo said. “Palm Beach State College paved the way for me to meet so many different people in the field and find the right career choice. I’m so grateful.”

Ngo presents her capstone project at the Engineering Technology Expo.

Ngo’s parents, who immigrated from Vietnam, own spa and salon businesses in central Pennsylvania. While Ngo did become a licensed cosmetologist to pay the bills while in school, her parents had wanted her to be a nurse, which they viewed as a stable, secure profession. When the family moved to South Florida to open a new salon, Ngo went with them, breaking away from her nursing path, too. Her family eventually moved back, but Ngo stayed.

Not wanting to choose the wrong career again, Ngo threw herself into researching different schools and programs. She found Palm Beach State and talked to several advisors, something she had never done at Penn State. She gave herself a semester at Palm Beach State—fall term 2021—to see if the appeal of the Engineering Technology program would hold. It did.

Students pursuing the Engineering Technology two-year A.S. degree and shorter certificate programs gain the knowledge and hands-on skills needed for well-paying engineering support positions in many industries, such as manufacturing, aerospace and alternative energy as well as in structural modeling, drafting and design. Engineering Technology degree-seeking students choose from four concentrations: Advanced Technology (Ngo’s choice), Advanced Manufacturing, Electronics and Alternative Energy Systems.

Ngo’s two years in the program were jampacked, due to her own initiative. She volunteered for projects and lab assignments, and when a special research opportunity came from the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center, known as FLATE, Ngo decided to make it her capstone project, which propelled her education and career.

Ngo received a Pratt & Whitney scholarship, joined by Dr. Eva Suarez and Doug Breindel, associate director, systems engineering at Pratt & Whitney.

At that time, PBSC was participating in FLATE’s LIMS (Learning Integrated Manufacturing System) Edge Device pilot program. The pilot program provided the equipment and support needed to investigate the use of LIMS for data collection and analysis in an industrial application, which, coincidentally, was Ngo’s growing interest.

Ngo used the donated LIMS Edge to collect data for a 3D printing task under a range of environmental conditions, which involved printing several runs of tensile coupon tests with different humidity and temperature levels. Ngo set up the 3D printer to send data to the LIMS Edge, where data was successfully captured and analyzed. During the project, she was supported by mentors, including Nat Frampton, the CEO and co-founder of LECS Energy LLC, the developer of the LIMS Edge device.

In addition to FLATE, Ngo’s project was noticed by several of the more than 30 business partners that support the Engineering Technology program, including Pratt & Whitney, when she presented it at the culminating capstone expo.  She received a scholarship and an internship from Pratt & Whitney.

Ngo has been working at Pratt & Whitney since September 2023 while finishing her degree and plans to continue there after graduation. Currently, she’s part of a team that does testing of U.S. military and commercial jet engines, collecting real-time sensory data.

“Every class that I had in the program has directly correlated to industry,” Ngo said. “At Pratt & Whitney, I was working on an assignment concerning transducers, and that week in class, we were talking about the exact same subject.”

Ngo presented her capstone project at a poster session at the 30th National Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators’ Conference in Washington, D.C., last October.

In addition to working and growing her career, Ngo plans to continue her education and get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“One thing about Mary is her focus on continuous improvement,” said Eva Suarez, Ph.D., professor and chair of PBSC’s Engineering Technology Department. “Her initiative is outstanding. She takes our instruction and advice and runs with it. I was the only woman in my engineering classes back in college, so it’s wonderful to see young women like Mary enter the field. She was a fantastic student and has a great career ahead of her.”

This past October, Ngo’s capstone project brought her another bonus: She was recognized at a national conference in Washington D.C. The American Association of Community Colleges, with the support of the National Science Foundation, hosted the 30th National Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators’ Conference, which brought together more than 800 NSF ATE grantees and their project partners as well as 50 AACC-sponsored students and alumni of ATE programs from around the country. FLATE’s senior education advisor Marilyn Barger, Ph.D., P.E., nominated Ngo for the all-expense-paid trip to the conference. She was chosen to go and there received a Student Award for Excellence in recognition of her leadership and academic achievements.

“It was such a great experience,” Ngo said. “I met so many people from all over the U.S. There were workshops every single hour on the hour, and I had the opportunity to display my capstone project in a poster session. It opened me up to a whole new world.”

Plus, she got a surprise visit from her family, who drove to D.C. from Pennsylvania to support her.

And yes, it’s safe to say Ngo’s parents are very much on board with having an engineer in the family.

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