Her visually impaired parents served as her biggest role models in life but it was her love for robotics and astronomy that drew her to her career path.
Chan May Chong, 28, is currently a systems engineer at Rockwell Collins Inc based in Iowa, the United States, a multinational company that provides avionics and information technology systems and services to government agencies and aircraft manufacturers.
She holds a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona, Florida, and is currently pursuing her Masters in Engineering Management at Pennsylvania State University-Great Valley Graduate Center.
Born in Ipoh, Perak, Chan loved to tinker with computers and electronics as a young child, often taking things apart and reassembling them to find out how things worked.
“Due to my late father’s influence, I have always enjoyed astronomy. Looking at the night sky became a form of prayer to me. It bolstered my spirits and channelled my emotions in ways words never could.
“That, plus my curiosity about how gadgets work, my love for mathematics and anything that flies, all combined to drive me towards aerospace engineering,” shared Chan via email.
The former student of SMK Seri Bintang Utara, formerly known as Bukit Bintang Girls’ School, also loved reading.
“Reading was my solace and, through reading, I came to learn about my favourite scientists such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking,” she added, citing The Universe In A Nutshell and Rocket Man as some of her favourite reads.
Growing up, Chan was also active in various fields, including robotics, sports, and music (the choir and violin), in between helping her parents with daily chores and school work.
Her parents were para athletes in lawn ball and Chan followed her parents’ to their training sessions and also for her own training during the weekends.
Chan represented the Federal Territories in ping pong, javelin, discus and shot put, as well as represented Selangor in judo.
She took on a part-time job as an anime subtitle translator when she was 15.
“I enjoyed watching anime, so it felt more like a form of entertainment and an opportunity to practise my languages, while getting paid for it.”
In school, Chan was also part of a robotics team which represented her school in the second instalment of the FIRST Lego League (FLL) event in Malaysia. The goal of the competition was to carry out given missions using the RCX Mindstorm kit incorporated with their own programming and design.
Chan was the programmer in her team.
“Programming encouraged me to think more proactively about my surroundings. This, accompanied by my fascination about the mechanism of flight, eventually led me to the path of studying about UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and flight dynamics and controls in graduate school,” she said.
Chan later had the opportunity to work on the NASA Free-Flying Unmanned Robotics Spacecraft for Asteroid Resource Prospecting and Characterisation Project at the Kennedy Space Center.
“I was involved in the project during my time as a graduate research assistant at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The project I was involved with was under Kennedy Space Center’s Swamp Works, which provides government and commercial space ventures with the technologies required for working and living on the surfaces of the moon or other planets and bodies in our solar system.
“Aside from personally working on the non-linear controllers, flight simulation, building a test area on campus, and assembling a SkyJib drone, I get to watch others work on technological concepts for a launch pad environment, especially the mechanics of soil at Lunar and Martian spaceports, how to excavate the soil to prepare berms, landing pads, and roads; how to model the blowing of soil or other materials in a rocket exhaust plume to predict the blast effects,” she explained.
An only child and a former student of Inti International College, Chan had received a full scholarship to pursue her Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Her late father was an audio technician who first started losing part of his sight due to a severe fever, eventually becoming blind in his 30s. Chan’s mother, a former massage instructor for the blind, lost her eyesight due to an eye infection.
When asked about her journey so far and whether she finds it hard to believe sometimes, Chan replied, “That’s a good question. I’ll probably say yes and no. Yes, it is unbelievable to think about a common Malaysian girl with blind parents to even imagine studying abroad in America, let alone working at the frontier of the aviation field.
“But I also had so much guidance and help from everyone I met along the journey who made me believe that I could get to where I desired as long as I had the right mindset and attitude.”
Chan has a piece of advice for young girls who may be discouraged from pursuing STEM-related studies or jobs.
“Please believe in yourself and don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. Never surrender your hopes and dreams to the fateful limitations others have placed on their own lives.”
Undoubtedly, Chan loves her job and hopes to use it for the betterment of society.
“I love the part involved in transporting passengers and cargo, including the ones capable of conducting search-and-rescue missions. Knowing the fact that my team and I have given our best in ensuring the safety of flight so mankind can be connected around the world as a whole makes me proud of my job.
“I also promised myself that I would find a way to make air transportation and space travel a common means of transportation that is safer, greener and more economical. I believe that this will connect the Earth as one big family and allow mankind to explore the unknown and learn more about ourselves.”