From stargazing child to award-winning female aerospace engineer

aerospace engineer
Source: Gabriela Gavilánez Gallardo

Not many young children dream of becoming an aerospace engineer.

Even fewer stick to their childhood ambitions. Research reveals that 96% of adults are not in the job they dreamt of as a child.

Gabriela Gavilánez Gallardo counts herself part of the 4% — thanks to one moment that cemented her life goals.

At 12 years old, Gallardo visited Florida with her family. While the usual Disney and Universal theme parks were on the agenda, the Kennedy Space Centre made an impact.

“I remember that there were planets and satellites hanging up, and I fell in love with it,” says Gallardo.

“At that moment, I turned to my mom and said I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I want to work with these machines. It has been 12 years of my life, but I’ve been fulfilling the tiny 12-year-old Gabby’s dreams.”

Gallardo has completed her Bachelor of Science in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

It is the world’s largest and most respected university specialising in aviation and aerospace

Gallardo is currently a graduate research and teaching assistant and is about to earn her Master of Science in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the same university.

Recently, Gallardo was one of only 20 around the world to receive the Aviation Week Network’s 20 Twenties Class of 2024.

This places her among the top aerospace-bound students in the world.

“I’m glad I’ve been recognised for my hard work, but I still have to say that this is just the beginning, and I feel like I will still do many, many things,” she says.

aerospace engineer

It was at the Kennedy Space Center when Gallardo discovered her dream to become an aerospace engineer. Source: AFP

The first aerospace engineer in the family

While the phrase “aerospace engineer” was new to her vocabulary at first, there was nothing that would stop Gallardo from chasing her dream.

“I had a very, very big dream,” she adds.

“I was very lucky to have parents who support me mentally and economically to make this dream come true.”

Hailing from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, Gallardo’s first language is Spanish, and she is proficient in Portuguese.

As her parents felt that English would be an important language for her future, she grew up speaking it fluently.

The aspiring aerospace engineer also got her grit and determination from her parents.

“Both of my parents were the first generation of people getting degrees in their families,” she says.

aerospace engineer

With such a high-achieving family, the expectations on Gallardo were ten-fold. Source: Gabriela Gavilánez Gallardo


Her father is a doctor specialising in radiology and her mother is a business administrator with an MBA. They both overcame limitations and excelled in their respective fields.

Their children are no different.

“My twin sister is now a doctor, and my brother graduated with a bachelor’s in finance and marketing,” says Gallardo.

With such a high-achieving family, the expectations are tenfold.

“I have such an appreciation for my family, and I admire every single one of them. I think they are the smartest people I have ever met,” she adds.

“My dad is incredible. He can devour books and remember every single detail. My sister is the same way, and my brother got to two majors before he was 21. So it’s amazing. I felt like I needed to fulfil those expectations as well.”

When asked how she deals with the pressure and potential burnout, Gallardo says, “Therapy.” This is a healthy way to deal with feeling overwhelmed with university life.

While her siblings could go to their parents for help during their studies, Gallardo had to figure things out herself.

Still, Gallardo has excelled in her field and can proudly say she is the first aerospace engineer in the family.

Initially, she felt ashamed when she needed to ask for help and ended up trying to work things out herself. During this time, she learned a valuable lesson.

“You shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help from somebody who knows how to do it,” she says. “Because otherwise, you’re going to spend more time figuring out the problem.”

A budding aerospace engineer

Before university, Gallardo pursued the International Baccalaureate, which prepared her in the best way. The IB is a global programme that awards a prestigious diploma to students.

“They pretty much train you for how the university is going to be,” she says. “So I got used to what the IB was like, so when I got into college, it was a piece of cake.”

Too young to go overseas immediately, Gallardo was enrolled into Universidad San Francisco de Quito for a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.

She made a deal with the university, which meant that after she completed her degree, she could transfer to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Despite how the IB prepared her, Gallardo’s initial university experience required some trial and error.

She had to deal with organising her own schedule and being smart about how to manage her time, even while living at home.

“I had to wake up every single morning at 5 am to go to school and get there by eight and wait for my classes to start,” she explains.

“I had to understand how to organise my time and work on my stuff like homework assignments and projects. Those were the first things that I had to learn very quickly.”

As gruelling as her schedule was, Gallardo persevered.

“As long as you organise yourself and have your goals in mind, the sky’s the limit,” she says.

“I am personally not the smartest person, but I worked very hard for my dreams. I do not take no for an answer.”

Aerospace engineer: An international student experience

At 20 years old, Gallardo moved to Florida to study at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for the first time.

As it was the middle of the pandemic in 2021, and there were many limitations on travel, she had to fly alone.

“I have to say that I have met marvellous people throughout my time here,” she says. “But coming through without family and friends, it was a rough moment.”

A little culture shock ensued and she took time to get used to the various accents and even the food.

Living in dorms also made her feel lonely, but thankfully all it took was meeting the right person.

“On the first day of class, I met this amazing girl, Taylor,” Gallardo says. “She became my best friend.”

The two ended up becoming roommates and rented a place together for the next year.

While her social life took time to pick up, Gallardo was enthralled by the knowledge she was picking up in her programme.

“When you get your degree, you have some certain knowledge about engineering, but outside of that, there’s a much deeper field,” she explains.

“It has so many branches that you can just stick with one or stick with two and then continue working on it, and you see that it’s an endless route of knowledge. This university went beyond my expectations.”

It was clear, however, that her bachelor’s programme was male-dominated, and she got used to being the only girl in a class.

There is more diversity in her master’s programme, as many of her peers are international students themselves.

aerospace engineer

Gallardo with her fellow Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University researchers. Source: Gabriela Gavilánez Gallardo

Being an aerospace engineer: To infinity and beyond

Unsure of what to do after her bachelor’s but certain that she wanted to stay in the US, Gallardo was lucky to find a professor who wanted to sponsor her master’s.

Having worked to make her dreams a reality from the age of 12, she admits that it feels surreal to have been recognised by The Aviation Week Network’s 20 Twenties Class of 2024.

As a graduate research and teaching assistant, she wants to show others the sky is the limit.

“This is something that I tell my students: I want to be the person I needed when I was in your shoes,” she says.

“I will be the person who tells you that dreams are possible, so don’t be afraid to ask how to fulfil your dreams. I didn’t have anyone to ask, but now I want to be the difference.”

Her research is focused on computer vision-based algorithms that are going to help enhance the odometry in spacecraft proximity problems.

Initially, Gallardo was thrown into the deep end when it came to working with AI, but she has found her stride.

“Now I’m confident enough to implement architectures by myself,” she adds.

She explains that with AI, you are teaching the computer to think like a human. Figuring out how has been a fulfilling challenge.

About to complete her master’s, the Ecuadorian will be undertaking her PhD next, which will be an extension of her current research.