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An Engineer Who Inspires

Sharon O’Neal has a message for young women

A 30-year Raytheon employee, O’Neal is using her experiences to encourage young girls to choose science, technology, engineering and math careers.

No boundaries.

That’s the message Raytheon engineer Sharon O’Neal has for young women. “Girls, don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something,” she said. “You need to tell yourself you can do anything you want to do.”

A 30-year employee at Raytheon and the first female senior fellow at its missile systems business, O’Neal hopes her own experience will help encourage girls to seek out careers in science, technology, engineering and math – the fields known collectively as STEM.

The first in her family to earn a college degree, O’Neal and her leadership team now supervise more than 400 software engineers. Yet if it weren’t for a mentor at a key moment in her life, O’Neal would never have become an engineer, she said.

In college, O’Neal originally pursued a degree in psychology, but was daunted by the time it would take before she earned her Ph.D and could enter the field. The irony is that she ended up spending that time pursuing a STEM career, thanks to her high school math teacher. 

“Ms. Jarvis thought I would be good as an engineer,” she said. And so, O’Neal earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in computer engineering.

Thirteen years ago, to spark the interest of her twin daughters (then in the third grade), O’Neal pioneered an event in Tucson that is now known as Arizona’s STEM Adventure.

The annual fest features hands-on and informational activities aimed at getting fourth- to eighth-grade students excited about STEM careers. In the first year, it drew more than 4,500 participants, and it is now consistently a big draw for middle-school students.

And the investment of O’Neal’s time paid off in a very personal way. Both of her daughters are in the honors college at the University of Arizona in Tucson. One interned at Raytheon and will graduate with a mechanical engineering degree this year. The other is pursuing a double major in neurology and physiology, and is planning to attend medical school.

While exposing her own kids to math and science career opportunities, O’Neal has taken the opportunity to inspire countless others. One parent of a participant in O’Neal’s program put it beautifully in a note of appreciation: “What have you done to my kids?” it said. “They’re out launching rockets on the weekend instead of watching cartoons.” 

Now O’Neal has moved her crusade to the college level.

Under her direction, Raytheon sponsored the University of Arizona’s first hackathon last year. Hack Arizona, a competition for students of computer coding, drew 400 students from a dozen universities. About half of the competitors attended the UA, while others traveled from as far as Princeton and the University of Washington.

Hack Arizona is designed to encourage young men and women to pursue careers in cybersecurity, a specialty of Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. Organizers expect participation to double at the next event, which is Jan. 22-24.

“A lot of students, they’re into the cool and sexy things to do,” O’Neal said. “They’re not necessarily thinking about preserving our nation’s security.”

O’Neal hopes exposing students to Raytheon’s work will help convince young people to find their way into the STEM fields.

“We’ve got some really cool technologies here,” she said. “Can’t always talk about them, but once you get integrated, you’ll see just how cool things can be.”

Published: 02/13/2015

Last Updated: 04/13/2016

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