As a junior at Linn-Mar High School, Sandra Thurn, BSEE’86 and MEngSE’96, wasn’t initially thinking about attending college. It was the early 60s and a time when women weren’t necessarily encouraged to pursue higher education. But a conversation with her high school adviser inspired what she calls a “change of heart.”
The adviser, aware of Thurn’s potential, suggested she take college preparatory courses instead of the easier classes she was considering. Eventually they made a deal—Thurn would take the more challenging courses and apply to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), and her adviser would find funding sources for her education.
They both kept up their ends of the bargain.
The summer after graduating high school, she set out to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) to pursue a mathematics degree, something she says led her to become an engineer 20 years later.
After graduating from UNI in 1965, Thurn started a family, having a son and a daughter, and worked as a math teacher and boat dealer. She also spent time in management at a large grocery store.
At one point, she was working three part-time jobs—two in the grocery industry and the other teaching math classes at Marshalltown Community College (MCC). “I had reached the point where I needed a career, not just a series of jobs,” she says.
Thurn enrolled at Iowa State, working on an advanced degree that would allow her to teach full-time at the community college as well as a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Ultimately she focused on the engineering degree because of the wide range of opportunities it offered.
“I taught math classes in the electronics technician program at MCC and found I really enjoyed applying my math knowledge to electronics,” she says, making electrical engineering a natural fit for her. While at Iowa State, she also got involved in the Society of Women Engineers and IEEE, and worked part-time for the math department and then the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory, all while taking care of her kids who were 10 and 14 at the time.
After another graduation, Thurn’s career in engineering gave her just what she was after—variety and stability. She started working at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, designing control boards for high-frequency aircraft radios. Later, she worked in systems engineering and did low-level software programming while also managing projects and engineering groups. “I loved working for a company that was big enough I could move to a different area when I wanted a new challenge,” she says.
She stayed at Rockwell for 20 years. Then, in 2006, Thurn started a three-year stint at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, managing a group of electrical engineering project managers. She is currently working for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado, managing technical projects and developing project management processes.
The equipment she works with at NCAR takes weather and climate measurements. Several of her co-workers are stationed in the Indian Ocean, taking measurements with recently updated S-band and Ka-Band radars that detect electromagnetic energy. “While I don’t do technical work anymore, I understand enough of the various technologies to guide project progress very effectively,” she says.
Thurn’s success in such a wide range of engineering positions reflects her way of thinking. “It’s great fun to really dig into a problem and solve it, but once I’ve solved a problem I’m not that interested in solving it again. As a result, I developed a broad skill set rather than having a lot of depth in one area, and it has served me well in engineering and project management,” she says.
The value she placed on education also played an important role in her success. As a minority in the industry, she says she had to be deliberate about her career steps and found new educational opportunities helped keep her focused. She earned an MBA from St. Ambrose in 1995 and was the first graduate of Iowa State’s master of engineering in systems engineering in 1996.
Nearing the end of her career, Thurn is starting to think about the next stage of her life, where she hopes to travel and have more biking expeditions, like those she has already done in Italy and France.
A lot has happened since she was the high school student sitting in her adviser’s office unsure of her future plans. But Thurn can be sure of one thing now—her career is an example of how valuable a commitment to learning and growing can be, no matter what stage of life you are in.