Women in Engineering: Many Paths to a Rewarding Life
Whether studying the complexities of heat transfer, guiding space shuttles to precise landings or explaining scientific concepts to a judge and jury, to be a woman engineer from Boston University is simply to be an engineer.
Stepping into the College of Engineering as freshmen sets students on a path that opens a world of possibilities when they step out into the world four years later. Engineers’ contributions to society can make meaningful changes to individuals, communities, countries and the world at large. From a medical device that helps doctors perform life-saving surgery to a fuel cell that decreases fossil fuel use, engineers improve quality of life, health and the environment.
For women who have graduated from the College of Engineering, it is often the skills gained beyond the nuts and bolts of engineering that they say serves them well -- communication, presentation and collaboration. These added talents can lift engineers beyond competence to excellence in any discipline they choose.
Ashmita Randhawa '08
B.S. student in Biomedical Engineering
Ashmita Randhawa (far right) explores Amsterdam with two friends while on a summer internship in Europe.
I decided on biomedical engineering because I flipped through my older sister’s engineering books and saw all the symbols and equations and thought, “This looks really cool.” And, I love biology, absolutely adore it. You can model the blood in your body as a circuit -- how cool is that?
I came here from India for college. I applied to about 14 schools, just to be safe. BU offered me a scholarship that would allow me to get into research right away. The second semester of freshman year, I started research in Professor Charles Cantor’s lab, and worked there for two years. I couldn’t have asked for anything better as a first experience in research at BU.
I’m not going to say it’s not hard. But it’s hard for everyone, across the board. It’s fun, there are always new things, new technologies. You have to think outside the box.
I got in to the Society of Women Engineers because I lived on an engineering floor and my resident advisor was on the executive board. I became the publicity coordinator, then got nominated and have been co-president since sophomore year.
We hold a professional night every year to expose students to industry in a relaxed setting and have a panel discussion. Women from area industries come in. Last year this included Microsoft, MathWorks and Mitre. They could talk about what it’s like to be a woman in engineering. It’s not as hard to do as people think. You have to prove yourself, but everyone has to do that.
I just returned from a summer internship at Proctor & Gamble in Belgium. It was a great way to learn how a company works. I worked on two projects, one part was more technical –I got to play with the biochemistry of detergents, and the other was an application of that knowledge to consumers.
In working on the detergent, I made sure it was creating the right amount of softness for consumers and would work at all different water hardness levels. It was very interesting, and different from what I’m used to with biomedical engineering.
In applying this to consumers, I was coming up with demonstrations and ways to communicate the softness of the product, that will be used in commercials. The first day I was there, I was told to come to a brainstorming session and was told that everything I’d try would not work. The exciting thing was, I did get my ideas to work by thinking just a little differently.
The internship program itself was amazing. There were students from all over Europe, Egypt, Indonesia and international students from the US. It was great being able to interact with people from different cultures. The apartment style-hotel we all were put up in by the company had the tiniest stoves, but all of us made attempts at cooking food from the country we were from. Can you imagine cooking Indian food for 15 or 20 people on two tiny circular stoves? But it was done!”
After I graduate, my only indecision right now is about whether to go into industry first then grad school or vice versa.
You can think of any problem in anyway. If I ever change my mind and want to go to law school, I could do it. It’s a good training for life.
Cassie Browning '07
M.S. in Computer Systems Engineering '07
Currently a doctoral candidate in Computer System Engineering
Cassie Browning develops improvements to anti-sniper technology.
I grew up in Kentucky in a very small town and hadn’t been exposed to engineering -- not really other than what I had seen on television -- it wasn’t something I’d been exposed to enough to think about until I was working alongside electrical engineers in the Army.
Most of my peers were electrical engineers, so they were working with the technical aspects of the equipment. That’s what I found so fascinating and I thought, “I wish I had gone down that path.”
LEAP [Late-entry accelerated program] is such a great program. It provides students that didn’t receive an undergrad in engineering the opportunity to come back and obtain a master’s degree in engineering.
Phase one is the catch-up – taking all the hard-core stuff, math and physics, that you’d take as an undergrad. Then, maintain a certain GPA and you’re admitted into the master’s program. I was really impressed with the quality of instruction and the organization of classes. They put a lot of emphasis on real world application of problems.
I’m a little unusual because I have two kids, so it took me much longer than most. I went down to one class a semester during my child’s first year, and I was back full time and finishing my master’s portion in a year and a half.”
My younger son was three months old when he was diagnosed with cancer and had to have immediate surgery. His surgery was scheduled for the week of finals. This was my first semester in the graduate program. I told my professors what was going on because I felt I couldn’t sit in class or concentrate very well. They were so accommodating and understanding. I can’t imagine a better way they could have been; they made me feel really comfortable. He’s doing well now, and they still to this day ask about him.
The research I’m doing now -- Professor Allyn Hubbard’s lab before I arrived had developed something called an acoustic direction finder, and the application they’ve been working on is for a soldier in the field to be able to locate sniper fire. The device can determine direction and elevation. They’ve had this set on robots, but now the question is can we put this on a soldier? If so, how would the information be relayed to the soldier? So I developed, for my master’s degree project, a user interface -- a graphical display that looks somewhat like a RADAR screen and can show soldiers where fire is coming from.”
I’ve really been enjoying myself so decided to stay for a Ph.D.
Christiana Taylor ’05
B.S. in Aerospace Engineering '05
Currently a doctoral candidate in Aerospace Design at Georgia Tech
Ambitions of a career as an astronaut motivate Christiana Taylor.
Originally, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, because in high school, you take biology first. That was my goal, until I took physics and then wanted to build things. Building things fascinates me, and I still want to be an astronaut someday.
I like biology, I just like things that go fast better.
I’m now a third year graduate student at Georgia Tech doing a Ph.D in aerospace design. No one ever deterred me from engineering. My mom was a teacher and always said to go as high as you can in education, don’t give up on anything.
I came to Boston for model congress in high school and fell in love with the city. I wanted to live in Boston, so came to BU.
I was grateful to live on an engineering floor because I wanted to be around other engineers. It was good because my floor was really close -- we were like a family. We did everything together.
I remember being excited to get to sophomore, junior, senior year -- to get to the engineering part of classes. I also went out on Fridays, enjoyed my life. I had to work harder during the week to do that, but you don’t have to be at a computer 28 hours a day.
Study abroad in Dresden was the most amazing experience in my life. I actually learned German. I hung out with the Germans and got to see the city and the culture.
For girls going in to engineering, having women role models – just having women come in and have coffee and tell about their lives, how it worked out for them – that’s encouraging. I did an internship at General Electric and it was mostly men, but I went and talked to some of the women at the company. You may have to network a little more, go to more conferences. They’re out there, but you may have to look for them a little bit, and you can learn so much about what women have gone through, what you’re going through and how you can relate it.
If someone tells you it’s not hard, they’re lying to you, but you can make it through. There are women engineers out there, there are role models.
Dominika Kulinski ’06
B.S. in Biomedical Engineering '06
Currently a doctoral candidate in Manufacturing Engineering
A passion for troubleshooting led Dominika Kulinski to study manufacturing.
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to know how things were put together. I loved taking things apart and trying to put them back together, and then asking my parents why it didn’t work. I took apart our label maker and I was able to put that back together –and it worked. When our microwave broke, I was very tempted to take that apart too, but my dad beat me to it.
I realized I wanted to troubleshoot, I wanted to make things better, I wanted to design.
As an undergrad at BU, I studied biomedical engineering. I chose BU because it was top 10 in the nation for biomedical engineering and the program was just getting better. I wanted to do something where I would have the opportunity to help people, to make a change in people’s lives. And biomedical engineering gave me the background with physiology and medicine and also gave me the engineering aspect that I’d be able to understand biomedical issues and develop systems to solve those problems, which is exactly what I’m doing now as a graduate student.
I’m working in Professor Catherine Klapperich’s laboratory, the Biomedical Microdevices and Microenvironments Laboratory, helping to develop new low-cost diagnostic devices. We do preliminary research – the proof of concept – that we hope will allow these devices to be mass produced -- they must be easy to produce, low cost and robust. Our eventual goal is for our devices to be used not only at the point-of-care, such as doctors’ offices, but also eventually in situations such as mobile clinics in developing countries.
Between undergraduate and graduate school, I had an internship at a medical device manufacturing company. They would throw a problem at me and say, “you need to fix this.” I loved it. I got to troubleshoot and use my engineering background. I knew some of the design elements I needed to be aware of in developing systems, but not manufacturing them. Now I’m learning how to design for manufacture in my classes as a graduate student in manufacturing engineering. It’s a rewarding experience.
When I first got to BU, I thought engineering would be easier. There were times when I was overwhelmed with everything or where I just didn’t feel like I had what it took. But, I’m a very stubborn, determined person, and I stuck with it. I think that’s one of the things you have to be with engineering: determined. Tell yourself, “I will do this. I will figure it out.”
And now, having finished my Bachelor’s in engineering, I am more confident with myself. I’m more confident in what I can accomplish.
Genevieve Betro ’07
On an even keel
B.S. in Aerospace Engineering '07
Employed by Raytheon Missile Systems
Genevieve Betro completed an award-winning senior project and won an early job offer.
I sat down with my eleventh grade guidance counselor the summer before senior year. I knew I wanted an aerospace program, a music program, and a competitive school because if I’m not challenged, I get bored.
I came to an open house at BU and made my decision from that. There was something about walking around the campus – it just felt right.
A lot of girls will ask, “Are you treated differently as a woman engineer, whether it’s being given special treatment or discriminated against?” That’s never, ever the case. Everything is on an even keel; everyone is the same.
I was always used to being at the top of my class, but someone told me -- and I think it’s true – that engineering is a very humbling major. Everyone will have their days.
Working on a team for senior project was challenging. It was a team of six, which is big. It’s hard to make sure you’re listening to everyone’s ideas. But we were good about overcoming any teamwork issues to make sure everything ran smoothly.
The highlight was that last presentation – you don’t worry about the grades, you want to present something that works and that you can be proud of spending all that time on.
We made a list of goals at the beginning of the year and we put the goal of winning the award for best project in our department on the list. It was in the back of our heads the whole way. When the e-mail announcing the “2007 Best Aero Project” came, all I saw were the capital letters of our team name. I actually was jumping up and down. I don’t think I read the rest of the email until an hour later.
After graduation, I’ll be moving to Tucson, Arizona to work for Raytheon Missile Systems working in guidance, navigation and control. This job came from an online application I completed. It was my first actual interview and my first offer. I ended up signing on and faxing my acceptance during exam week first semester –so I had a job before the end of first semester finals.
Jenny Gruber ’99
Landing the Space Shuttle
B.S. and M.S. in Aerospace Engineering '99
Rhodes Scholar - Ph.D. from Oxford University
Currently an Orbit Flight Dynamics Officer at NASA
Jenny Gruber is an Orbit Flight Dynamics Officer at NASA.
I’m an Orbit Flight Dynamics Officer. We track the shuttle and plan its maneuvers. It’s a glider once it’s done with its mission. We have one shot to get it to the runway from 4,000 miles away and 400,000 feet up. It’s basically in the South Pacific, and we have to get it to Florida.
Growing up I always knew I wanted to be involved in space exploration, but I didn’t hear about engineering until I was taking AP physics and my teacher brought up the subject of doing engineering. He described it as problem solving in a way that uses your math and science skills.
It was continually mentioned to me that there weren’t that many women in engineering. We’ve made such a big deal about telling young women there are not enough women doing it. If you’re good at it -- it’s treated as abnormal.
I go out and talk in schools and explain why I like what I do, and I say, “hey look, I’m a normal looking woman with a husband and a mortgage.”
A big part of engineering is teamwork and socialization. No one gives engineering enough credit for that. Really, it’s a very social profession. The ability to communicate is key. [Women] stereotypically have an advantage with communication.
Young women want to be in professions that are obviously helpful to the rest of society. With engineering, the contributions we make don’t get applied until well into the future. But, the quality of people’s lives are improved by airplanes, cars, space technology. That’s part of the reason I’m here.
Karen Panetta ’85
Leader of the Nerd Girls
B.S. in Computer Systems Engineering '85
M.S. and Ph.D. in Computer Systems Engineering (Northeastern University). Associate Professor of Computer and Electrical Engineering (Tufts University)
Karen Panetta heads an international committee on women in engineering.
I am the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers chair of the Women in Engineering committee -- the worldwide director of over 12,500 members on the committee. With that I have the responsibility of directing this organization and creating strategies for developing programs to attract women and young girls into engineering: how to support women in academic programs, help them find careers and deal with life balance issues for women already out there so they can stay in engineering.”
It’s kind of nice to have a say in where we’re going and what technologies we should be looking at, and what we need to do with education.
The current goals are how to break the stereotypes and get young girls to apply for engineering. They don’t know what engineering is and there’s a lack of positive influences in the media about what engineering is. We know these are the barriers, and now it’s about taking action. That’s what Nerd Girls is about.
Nerd Girls is a group of women engineering students who, in addition to studying engineering and working on a solar car project, do everything normal American kids do. They dispel a lot of the stereotypes. They like math and science, but they don’t eat, sleep and breathe engineering in their free time.
We have an Oscar-nominated producer who came out and started shooting the pilot –we’re doing eight episodes of a TV show on engineering – to see the Nerd Girls do engineering, learn about them as engineers, and see how normal they are.
When I was a kid, I always had a tree house and one of my goals in life was to own my own home. I wanted a career where I could support myself, where I didn’t have to depend on anyone -- that’s one of the things that drove me to do engineering.
When I first got to BU, I remember being among thousands. The thing that made the difference was every Friday we’d meet in small groups of 10 with a faculty advisor. You got to know people in the program. I made lifelong friends in there.
I majored in computer engineering, then worked at Digital Equipment corporation. When I got out into industry, that’s when I appreciated how much I’d learned. I knew how to learn, leverage people’s positive attributes, network, work on larger scale projects. Others were used to textbook cases. My grades were not a 4.0 but I had retained a lot more.
I did a master’s and Ph.D, both part time while working –which is unheard of. Now, I’m an engineering professor [at another university], and I tell my students, “I want you to learn to be a team player -- but I’m a part of your team.” I teach them, they work with me and help me by letting me know what’s coming across.
Kerry Foley ‘91
Lawyer and mother
B.S. in Biomedical Engineering '91
Currently a lawyer and mother
Kerry Foley with son Jack, 8, and daughter Maggie, 6.
I had looked at a number of different schools -- some geared just at engineering – but I liked BU, the campus, and all the things available in Boston. It’s a strong school located in a fun place.
I was nervous when I arrived because it was such a big place. But the College of Engineering was not. I felt like I knew a lot of people right away. It seemed smaller, more comfortable -- a lot more collegial environment than I thought it would be, and it made the larger university feel much less overwhelming.
Women weren’t treated any differently. I wouldn’t have wanted to be treated differently. We were treated as equals and we were all students. People were judged on their merits and how well they did.
After undergrad, I stayed at the College of Engineering for grad school. With the path I was on, I thought I’d do research for a living, but it turned out I didn’t enjoy it that much. I remembered while in undergrad, I’d had a summer job at a law firm. It was something new every day, and there was always some problem that needed to be solved, which was very similar to engineering but using more words and with no electronics involved! I found it very intellectually stimulating.
I think the professor and class that had the most impact on my becoming a lawyer had to have been Professor [Kenneth] Lutchen’s senior project class. We were doing a project and making an oral presentation and having to explain our projects to people who were not experts in the field. As a lawyer, I’ve had to do that many times, explain complex concepts to a judge and jury. That initial experience of standing in front of a crowd taught me I really liked doing that. It was a great experience and helped quite a bit in law school and later.
Just because you majored in engineering doesn’t mean you have to be an engineer. It doesn’t limit you; it actually opens up other opportunities that other majors don’t. They teach you a way to think. The problem solving skills that you learn can be applied to any field.
I am a commercial litigator, though very part time now [with two children, Jack and Maggie], doing product liability work. Because of my science degree, I’d talk to expert witnesses. They gave me anything that involved scientific witnesses because I wasn’t afraid to read a journal article.
Lauren Varona ‘08
B.S. student in Mechanical Engineering
Extracurricular activities from dance to orchestra fill Lauren Varona's schedule.
I’ve known I wanted to be an engineer since sixth grade. I was on math team in fifth
grade. I really loved competing and loved doing math. Even in third grade, when we did those timed math tests, I loved doing those, I had a great time!
One of the things I really love to do is keep being well rounded. I don’t like to focus only on engineering. I feel like I’d really stress myself out if I did that. Everyone believes engineers don’t have time to do anything and we’re all studying constantly. We do study a lot because the professors aren’t just going to hand out a degree. They want to make sure you will do well in the real world because the things you design or build will affect many people’s lives. They make it challenging, but it’s not anything you can’t do. It’s very possible.
I was born and raised in Miami. I lived on the beach for a while. It was kind of hard coming up here. But, I wanted something completely different. I wanted to live in the snow.
It was a tough transition for me, my first impressions were, “Wow, I’m in this huge place by myself,” but once I started becoming more involved within BU and the College of Engineering, then I really started to find my place and become much more comfortable. I became a Dean’s Host for engineering and a student advisor. I joined the Hispanic club La Fuerza, and Danzon, a Hispanic dance group. I’m also on the step squad, called Tru Sole, and I have a part-time job.
Right now I’m in Heat Transfer, Mechanics and Materials, Mechanics II, Materials Science, and AutoCad Design Part II. Yeah, it’s kind of a lot -- five engineering classes in one semester. You really have to be on your toes. Toward the end of the semester, there were times when I was thinking, “Why am I doing this, again?” and then I remind myself, “I want to do this. I love engineering, it opens doors to anything.”
My plan is to join Teach for America when I graduate. I really want to go out there and encourage women to come into engineering. I feel like a lot of people are scared to come into engineering because everyone thinks it’s really hard. So it’d be good to say, “No, it’s really possible. Try it first, and you’ll see.”
Sarah Moll ’99
B.S. in Biomedical Engineering '99
M.S. from University of Pennsylvannia
Currently a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University
Medical student Sarah Moll with husband Jack and daughter Penelope, 1.
I started at BU in biochemistry thinking that I was going to go to medical school, then during first semester freshman year, decided – in case I didn’t want to do med school –what were my options as a biochem major?
I was good at math, it would be nice job security, so I switched to engineering the second semester of my freshman year. Med school fell out of favor in my mind. I really liked the senior research project I was doing with [BME professor] Joyce Wong.
I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania directly after undergrad and got a master’s in bioengineering. Then I went on to work for a pharmaceutical company for four years.
Then, I went back to thoughts of freshman year, wanting to go to medical school. What brought me back to the idea was having more autonomy in my professional career and more patient care.
It’s a scary undertaking, going back to school.
In medical school, my engineering background definitely helps in thinking through problems; when presented with a patient with certain symptoms, the logic you use, the thinking. You’re trained as an engineer to think a certain way, and it’s absolutely an advantage in medical school.
I am currently in my third year of medical school. I took one year off between second and third year to have my daughter and spend some time raising her. There are a whole bunch of issues that women struggle with. You worked really hard to get this degree, you are really smart from it, you are given wonderful opportunities, but you want to have a family. It’s absolutely possible and there are a hundred different ways to do it.