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Engineering Alumna Soars: From Failing High School Math to Building Blue Origin Rockets

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Engineering alumna Sharon Pak went from failing high school math to becoming a rocket engineer at Blue Origin, a commercial space company.

“My current career path genuinely never crossed my mind as something I could do,” Pak said.

At Cal State Fullerton, Pak overcame her math struggles with the help of faculty mentors and defied the impossible. She graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

“I’m living proof that you don’t have to be naturally good at math to become an engineer,” she said.

In 2022, Pak landed a job as a manufacturing engineer at Blue Origin. She works on the ignition system for the reusable BE-4 rocket engine. The ignition system creates the spark that lights the engine and sends the rocket into space. The combustion engine will power the next generation of American orbital rockets.

“As a manufacturing engineer, I write the instructions to build and test the engine. It’s a super fun job. I love working with different Blue Origin teams all over the country,” said Pak, who works at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, near Seattle.

Pak said the BE-4 rocket engine is the most powerful liquified natural gas rocket engine ever developed.

“This engine will power the New Glenn rocket, which will be the workhorse where people and heavy industries are moved into space to preserve Earth — humanity’s blue origin.” 

A BE-4 engine nighttime hotfire test at Blue Origin’s facilities in West Texas. Credit: Blue Origin

More than her success at Blue Origin, Pak inspires next-generation engineers, including women in the male-dominated engineering field. 

“As an Asian American female engineer, I hope that my story gives others hope and propels other women into successful careers in tech,” she said. “You have a unique opportunity to create new technologies that can improve humanity and alter how people go about their everyday lives.”

Pak has more than 7,000 followers on her Instagram and hosts a podcast every other Thursday called “Tech Exploited.” 

She started the podcast in July and invites friends and colleagues to give personal insights and share stories about their engineering jobs at companies like Amazon, Tesla, Microsoft and Boeing to help others become successful engineers. 

Podcast guests share their triumphs, challenges and valuable lessons learned in their college and career journeys. Episodes include the “Road to Becoming a Software Engineer at Microsoft,” “Community College to Tesla Manager” and “An Amazon Recruiter’s Hiring Secrets.”

“Listeners get exclusive inside scoops about hiring practices, work culture and career advice from engineers in all walks of life who are working at the most prestigious tech companies in the world,” she said. 

Launching a Career in the Space Industry

Pak, whose father is a pharmacist and mother is a lecturer in CSUF’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, had never dreamed of working in the space industry.

sharon pak-1 with New Glenn Rocket image
Sharon Pak stands next to an image of Blue Origin’s New Glenn reusable rocket, which will be powered by BE-4 engines. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sharon Pak

In high school, Pak landed a summer internship at Boeing, where she was introduced to the space industry and how rockets are built. Her Boeing mentor was part of the iconic space shuttle missions and inspired her fascination with space and pursuit of an engineering career.

After graduating from CSUF, she worked at a defense company as part of their employee rotational program and had the opportunity to work at different office locations across the country. She worked on defense projects involving robotics, F-35 fighter planes and Apache attack helicopters.

As a CSUF student, Pak gained leadership experiences by serving as vice president of the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Inter-Club Council and was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha, Theta Phi Chapter. She worked as a campus tour guide, became involved in industry networking events, and learned from peers and her professors how to prepare for a career as an engineer. 

Roberto Soto, associate professor of mathematics, guided her in calculus courses, and Sagil James, associate professor of mechanical engineering, mentored her in real-world research experiences.

“Dr. Soto was the only math teacher I’ve ever had where I felt like math made sense for the first time,” she said. “Dr. James was my senior design adviser and helped me prepare for a successful career by gaining applicable industry experience to expand my network.”

While Blue Origin was founded with a vision of millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth, Pak is just fine, for now, staying put on this planet. 

“In this new age of space exploration, I like being on the ground floor of the technology to make space travel accessible to the average person,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to work in this industry because we’re at the forefront of making history.”

Debra Cano Ramos