When Katherine Bicer was four years old, her little brother was born with a serious health problem. He had an intestinal disease and a dire prognosis. In the middle of the night, he needed emergency care that was unavailable at the local hospital. There was no time to waste, so the hospital called for a helicopter and the tiny patient was quickly swept off to a team of waiting surgeons at another hospital. Little did Katherine know then that 25 years later, she would be instrumental in making sure those helicopters work as fast and reliably as possible.
Helicopters Used in Disaster Relief and National Defense
“I work on engine parts for helicopters like Black Hawks, Seahawks, and Apaches,” says Katherine. “I do mechanical and materials engineering—although at GE, where I work, I’m called a Life Management Engineer, which basically means that I analyze the working life span of the moving parts inside our engines.”
Katherine’s work is very important—critical to national security and to public health and safety. Helicopters are indispensable in disaster relief, emergency medical transport, cargo transport, and for all kinds of military uses. “Helicopters often mean the difference between life and death,” says Katherine, “and I know that from personal experience.”
A Roundabout Route to Engineering
Today, Katherine’s brother is doing just fine and attends medical school. But Katherine’s own career journey was less direct. “When I was in high school, I was particularly good in chemistry, but I never thought much about it. Then, believe it or not, I saw a hallway poster one day that said, “Why not a career in chemistry?” And I thought, “Why not?”
After getting a degree in chemistry, Katherine became interested in archeology. “I wanted to look at ways you could use chemistry to understand archeological artifacts.” She found a master’s program that focused on archeological materials, and that led her to materials science and materials engineering. “Materials,” she says, “are anything that’s solid, tangible, like the rubber soles on your shoes, the plastic in your water bottle . . . really, materials are just about everything that you can touch.”
Everything from Helicopter Blades to Chewing Gum
There are natural materials, like the bark of a tree, and engineered materials, like plastic. Katherine works on engineered materials. She says, “Materials are really cool because they fill all kinds of needs. For example, sometime in the past, somebody noticed that the gum she was chewing did not hold its flavor very long. You can bet it was a materials engineer who came up with a new gum that kept its flavor. On the more serious side, let’s say someone needs a helicopter to fly higher or faster than it does today. It’s up to people like me to find the materials that can take the heat and stress that that kind of performance would put on the helicopter engine.”
Katherine has an adventurous streak. She’s taken trapeze lessons and considered skydiving, but oddly enough, unlike her younger brother, she has never taken a helicopter ride!