Missy Cummings: I went to the U.S. Naval Academy for college. When you’re there, you find out that you can be a fighter pilot. And the year was 1988, right after Top Gun had come out, so who wouldn’t want to be a fighter pilot?
Fadulu: Did you have any jobs in high school?
Cummings: I interned for my congressman. I was his goodwill letter writer. So I would write letters to all the constituents. It was my job to go through all the papers of all the local districts, and find out who recently graduated, what sports teams won. I would write letters to everyone who had done something nice in the district. To this day I am still, really, a good congratulatory letter writer.
Fadulu: Why did you intern for your congressman?
Cummings: I knew that if I wanted to go to the Naval Academy, I needed a congressional nomination. And so this was a good way to get that congressional nomination.
Fadulu: So you knew early on that you wanted to go into the Navy. What got you so interested in getting on that trajectory?
Cummings: My dad wanted me to go in the Air Force. And I applied to both academies, and I had nominations to both academies. And he wanted me to go to the Air Force because he thought the Air Force was better for women. It turns out he’s probably right.
Fadulu: What makes you say that?
Cummings: I think for women in the Navy, particularly flying fighters, it was a much harder transition for the Navy than it was for the Air Force. In the Navy, people go out to sea, so there’s much more of an all-male bastion, whereas the Air Force is more like an office environment. They’re a newer service; they’re much younger than the other services. And so I think they had less of the tradition to fall back on, they had less of an all-male culture. Women had been part of the Air Force almost from the very beginning, so I think it was just the years of tradition that I was fighting against.
Fadulu: I know that your internship for your congressman helped you in terms of getting the nomination letter, but was there anything from your experience interning that helped you when you were in the Navy, or when you were a fighter pilot?
Cummings: (Laughs.) The congratulatory-letter-writing skill doesn’t really translate well in the fighter-pilot world.
Fadulu: What was it like to transition from being a fighter pilot to being a professor?
Cummings: I had to unlearn a lot because motivating students is not the same as motivating military people. You can’t really order them around. If you’re an officer in the military and you tell somebody to do something, they have to do it. When you’re in academia it’s consensus building.
Fadulu: Did you feel like your military experience prepared you for the classroom in any way?
Cummings: Absolutely, especially as a research professor at a demanding institution like MIT, where I was a professor for my first 10 years. I don’t know how people do it without having been a fighter pilot first. It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog world.