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When Ruth A. MacFarlane Hunter entered the College of Engineering as a freshman in 1960, she was the only woman undergraduate in her aeronautical engineering class.
“That year we had to take machine shop, mechanical drawing, and kinematics,” Hunter says. “I was at a big disadvantage because in high school women weren’t allowed in shop or mechanical drafting classes.” But despite starting college with such disadvantages, in 1964 she graduated summa cum laude and was class valedictorian.
In the decades since, among the myriad things Hunter (ENG’64, GSM’86) has been exploring is how to integrate a new kind of aircraft into rapidly evolving US and international air traffic control systems. Soaring to and from low-earth orbit, the aircraft dramatically reduces flight times—potentially cutting a six-hour trip between New York and London to just over an hour. She is helping lay the groundwork for this novel form of air travel to operate as safely and nondisruptively as possible.
A 2010 report for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation about the aircraft is but one of dozens of groundbreaking, comprehensive analyses Hunter has prepared over the past 39 years as an engineer at the US Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, in Cambridge, Mass., which works to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure by anticipating and solving a wide range of emerging challenges and advancing innovations across all transportation modes, while maintaining safety standards.
Hunter began learning how to anticipate and solve engineering challenges at what was then BU’s College of Industrial Technology. Uninterested in the typical jobs available to women at the time—teacher, secretary, nurse—and influenced to explore engineering as a career by her technically savvy father, she was able to overcome the few speed bumps she encountered freshman year.
Hunter went on to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Michigan, where she received a NASA fellowship and was the only American recipient of an Amelia Earhart Fellowship.
She began her career working on aerodynamic design and software development for an Air Force contractor. She moved on to a Cambridge-based NASA research center, where she developed software for applications ranging from pattern recognition of moonscapes and clouds in support of potential unmanned planetary missions to the tracking of aircraft departures and arrivals. She also conducted automotive energy efficiency analyses.
“I remember developing software in assembly language, machine language, and FORTRAN on batch processing computers,” she says. “One early IBM microcomputer required that software be loaded via paper tape through a huge console. If you got one job control language comma wrong, you had to submit a new run and wait overnight for the corrected output.”
In 1975 she joined the Volpe Center as a multidisciplinary engineer and began taking on some of the nation’s most pressing technological challenges.
In her first five years, she provided technical leadership and software development for a project aimed at measuring and improving automotive, heavy truck, and bus fuel efficiency in the wake of the mid-1970s energy crisis. For much of the next 25 years, she supported numerous military logistics analyses and software development efforts—some high-profile.
Hunter personally planned the urban search-and-rescue teams and emergency response equipment transport in the wake of the September 11 attacks. She worked with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on software for tracking the spread of infectious diseases through international air travel, and with the Department of Energy on an analysis of a system tracking nuclear waste shipments. She subsequently served as acting chief of what’s now called the Aviation Safety Management Systems Division, where she is a principal technical adviser.
Decade after decade, Hunter has relished the opportunity to help solve a wide range of transportation-related societal problems.
Her office is cluttered with nearly 40 years of Volpe institutional memory. “I’ve always believed in being multidisciplinary,” she says. “You can apply the underlying precepts that you learn in one area to other areas to avoid starting from scratch.”
During the past five years, Hunter has indeed transferred lessons learned to address a number of critical aviation challenges. In addition to her analyses of commercial space transportation systems, she is leading a project to develop data-driven criteria for aviation hazardous materials inspections and is working as part of an FAA team to assess the safety impacts of air traffic control systems, set to be deployed between now and 2025, to reduce airborne and airport congestion.
“We’re the only ones comprehensively examining the future safety of next-generation air traffic control innovations,” she says. “Based on projected fleet composition and schedule forecasts, as well as human factor issues, we’re studying the likely impacts on pilots, controllers, passenger risk, and departure-arrival delays under various weather and traffic conditions.”
Over the course of her career, Hunter has succeeded not only in applying her knowledge to solve complex new challenges, but also in passing on that knowledge to the next generation of engineers, according to longtime coworker and friend George Hebert, a Volpe Center project manager. “Ruth expends a tremendous amount of energy guiding and supporting less experienced coworkers, and she does so in the most productive and enjoyable way that you almost don’t realize she is actively mentoring you,” Hebert says. “It’s as if she were the best college professor you ever had, and at the same time a trusted friend. Her insight and advice are always spot-on.”
A version of this story was originally published in the spring 2014 edition of Engineer.