AME Alumni Highlights: Dr. Amber Walker and Tayera Ellis

AME is delighted to have such talented Alumni who continue to make us proud after graduation. This week, we’re highlighting Dr. Amber Walker, who attended graduate school in 2010, and Tayera Ellis, who received her aerospace engineering degree in 2018.

Amber Walker, PhD

I’m currently in-between positions.  I just concluded a 3.5-year tour as a Program Manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and will soon be taking up a position leading Autonomous Systems strategy at Raytheon BBN.

I have had a varied career between active duty military service and my academic pursuits.  As an Army officer, I’ve served as a communications officer and operations researcher in between degrees at Oxford and OU.  I have designed and taught engineering curriculum at the United States Military Academy and advised undergraduate research, served in technical workforce development roles (recruitment and training), and most recently held a position as a Research and Development Program Manager responsible for the cost, schedule, and technical achievement of a portfolio of military defense projects – primarily aligned to the US Army – at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I was responsible for defining problems, creating the means by which to solve them with large and small businesses alike, and overseeing the accomplishments of those performers for the life of the project.  I’ve done this with advanced missile systems and rockets, ground vehicles, novel human interfaces, self-reconfigurable modular robotics, and more.

I did my undergraduate degree at West Point in Mechanical/Aeronautical Engineering.  I had a number of unique and rewarding experiences there including a capstone project, flight laboratories aboard both Cessna fixed wing and Huey rotary wing platforms, trips to Cape Canaveral, and more.  In 2004 I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and began my two-year journey at Oxford, which was a much different experience than US-based graduate school. I took no courses, but instead worked for 20 months on a dissertation and viva related to ‘Fast Crack Propagation in Ductile Metals.’  I primarily investigated how we could use empirical evidence to improve finite element models to support the validation and testing of two metal alloys for Rolls Royce (civil air) and BMW (automobiles).  Finally, I had the opportunity to return to graduate school at OU in 2010 where I shifted my focus away from solid mechanics and into Human-Robot Interaction. I made this move following my experience as a military officer deployed to Iraq having watched the Army struggle to fully adopt a new radio system.  While technically more capable, the system suffered from poor user interface design and inspired me to focus on user-centered design, which I applied to robotics under Professor David Miller.  That really started my pivot into autonomous systems and advanced ground robots as well as wearables and I’m still passionate about creating technology that is intuitive, useful, and performance-enhancing.

Both of my graduate degrees have been paramount to achieving my professional goals and my growth as a leader in the field of autonomous systems and mechanical engineering.  I credit them with the ability to clearly communicate difficult technical subjects, both in writing and verbally, as well as exposing me to problems and solutions across multiple topic areas.  It’s amazing how often my experience from a machine shop (G-code) or design of experiments is called upon!  Further, I’ve really treasured the friends and colleagues with whom I’ve been able to work and the network of brilliant people that I can call upon.

Some of my favorite memories I have as an OU student include cleaning out the lab and then heading to Pepe’s for Mexican food (which is still way better in Oklahoma than in DC), stealing a parking space from Tai, any football game, and all the snow days!!  I think my first January back we were only on campus for 5 days 🙂

I had my first child while at OU, and it shows…he’s a HUGE Sooner football fan.  It is possible, with the right partner, to have meaningful academic and professional success while building a family and enjoying a work/life balance. It’s not always easy, and it does require commitment, but it is possible.  I’m encouraged to see more and more men and women finding a balance that suits their personal goals.

Tayera Ellis

I currently serve as a Test Director for space environmental tests. This role includes test planning, coordinating, and providing engineering modifications to test facilities. I brief and train test subjects, including astronauts, in the operation of test systems and training with the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU).

I have a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering, Class of 2018. I was a 4-time NASA intern, and Stress Engineering Intern for Spirit AeroSystems.

As an engineer in the industry, I don’t use much of the technical portion of my engineering degree, however, I do continue to use the skills I developed for studying and learning. Getting an aerospace engineering degree took patience and persistence, and many challenges in my career also take the same virtues.

My favorite memory as an OU Student was graduation.

It’s important for students to keep moving forward. Although classes are tough and highly technical, once you are working as an engineer in the industry, you will have opportunities to continue learning on the job and gain knowledge from other engineers with 20+ years of experience. Don’t give up, because the outcome is worth all the hard work!


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