International Women in Engineering Day is Today, June 23
The Schaefer School of Science and Engineering honors female engineering faculty and students
Every year on June 23rd, nations around the world celebrate International Women in Engineering Day to honor female engineers and their important contributions to humanity and science.
Five years ago, the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science implemented a rapid faculty expansion plan, and out of the 80 new faculty members hired since then, 31.3% are female.
We asked three exemplary female engineers at Stevens about their work and their inspiration: Alyssa Hensley, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science; Koduvayur “Suba” Subbalakshmi, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Annie Xian Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. They share their experiences here.
Have you been inspired by a female role model in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)? What did you learn from her?
Alyssa Hensley: One of my biggest role models since starting my journey as a chemical engineer was my faculty advisor from my undergraduate days, Michaelann Tartis (New Mexico Tech). She really took the time to get to know me and help me explore what I was passionate about. I even got to first try out STEM research in her lab as an undergrad. I am still in contact with her today and she continues to provide a kind, intelligent and experienced perspective to my career concerns and challenges. Michaelann really set a high standard for me as to what a faculty advisor should be, and I aim to be as engaged and supportive of my students as she was to me.
Koduvayur “Suba” Subbalakshmi: Growing up, I was not in contact with many (any?) women STEM role models; however, I have been inspired by several women STEM professionals in my adult life. I have learned much from these models about how to pick your battles; how to effectively ignore those that you choose not to pick and how to manage your time. I must say that I did look up to my high school English teacher who is an amazing teacher and human being, and I often aspire to be as good as her. Of course, she wasn't in STEM, but why restrict oneself to STEM?
Annie Xian Zhang: Yes, I have been inspired by a female role model. I learned to be confident and always keep learning. I also learned to set a clear plan for myself and be diligent in working toward that plan without distractions.
What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a woman in engineering?
Hensley: The combination of youth and being a woman in STEM is a significant challenge that I have faced, particularly earlier in my career as a graduate student or new post-grad professional. My passion has been dismissed as the excitement of youth, which then also dismisses my research at the same time. For me, the best way to combat this has been to just not back down either from my research or my passion. In those moments where a joke is made that downplays my work, I speak up and reassert my position and science. It can be hard, but I find it worth fighting for who I am and the research I do.
Subbalakshmi: When I was a student working on my Ph.D., I wanted to take an advanced mathematics course offered by the mathematics department. The professor made awkward comments to me based on where I come from and my gender at the beginning of every lecture until he outright told me to drop the course. I ended up teaching myself the subject — libraries are awesome!
Zhang: When I was a student, a challenge I faced was communicating with male engineers as an equal. I feel I have been over-taken-care-of as a woman engineering student. I have kept making myself independent, and I present my independence to others — and then the bias disappeared.
What changes would you like to see for women in engineering?
Hensley: One thing I have run into as a faculty advisor at Stevens is many of my young female students are still afraid of being a burden or coming across as annoying. This fear then prevents the students from pushing people for help with anything from class grades to research opportunities to scholarships. Thus, my young female students end up missing out on great opportunities. I would like to see more support from multiple areas (i.e., faculty advisors, professors, administration) that encourage young women in engineering to break through this fear and fight for things they want or have already earned.
Subbalakshmi: In an ideal world, women engineers and STEM professionals would be as common as men at all levels of the profession; there would be no need for surveys like this.
Zhang: I would like to see more women in the engineering field. The good thing is there is already an increasing trend in the number of women engineers.
What are you most proud of?
Hensley: I am most proud of the culture in my research lab as well as the students, both undergraduate and graduate, in my research lab. In my lab, we emphasize teamwork, collaboration, open communication and the idea that we are striving always for improvement — not perfection. Because of this emphasis, my lab is an open and welcoming place where students from freshman to Ph.D. level can find a place to do research and contribute to the team. Even after only two years since starting my lab, I can already see the rewards of my and my students' hard work, as my students are already winning research-related awards at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Subbalakshmi: My resilience, curiosity and work ethic.
Zhang: I’m proud that my family supported my decision to become a woman engineer. And I’m proud to see that a significant number of top students in my classes are women.
What advice would you give to female engineering students at Stevens?
Hensley: The best, general advice that I can give female engineering students at Stevens is to be bold and brave. Put yourself out there. Go ask your professors about their research and getting involved in the research. Ask your faculty advisor for help in finding and applying for scholarships in your field. Find and talk to the upper class students about their experience in your degree and their recommendations for new students. In all these cases, the fear will still be there in your mind. What is important is learning to do the difficult, scary thing even though you still have the fear.
Subbalakshmi: I am not really big on giving advice; but what I have found works well for me is to strive to be my best self without ever having to compromise on my values. I think being true to yourself is the most important skill you can learn. That, and, you know — math and programming. But I am probably biased by the area I work in. If I were to generalize it to any engineering discipline, I'd say it pays to get your fundamentals straight and get really skilled in whatever toolsets that are applicable to the branch of engineering you are considering.
Zhang: Enjoy your major, and enjoy your life. And plan clearly about your career early after your graduation.