Sandra Boujnah, aerospace engineer, CNES

Sandra Boujnah, aerospace engineer, CNES

Sandra BOUJNAH graduated from the IPSA in Paris in 2009, majoring in "Energy and Propulsion" and then "Space Systems Design", being the top of her class. She previously worked at ArianeGroup, and in 2018 joined the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales. (CNES).

Question: Why did you choose the Aerospace field and more particularly the specialization in propulsion?

Answer: Space has been a passion for me since I was a child. When I was only in elementary school I participated in a micro rocket workshop where with a group of children we each made the body of the rocket in cardboard, added a touch of paint (mine was in the colors of Tintin's), then professionals added a small engine and we were able to shoot from a suitable field. The aerodynamics of mine was not optimal, its flight was not very successful but I keep a very good memory of this experience. During my studies at the college, the desire to make space a profession remained very present and it was therefore quite logical for me to go into aerospace engineering, especially since I particularly liked scientific subjects. However, it was during the end of my studies, when I was already in a specialized school in the field, the IPSA, that I decided to specialize in propulsion. I was able to tackle various subjects in this field at this school, but it was really the propulsion part that caught my attention, and this became clear during my internships in companies during my training.

Question: What path did you take to get there and what memories do you have of it?

Answer: After I graduated from high school in 2004, I entered the HPIC preparation class at the Lycée Saint Louis in Paris. After the two years of the preparatory class I chose to join IPSA which is a school specialized in aeronautics and space. The school part of my studies is obviously the most enjoyable because I was able to study exciting subjects and make friends with many classmates, one of whom is also a colleague at the CNES in Paris to this day. In addition to the training I received during my classes, like any school we had to do internships, my first internship in the aerospace industry was in Vernon, at Snecma, which was then ArianeGroup, a real first foot in the door of propulsion. My final internship was at CNES, in Evry at the time, in the department where I currently work, in the engine and propulsion systems department. During this internship I came into contact with an alumnus from my school from a previous class, informing me of the opening of a position in propulsion at Sogeti High Tech on the Mureaux site for Astrium at the time, now ArianeGroup. After I had worked for this first company, I was hired by ArianeGroup in the liquid propulsion department at Les Mureaux. In 2018, after about ten years in space propulsion for industry, I was hired as a propulsion and demonstrator engineer at CNES in Paris Daumesnil, in the launcher department.

A lot of memories were inevitably forged during these years, but what is particular in this field, especially space propulsion which is a niche within a niche, is that it is an environment where many people know each other and where you can meet many people you have worked with before. I had the opportunity to meet the right people at the right time and it helped me to make a place for myself in this field where I dreamed of working.

Question: Do you have any difficulties as a woman in this field?

Answer: I have been fortunate that I have not had any difficulties as a woman in this field, but like everyone else I have had difficulties in general. As a woman during my studies, I was only 10% of my class and it takes a long time to get to know everyone, but it is easier to remember the names of the girls in the class for the others, so I would say that it makes it easier to make contact. During my life in the company, it has been surrounded by kindness from my male peers, and I have not had any difficulties with my female counterparts either. I have also rubbed shoulders with many women, whether in my departments at ArianeGroup or at CNES, or with project managers, because even if women are still much less present than men in this field, there are many women in the aerospace industry.

If I have to raise a difficulty nevertheless, it would have been rather during my studies, having no engineer in my entourage my choice of studies was rather a surprise for my relatives, as it was not something common for a girl, and not knowing what was the best way to achieve my goal I did my research and choices alone. That said, even though they didn't have the knowledge to guide me, my choice was always supported by my family and friends who understood that it was a rather strong wish on my part.

Question: Has there been an evolution in this environment since your beginnings to today? 

Answer: I don't have the impression that the environment itself has changed, but I have had a positive opinion on this subject from the beginning, and I've only been in it for about ten years. On the other hand, I think that more and more young girls are turning to scientific professions in their studies, whereas it used to be very much a man's profession. On this point, it is a good thing that they can consider all the career possibilities open to them without thinking that it is not a woman's job, because it is as much a woman's job as a man's job in my opinion, each personality offering its own diversity to the field.

Question: If you hadn't become an engineer, what would you have wanted to do?

Answer: When I was younger, I would also have liked to do research in astrophysics, but it is still on the same theme. In a totally different field, if I hadn't had such an affinity with science I would have liked to be an actress, but I kept this affinity there for leisure, I've been doing amateur theater for more than ten years and I'm now part of an amateur troupe set up with famous friends in theater classes. 

Question: Did you have, or do you still have a role model who inspired you towards this career?

Answer: No, I don't have a model in particular, I have met during my studies and my career some very inspiring people who make me want to continue working in this field, but I don't have a model in particular.

© Adama Toulon