Ready for Takeoff: A Muskie’s Journey as a Female in Aeronautics


Akbota after a helicopter flight with her internship supervisor at Norwood Memorial Airport.

Akbota Ashirbek is a 2021 Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program participant from Kazakhstan completing her internship at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) Aeronautics Division. Akbota has a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and is currently earning a Master’s of Science in Aviation Management at Arizona State University through a Fulbright Scholarship. With multiple years of experience in the aviation industry under her belt, Akbota is excited about the hands-on opportunities she can explore through her summer internship.

Tell us about your academic and professional journey thus far.

 My academic and professional background has solely been in the aviation industry. After completing my Bachelor’s in Aeronautics from the Academy of Civil Aviation in Kazakhstan, I became an air traffic controller for the National Air Navigation Service Provider, “Kazaeronavigatsia.” While working as an air traffic controller, I developed a keen interest in technology and its role in aviation. I have been fascinated with the technological achievements of aerospace companies in the United States. The ability of these companies to recognize leadership, innovation, and diversity in the industry sparked my desire to pursue a Master’s Degree in Aviation Management at Arizona State University. This summer, I was extremely fortunate to be a part of the Muskie Internship Program, which allowed me to intern for MassDOT’s Aeronautics Division and learn from experts in the field.

 What contributed to your interest in interning with your host organization?

 The primary reason this internship position stood out was that it allowed me to work directly with MassDOT’s Drone Integration Program. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)–commonly known as “drones”–and their integration into the national airspace ecosystem is the focus of my graduate studies. Therefore, this experience would greatly benefit my research in unmanned aircraft and its potential impact on the aviation industry.


MassDOT Drone Team setting up the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) system to collect survey data for bridge reconstruction in Danvers, MA.

Share some of the highlights from your internship experience. Are there any exciting projects you have been working on or any interesting things you have learned?

 Before my internship, my knowledge of the UAS industry was based on textbooks and industry reports. I can say that the internship experience provided me with real-world, practical knowledge. Attending drone flight training in the field and learning the capabilities of the new technology was definitely the main highlight of my internship. I was exposed to a wealth of information about the application of drones in the transportation environment for tasks like airport inspection, vegetation management, incident, and accident investigation, just to name a few. Moreover, as a part of my internship at MassDOT, I had the chance to attend a Federal Aviation Administration conference and the NASA Urban Air Mobility Community Integration Workshop and learn best practices from industry leaders at the national level.

Another memorable experience was flying in the MassDOT helicopter to attend an airport inspection for safety compliance at Plymouth Municipal Airport. I participated in the inspection procedure and learned about projects supported by MassDOT, which aim to address operational and environmental needs of the facilities of public-use airports throughout the state.

 I was privileged to have the opportunity to experience U.S. work culture in person, exploring this industry outside of my academic studies. Hands-on training in the field provided me the ability to learn interpersonal skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership by working with various people, from pilots to data analysts. The experience also helped me build an international network, which was the icing on the cake for me.


Akbota on her first day at MassDOT in her workspace with her state credentials.

How have you been adjusting to your internship? Do you have any tips for getting the most out of the experience?

 During my internship, I had the opportunity to interact with a broad professional network and fellow interns from various backgrounds. Not having prior work experience in a foreign environment, I would say my biggest challenge was the language barrier. I developed a habit of taking notes of useful phrases from staff meetings and emails and tried to incorporate the new words in conversation whenever I got the chance. A useful tip I would offer is to learn as much as possible about your host organization and the city, and the culture you are interning in. This can help to keep up the conversation and help you bond with your colleagues.

 How will you apply what you have gained from the Muskie Program and your time in the U.S. going forward?

 The Muskie Internship Program has exposed me to new perspectives and techniques through its multicultural network of like-minded people. My professional and personal skills were enhanced by working with a diverse group of people at MassDOT. Interning for MassDOT broadened my understanding of the UAS industry and made me realize the gaps in my skill set I need to improve upon to succeed in the field. I am confident that the knowledge I gained from this internship will help me conduct quality research for my thesis project to successfully finish my graduate studies and become a strong asset in my future career in the industry.