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Aileen Cavanagh

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Aileen Cavanagh

Aileen was born in New York City on 26 December 1929, in an Irish-American family and raised in Boston, MA with her two sisters and a brother. Her father managed concert artists and her mother worked in many different capacities, including typing, and selling dresses.

She worked, from the age of 14, at a wide variety of jobs to provide carfare and other essentials as well as contribute to her college fund. She enjoyed athletics and participated in intramural sports, field hockey, swimming, softball, and tennis. She was also a Girl Scout, achieving the rank of Senior Scout and was elected President of the Senior Scout Council for Boston. She graduated from the Boston Girls’ Latin School in 1947. While in High School a number of her teachers expected her to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because of her math skills.

Instead, Aileen’s ambition was always to enter the medical profession, but due to the high cost of a medical degree, discouraged because medicine was a male-dominated field, she went on to study physics. She entered Boston University (BU) in the Fall of 1947 because BU was less expensive than MIT and, was within walking distance of her home. She graduated in 1951 with an A.B. in Physics, with a Minor in Chemistry. In subsequent years she took graduate courses at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) and Northeastern University.

Her first full time engineering job was as a Junior Physicist developing a device to measure radiation at Tracelab. After a short stint at Raytheon, she joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in October 1955. There she was placed on field assignment to MIT's Lincoln Laboratory where she worked on initial development, shakedown, and engineering evaluation of the SAGE System for Air Defense. During this time she was active in the IEEE and it’s Engineering Management Society, as well as serving as President of the Society of Women’s Engineers in 1963-1964.

She left Bell Labs in 1967 and joined the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, in Trenton, New Jersey. There she was the Chief of Bureau of Research and Analysis, Division of Local Finance. Aileen initiated technical and management assistance programs, and helped to regionalize local utilities and authorities. She also helped local governments utilize computer technology.

In 1972 Aileen moved back to Massachusetts and was self-employed as a consultant and college instructor for two years. Her areas of expertise were strategic planning, technology assessment, financial management and information systems. She taught management courses at Bentley College, University of Massachusetts, and Northeastern University. She also earned an MS in Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1978.

In 1982 she joined MITRE Corporation and returned to her field of engineering. As a member of the technical staff she performed engineering studies and monitored contractor efforts related to the acquisitions of Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft for Saudi Arabia. From 1986 to 1988 Aileen again became a consultant working for small firms in eastern Massachusetts that specialized in military contracts, including the United States Air Force Electronic Systems Division.

In 1988 she relocated to Atlanta, Georgia and joined Horizons Technology, Inc. as a Senior Scientist. There she supported Horizons’ acquisition management and source selection for the Special Operations Forces C-130 and C-141 aircrafts. She remained active in the IEEE, serving as President of the IEEE Engineering Management Society in 1990. She also served on various IEEE committees and Boards.

Aileen published over 30 technical and management-related articles in various publications. She also made presentations to professional organizations. She particularly enjoyed giving talks at junior and senior high schools about engineering and its career opportunities.

In a July 1962 biographical sketch, she wrote:

When asked about the hopes for the future, her answer is she’ll travel where the wind takes her – with the world for her backyard, the sky for her umbrella, opportunity for her guide, and a happy heart her protector.

She would attain her desire to see the world, traveling to Eastern and Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, Central and Southeast Asia, West Africa and Australasia. Aileen passed away on 27 September 1992 in Atlanta.

With special thanks to the Society of Women Engineers for providing background information on Aileen. For a more detailed biography, see the March 2003 Issue of Proceedings of the IEEE, Scanning the Past: In Her Own Words.