College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Bloebaum turns passion for planes into career in aerospace engineering

A love for flying and a strong desire to become an astronaut led Christina Bloebaum to believe joining the U.S. Christina BloebaumAir Force was her destiny, especially after growing up for three and a half years on a base in Germany. Although she later decided against enlisting, Bloebaum was able to enter a field she considers equally valuable: aerospace engineering.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Florida in 1986, Bloebaum was excited to enter industry, but her life again went in a different direction than initially planned.

A structures professor introduced her to the concept of optimization and offered to take her on as a graduate student to research the topic. One year later, Bloebaum completed her master’s degree in aerospace engineering, again at the University of Florida, researching how to implement global sensitivity analysis in dual structures and control optimization, something she continues to explore today.

Bloebaum then decided to continue at the University of Florida to earn a doctorate in the same field and was sponsored by a grant from the NASA Langley Research Center. She explored formal and heuristic system decomposition methods in multidisciplinary synthesis.

“For the first time, we were able to determine how a change in one subsystem’s design variable affects the performance of another subsystem’s outputs, and thereby determine the impact of the change at the system level,” she explains. “This led to my dissertation on the concurrent subspace optimization method and the use of global sensitivities for complex system design.”

After completing her doctorate in 1991, Bloebaum began working at the University of Buffalo as an assistant professor, and she spent the summer of 1992 as a Faculty Fellow at the NASA Langley Research Center.

She maintained her relationship with NASA after the position ended, and in later years, performed work as a visiting scientist and served as a consultant for the center.

Bloebaum’s research involving the study of trade-off issues among disciplines and quantifying couplings to enable intelligent decision-making at the system level has been of great interest to her.

“If one looks at the design and creation of a plane, for example, there is so much information involved that it makes it impossible for a single person to understand it all. Therefore, different groups of people will work to design specific parts,” explains Bloebaum. “The changes one group makes in the design will undoubtedly affect the results of what another group is working on. It’s all about helping these groups working in complex environments connect and understand how decisions they make are going to affect one another.”

In 1995, Bloebaum was recognized by the White House as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Presidential Faculty Fellow, which gave her the opportunity to spend time studying visualization in the context of complex systems. Her graduate student at the time, Eliot Winer, was able to spearhead this research and now serves as an associate professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) at Iowa State.

For the past three and a half years, Bloebaum has lived in Virginia, where she has served as program director of the engineering and systems design program and the system science program at the NSF.

She was contacted about a position in the aerospace engineering department at Iowa State and decided to visit the school to learn more. Impressed with the innovative research and faculty partnerships, she decided it was something she wanted to become a part of.

“I believe multidisciplinary efforts are vital to advancement, and that is exactly what is happening at Iowa State,” she says. “This collaboration is exciting and rare. The university is fostering some great incentives for faculty members who work together, and that is very impressive.”

Serving as the Dennis and Rebecca Muilenburg Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Bloebaum hopes to continue her research and work to build collaborations across different departments and colleges.

“I’m excited to interact with those at VRAC,” says Bloebaum. “Using visualization gives designers a way to interface with data to optimize results and can really enable them to steer a solution process.”

In addition, Bloebaum will be meeting with faculty members to explore opportunities for course development, as well as working to craft aerospace systems courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to add to the department’s curriculum.

Moving to Ames with her three school-aged children, Bloebaum is also looking forward to the environment the community will provide for her family, as well as the scholarly work atmosphere.

“I’m ready to be back around students and faculty,” says Bloebaum. “An environment like that is just so rich and intellectually stimulating, and I am excited to return to it.”