As a child, Christine Dailey was diagnosed with dyslexia. She heard things in a jumbled way, tripped over spellings, and deciphered words backward. When she was in sixth grade, she read at a fourth-grade level.
Starting in middle school, her guidance counselors advised her to drop out and get a fast-food job so she could work her way up and become an effective member of the community.
Dailey didn’t take that advice. She’s now a mechanical engineer in the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. She’s also pursuing her PhD at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), and is the co-host of RoboNation TV, a program established by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) Foundation to encourage students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.
An inventor at heart, Dailey dabbles in fields from fluid mechanics to electronics. She has created autonomous vehicles, worked on the development of cellular towers and antimissile protection systems, and designed an exercise machine for astronauts. Here, she talks about the workings of her exceptional mind and how she overcame her early learning struggles to forge a path to an exciting engineering career.
You’ve had a quite a bit of success as an inventor in a short amount of time. What decisions led you to where you are today?
It’s been a bit of a rough path. I was a sports journalist for a while, but after writing about one team winning and one team losing, I got bored. It was too easy, so I decided to go back to school. My parents own Mega Mix, a mortar and stucco manufacturing, distribution, and supply company in Tampa, Florida, and I grew up with an understanding of that; I learned how to fix things and to make do with what I had in front me. I pretty much fell into the rest of it. On a tour of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, I met Dr. Charles Reinholtz, chair of the mechanical-engineering department, who caught me peeking into a robotics lab. My eyes lit up like a little kid’s on Christmas morning. I thought, “Yes, finally!” This is what I want to do. This is where I belong.
At the Naval Research Laboratory, you develop unmanned aerial vehicles. What creative thinking goes into these robots?
As with any design, you have to understand what the needs and motivation are. Ultimately, our customer is our Navy, and therefore we must understand our fleet and what they need to remain at the forefront of technology. That doesn’t just mean making missiles and bombs, but rather, intelligent machinery and unmanned systems. We’d much rather have a vehicle blow up than a family member. These kinds of robots have all sorts of uses in the civilian world, too. Think of how dangerous mining is. A robot with the appropriate sensor suite can go into a mine and run surveillance to detect gases and other materials, determine hot areas and safe areas, and search for potash. It’s the same way with warfare.
You have a patent pending with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a space exercise machine adapted to a lower-body negative-pressure chamber. Where did the idea originate?
Dr. Reinholtz, my advisor, asked if I was interested in doing a study abroad, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to work on developing an exercise machine that could be integrated into an existing negative-pressure chamber—which, at the time, was fairly rare. My father is a stickler when it comes to his children remaining involved. He always says, “Never say no to your boss when it comes to opportunities.” I knew nothing about space, exercise, or astronauts. But I heard my dad’s voice and said, “Sure.” Then two years later, I had a successful system and a book that takes the reader through the entire design process.
Was there a moment of inspiration that led you to the design?
Not really. I have a simple way of looking at things, which I feel makes me a good engineer. If something simple fixes a problem, don’t make it complicated. Physical exercise combats bone loss. An efficient way to achieve this is to put perpendicular force on the bone in question. The same is true with muscles. You apply an amount of resistance, which varies depending on the person, to a muscle group and you will defeat muscle atrophy. I tried to group together all the negative physical effects of space travel and create an optimal solution. What is one machine that will fix everything? I started with a simple spring to create a Nautilus type of resistance and built upon that.
You’ve been open about your struggles with dyslexia. What inspired you to stick with school and become an engineer?
My parents, absolutely. When I struggled to read, they sat me down and said we’re going to read one page of a book, then four pages, then a chapter. They put in a lot of time. To help me learn to spell, my mom would write letters on pieces of paper and scatter them across the living room floor. I’d put them together like a puzzle to remember the way the words fell in order. Their support and the support of my siblings are the reason I am where I am.
Based on your work with RoboNation TV, what sort of experiences help inspire young women to pursue STEM careers?
Most all of us, including myself, want attention; we want to feel wanted and loved. I remember doing a student robotics competition segment for RoboNation: The makeup artist was touching me up, and a young girl who was supposed to be working on her robot comes up to me, lip gloss in hand, and says, “I didn’t know engineers could be both pretty and smart. I want to be pretty like you.” I was completely flabbergasted. Turning to my producer, I asked for a wet wipe to remove the makeup. Then I told the young girl what makes me beautiful is my intelligence, my hard work, and my ethics; my face is what it is. Afterward, I took her hand and we went to her spot on the testing floor, and I said, “Instead of showing me what lip gloss you have, show me your robot.”
To pull your average girl into these fields, you have to fight the stereotype of the typically nerdy engineer: a girl in big glasses with uncombed hair who stares at the floor, scared to talk. And you have to teach in a fun way that shows girls and boys that engineering is actually really cool. Go beyond books and tests and actually pull out a robot sensor and say, “If you want to control this, this is one of the basic equations.”
Do you need to be daring to be a good designer?
Daring is not the right word. I think you need to be confident. If you believe in your research, then you don’t have much to lose. I lived this firsthand when I pitched the space exercise machine to the Department of Navy and Department of Defense. Both liked the idea and were very engaged; however, at the time, this machine didn’t serve our Navy’s greatest needs. I knew that going into the meeting—a meeting full of high-ranking officials, which scared me, but I didn’t let that stop me. And although the machine wasn’t Navy funded, I did get to present my work, make invested contacts, and show my face to my superiors as a face to remember.