Our Best Job Ever series focuses on women who do extraordinary things in their fields, as well as in their free time. This week, we’re inspired to celebrate a gal who is killing it in electrical engineering both at home and abroad, whether on the ground or 28,000 feet in the air.
Paige Kassalen has always flown on the wings of her passions. Be it in engineering or sorority recruitment, she’s always taken advantage of new opportunities to grow. Her latest adventure? Helping the world’s first solar-powered airplane fly around the world. An electrical engineer and member of Solar Impulse’s ground crew, Paige applied her technical engineering skills and adventurous personality to four continents and nine countries. You could say the sky’s not the limit for this Pittsburgh native. We sat down and talked with Paige about creative inspiration, confidence boosters, and how to stay true to yourself in the working world.
What drew you to electrical engineering and working at Covestro?
I’m so lucky I found engineering, because I’ve always loved using creativity skills to solve problems. At a conference last fall, I saw a woman with a solar panel on her laptop case. My immediate thought was: “How can I build something like this?” I went home, looked at different schematics for connecting a charging circuit, and, after buying an adorable red bag, I soldered the electronics together to build a solar-powered, phone-charging purse. It was amazing to plug my phone in and see it light up! That feeling of satisfaction is my motivation.
I knew Covestro was right for me when a colleague saw Tri Delta sorority on my résumé and told me that the communication skills I gained from that experience would be a great asset. Engineers might often feel tempted to hide sorority-related aspects of their personality, because unfortunately many people don’t think you can be both a Greek life member and a badass engineer. It’s a huge part of who I am, though. It’s best for all involved when employers know your true interests and personality.
What lead to your role on the Solar Impulse team?
I was spending four months rotating between Covestro’s polycarbonate plastics, polyurethane foam, and coatings, adhesives and specialties units. Halfway through rotation, I learned they were looking for an electrical engineer to be on the ground crew for this historic mission. I immediately jumped on it! Solar Impulse chose Covestro as a partner because we proved our technology was the best in the world. Thirty engineers spent six months engineering a lightweight and efficient insulation for the plane’s cockpit. Without our material, at 28,000 feet, the inside of the cockpit would have been -40 F°. With our insulation, it was only -4 F°. That’s a survivable environment!
Tell us all about the trip!
The plane had started in Abu Dhabi in March 2015. It then went across Asia and landed in Hawaii for maintenance. When I arrived, we completed 15 training flights to get the crew and pilots comfortable before the second half of the trip. After Hawaii, it was on to California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Spain, Egypt, and finally, Abu Dhabi to finish the around-the-world flight.
What were your biggest challenges during the journey?
Language and cultural barriers presented a big challenge. As the only one on the team from the United States, communication was initially difficult. That presented an internal struggle. I lost some of the confidence I arrived with when I realized I couldn’t show my personality as easily as I’d have liked. My colleagues, however, let me know that just by learning I was doing an amazing job. Their constant support brought us all closer, and reassured me that I was doing just fine.
How did you stay confident when things got tough?
Support is the #1 way to inspire confidence. Different cultures show support differently, and I was used to a culture that said, “You can do it! If you mess up now, you’ll get it next time.” I made sure to talk to friends and family while I was in Hawaii in order still have that support. At ground crew meetings, instead of discussing what went wrong, I changed the conversation by saying, “I want to talk about how much I appreciated when Stefan showed me how the mobile hangar worked,” or, “I learned so much when Richard took the time to explain the power system to me.” I heard more people use the word “appreciate” after that. It changed the whole mood!
Do you have any goals for the year, now that you’re back in Pittsburgh?
After college, I had set a 5-year plan. But of course, you can never predict anything. I never expected my experience with Solar Impulse to happen. So now, I’ll do some reflecting. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to come back to Covestro and spend another four months learning about a different business unit!
Any career advice for those entering the workforce?
I always hear people saying, “Make sure you don’t overbook yourself.” I disagree. If you think you’re at your capacity, go one step further. Make sure you’re constantly pushing yourself, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to grow. Our only limiting factor is ourselves. When I was feeling down about my technical knowledge, I told myself, “Paige, you only had 5 weeks of learning about this power system in college. Don’t psyche yourself out!” Make sure you’re staying positive, and make sure to support others in the workplace, too.
How did you feel at the end of the trip?
I was in such a weird mood that whole last day. It was hard believe I was there in Abu Dhabi. I took it moment by moment, like, “Okay. Now I gotta get in position. Next, I’ll jump in the van. Then we’ll head out to the runway.” It was incredible, getting ready to catch the wing of the plane for the final time. The plane’s wings were 236 feet wide, and if strong winds came, the 5,100-pound plane could topple over. So there I’d be, running to catch the bar and stabilize the wing. That’s another reason I’m grateful Covestro was involved — we made lightweight material. When I was grabbing the wing, I mentally thanked Covestro for making things a little lighter!
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