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Bringing Women to Engineering

BU People: ENG Prof Anna Swan mentors undergrads in and out of the lab

Anna Swan, an ENG associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, says cultural expectations can keep women from studying the sciences. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Anna Swan never stopped to think that engineering was intimidating to most women — she just pursued a subject she enjoyed. Now the College of Engineering associate professor of electrical and computer engineering is trying to entice more women to study engineering and to stick with careers in the field.

This summer marks the second year that Swan and Michael Ruane, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering, are directing the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in photonics.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the 10-week summer program places undergraduates, especially women and minorities, in research projects with professors in photonics. The aim is to introduce students to research early, which will give them a boost when they apply to graduate programs or for jobs.

“Part of what is important here is to get students who might not otherwise do research with faculty, because they’re in a school without such active research or because they might not otherwise have the opportunity,” says Swan.

The REU program she and Ruane designed integrates lab research, led by professors and graduate students, with weekly seminars on topics from resume writing to best research practices. Last summer, students gave oral presentations on their research progress halfway through the program and again at the end of the 10 weeks. At the program’s end, students presented posters on their findings to the faculty mentors and graduate students.

“Everyone was really impressed with their results,” Swan says, “especially because 10 weeks is a really short time to do research.”

The REU students make important contributions to their mentors’ research. Alexander Krause (CAS’09), a rising sophomore in Swan’s lab last summer, created a computer program that models the way you would look at very small spots of light under a microscope. Using his model, researchers can vary light wavelengths and polarization on the computer and see results in under a minute, rather than doing the calculations and equations themselves.

Krause presented the results of his REU research at the American Association of Physics Teachers conference in July 2006, an unusual achievement for a student who had just finished freshman year, as typically such students don’t have the research skills to be considered for conference participation. Krause continues to work with Swan through BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which promotes participation by undergraduates in faculty-mentored research University-wide. The two are building a microscope to test predictions of how light will focus, and Krause is adapting the program he wrote last summer to post it on the Web for the benefit of all researchers.

Swan also mentors undergraduates outside the lab. She is the faculty advisor for BU’s NSF-funded PROSTARS (Programs in STEM Academic Retention and Success) project, which aims to increase student retention rates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). An estimated 25 percent of admitted students in STEM disciplines switch to different majors. Among other initiatives, the program will house 44 female freshmen who plan to major in those subjects together on a floor in Warren Towers in an effort to reduce that percentage. 

Swan isn’t sure why few women pursue careers in engineering, but she says that cultural expectations are partly to blame for the low retention rate.

“I think that in other countries the situation is not so bad,” says Swan, a native of Sweden. “I had a Russian woman working with me, and she had no idea that she wasn’t supposed to like science and engineering.”

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.