ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Casey DeRaad says as an engineer, she has always defied the stereotype of an introverted “sparky head.”
In fact, it was her knack for connecting with people that led the Air Force Research Laboratory to place her in charge of tech engagement programs with industry and academia, as well as head of STEM outreach to minorities, women and other students of all ages.
“I’m a hard-line extrovert, which is abnormal for engineers, right?” DeRaad says. “My bosses would say, ‘since you’re so good as an extrovert, why don’t you do the partnership part?’ So then I’d communicate from the outside to the scientists and the engineers.”
DeRaad, who has worked on satellite and space electronics systems, is now head of NewSpace New Mexico, the economic development organization she started to connect businesses with booming opportunities for space-related work.
That includes “commercial space innovations,” as well as government and university efforts, she says.
“You know, we’re really trying to figure out how do we make this innovation hub?” DeRaad says. “It’s such an exciting time for space.”
The work done at Kirtland Air Force Base and New Mexico’s two national labs make the state a strong contender for the new U.S. Space Command’s headquarters, she said in a recent Journal interview. DeRaad was responding to the news that Albuquerque was one of 31 locations under consideration for the headquarters – a list that has since been narrowed to six cities, including Albuquerque.
DeRaad retired from the Air Force in 2017, but she leaves a lasting mark through her work on promoting STEM careers to the state’s youths.
Her high school outreach efforts ultimately led to La Luz Academy. Now called the AFRL STEM Academy, it provides simulated Mission to Mars exercises and other science-related activities to school kids. She also was instrumental in the AFRL Scholars program, which offers paid internships to undergraduate and graduate students.
“I ended up mentoring a lot of students and helping them understand the scientific side of things,” DeRaad says.
What was your inspiration for starting NewSpace New Mexico?
“For the latter part of my career with the (Air Force Research ) lab, I was seeing resources that come here to the federal labs, the Air Force, DOD (Department of Defense) – just seeing so much of it come here and then leave. I did try to set up an industry space center that helped the companies … so that they would win more of those contracts. But it is very difficult to do as a federal employee because (I couldn’t) favor New Mexico companies. So three years ago, I kind of got this eureka thought, ‘You know I’m hitting my minimum retirement age, I’m going to do this from the outside.'”
How successful have you been so far?
“Our first set of goals was to break down what I call the walls between the north and the south. People didn’t know each other. Folks down south would know about the Spaceport, but they had no idea that there’s a $1 billion-plus structure in DOD Air Force that’s … now part of the space force. Folks up here, they knew about government contracting, say with AFRL, but they didn’t know what was going on with the Spaceport. I think it’s cool – more and more people want to be part of this. We had (an initial) list of 200 stakeholders. Now, our newsletter goes to 800 people.”
What are the coolest projects you’ve worked on as a space engineer?
“I always tell people, ‘you know that blue dot on your phone? I worked on the electronics for those. The computer systems that are in the GPS satellites are from things that I’ve worked on.’ During an internship with NASA, I worked on the tiles for the space shuttle.”
Did you always want to be a scientist?
“I’ve always loved math. I had a high school math teacher who had told me, ‘You should sign up for engineering (in college.)’ I didn’t even know what an engineer was. He said, ‘Once you get there, you start understanding.’ I went to
Engineering 101, where they had you build a bridge that held 50 pounds, So here I am, an engineer. I tell a lot of students, ‘If you have a math aptitude, get an engineering bachelor’s. If you’re not reasonably OK with math, you can still do it, but it’s much harder. You still can go on and get a law degree, an education degree, a business degree, but having an engineering bachelor’s, you learn basic problem-solving. It’s not going to be a negative in your life.'”
What was your first job?
“I worked at Sirloin Stockade. It was a restaurant where they served steaks. I got asked to homecoming and tried to get the day off, but they wouldn’t give it to me. I quit.”
How do you spend your free time?
“I love spending time with my family. Faith, family, work. I’ve had crazy jobs, but I made sure I didn’t miss birthdays. I’d work a regular day, then go off to (the kids’) basketball games or make sure they did homework. Then, I’d usually get back to doing another couple of hours of work in the evening. My family is always first. We’ve always liked to travel together. We like to ski. I grew up skiing and hiking the ridge at Taos Ski Valley. That mountain is where my heart is. I can’t do the moguls any more with my knees, but Taos was my place, for sure.”
Do you have any mentors?
“My mom. She just always encouraged me and told me to not to be afraid to go out and lead. It was funny, though, because she told me, ‘Don’t have your kids until you get your career going.’ I always told her later that was bad advice. I was tired. To have my kids in my 30s … it was harder than when you’re younger. But it turned out OK. I survived.”
Was it difficult being in a male-dominated field?
“I will say when I got to the GS-15 level. … I was the first technical female, actually Hispanic and female, at that level at the lab. That was in 2008. What I think is hard is you could get to the top, but it’s really hard to get in the top. I think you’re treated like a staffer versus a leader. Today is much better than when I started, especially for females in STEM, but it still needs progress. Even with NewSpace New Mexico, I think in the beginning people were saying, ‘Oh, maybe get so-and-so.’ And I’m like, ‘No. I’m going to do it. This is my idea. I will lead this.'”