After an accident left Dawn Ottman with limited short-term memory, she tapped into her skills as an inventor to keep her passion for engineering alive. And she traces her interest in the hard sciences back to the beginning of her military career.
By age 19, Ottman knew that she wouldn’t be satisfied sitting behind a desk all day. She quit high school at 17 and started a part-time job but longed for more excitement. So she joined the Canadian Forces, where she turned her focus back to education. Through night school, she gained enough credits to complete her high school diploma. “I even dissected a frog for a biology course on a barracks table, making me very unpopular with my fellow soldiers,” she recounts.
Ottman spent the next four years at the Royal Military College, where she graduated with the inaugural class of the Space Science Degree Program. “I loved my communications and electronics (C&E) branch and became a C&E air force officer working mostly on research and development (R&D) projects,” she explains. Ottman continued to move up in the ranks until 1994, when she retired after 19 years of service.
Following her retirement, Ottman joined Motorola as a test engineer on Iridium, a communications satellite constellation. In this role, she worked on solar panels, batteries and electrical circuits that supported each spacecraft’s bus. Though she quips that she originally took the job interview in Phoenix as an excuse to see the Grand Canyon, the skills she learned ultimately shaped her future aspirations.
In 2003, Ottman faced a hurdle in her career after a fall down the stairs left her with short-term memory loss. She had to relearn to walk, and her symptoms required many accommodations. So Ottman created her own opportunities, relying on her strong long-term memory to start a business as an inventor.
“Today, I combine my work experience with the military on R&D projects and my understanding of advanced electronics to develop some of my ideas into inventions of green technology.” The patent for her first invention, solar-powered Christmas lights, has been issued in four countries: the United States, Canada, China and Mexico. Ottman even created a company called Aurora Lights Manufacturing to produce the product if the patent sells. Her second invention, which is patent pending, is a hybrid wind and solar power generator. In addition, she’s building an “Off-the-Grid Lab” for developing new ideas.Although Ottman doesn’t live near an AFCEA chapter, she is passionate about supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) efforts. “I’m already involved locally and give workshops in wind and solar energy,” she notes, and she believes everyone can continue learning no matter what their age. “Be brave and go for it.”