Gazing out from her balcony in the hills of Amioun, Lebanon, Maysaa Rizk felt lost. She was a teenage girl with big dreams in a place where girls weren’t supposed to dream of much beyond conventional, traditional careers. She wanted something more, something that would lift her out of financial hardship and enable her to make other people’s lives easier. But what? And how? As she brooded, staring over the olive fields that ring her town, the silvery trees began to shudder. A pair of helicopters rose into view, their pilots practicing takeoffs and landings, over and over, from a pad in the grove. Watching them arc and soar, seemingly unbound from earthly constraints, she suddenly knew what she wanted to do with her life. She was going to make aircraft fly.
“I was fascinated with how these objects could defy gravity, and I wanted to be part of the team that made that possible,” Rizk says. She remarkably achieved that dream years later, as she deployed her intelligence and determination to overcome economic circumstances and social mores that denied her the same rights and opportunities as men. Now, as an engineer at GE Aerospace in Munich, she helps design the technology that puts some of the world’s most advanced, energy-efficient engines in the air.
“I’m using my skills to develop technologies that can help make aviation more sustainable and leave a solid foundation for future generations,” says Rizk, 26. “Producing technology is important, but addressing climate change is as important. I’m proud I can do both.”
Along with three siblings, Rizk grew up about an hour northeast of Beirut, raised in a loving home by her father and mother. Money was tight. “My parents were very supportive, but they did all they could do,” she says. “I realized that the only person who could change my conditions was me.”
Success at school always came easy. She ranked first in her class every year, while tutoring classmates for extra money. Once she had decided on a career in aerospace engineering, that goal became her lodestar. It was an unconventional choice for a woman in northern Lebanon, but Rizk itched to break stereotypes. Some people cheered her on, but others scoffed. “You’re going to end up repairing bicycles,” they told her.
Her parents believed in her, even as college acceptances started to roll in and it became clear the price would be steep: A year’s tuition at the University of Balamand, home to Lebanon’s only aeronautical engineering program, cost more than her father’s salary. When the university was slow to respond to requests for financial aid, she and her mother drove to the admissions office to make the case in person. They waited for hours. Finally emerging just before closing time, the dean offered her a scholarship that would cover 70% of her tuition. But, he warned, if her grades dropped below 85, she’d lose the funding. “You don’t have to worry about that,” she assured him.
Rizk made good on her promise — through a grind of sleepless nights when she worked as a student assistant at the university and tutored students in the evenings. She spoke Arabic at home and was fluent in French, but her engineering classes were all in English. At first she strained to catch individual words during lectures and spent long hours painstakingly translating her textbooks. To make matters worse, although she continued to earn money as a private tutor, she often found herself unable to afford a $2 sandwich. “When I would cry on my pillow, I told myself, ‘You’re going to be somewhere else in a few years. Everything pays off in one way or another. You just need to be patient and hold on to your passion.’”
She didn’t know much about planes when she started college, so she devoured every aviation-related book and documentary she could find. But nothing could match the real thing. The first time she stepped into a hangar full of airplanes during a week of extensive on-the-job training, she recalls, “my heart was exploding with joy, my eyes were shining, I felt an immediate connection with airplanes.” This only served to add to her passion for aviation.
As she applied for jobs overseas, Rizk realized that she would need more than an undergraduate degree to advance. She decided to get a master’s in mechanical engineering, again at Balamand. For her thesis, she designed a wind turbine that could operate at low speeds in urban areas. It kindled a passion for sustainability that would steer the rest of her career.
After graduate school, she moved to Germany for a job at the Technical University of Munich, applying computational fluid dynamics to beer and beverage technologies. Her situation seemed perfect: She was living overseas, doing interesting research, earning a good salary. But the work didn’t enthrall her the way sustainability and aviation did. After 10 months, she looked for another job. It was a substantial risk, because if she wound up unemployed, she would lose her residence permit and be forced to start over from scratch in Lebanon.
She saw an ad for a job at GE Aerospace’s Advanced Aviation Technology Center of Excellence in Munich. Even though it required more experience than she had, she applied and, as she had hoped, was hired for another position. For the past year, Rizk has been helping to design energy-efficient airfoils for the CFM RISE (Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines) Program. Launched in 2021 by CFM International, a 50-50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines, the initiative aims to develop advanced technology for a next-generation engine that will use 20% less fuel and create 20% fewer CO2 emissions than today’s most efficient jet engines. In the RISE program she has finally found the nexus where her passions for aviation and sustainability converge.
Rizk is sometimes reminded of a quote attributed to Amelia Earhart: “Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off. But if you don’t have one, realize it is your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who will follow after you.” When times were tough, it served as her credo. “I didn’t have any runway built for me; I made it myself. I worked day and night to do it. I want to tell younger women that it’s not impossible — you can do it the way I did it, or in any other way. Just find your passion, and let it be your pilot!”